Monday, May 18, 2009

The Gonzaga Of Mantua

In 2002, my middle brother and I took a guided tour of the Ducal Palace in Mantua.

At the time, a guided tour was the only way to gain access to the Palace (the public may now visit seven rooms without taking a guided tour) and my brother and I bought tickets, not quite knowing what was in store for us.

We knew that the tour was to be conducted in Italian, but we had hoped that the tour guide would offer a little information in English, especially since most of the visitors that particular day were American (including a church group from Austin, Texas, that made up more than half that day’s tour participants).

The guide, alas, spoke no English, so we were treated to a stream of rapid-fire Italian as we were stewarded through room after room after room of the enormous Palace.

There are more than 500 rooms in the Ducal Palace, and my brother and I had assumed—incorrectly—that the tour would last 45 minutes or an hour and would include only a handful of the most celebrated public rooms.

In fact, the tour went on forever—it was two hours and twenty-five minutes before the tour concluded—and the number of rooms visited, I would estimate, was fifty, perhaps sixty, perhaps more.

Moreover, I believe the tour that day was cut short by the guide. After ninety minutes or so, the church group from Austin began waving wristwatches, following that up by asking the guide to speed things up, and finally insisting upon finding its own way out of the complex (which is not allowed).

The church group was hungry, or so its leaders tried to explain to the guide, and the guide in exasperation escorted everyone back to the entrance of the Palace and said “Ciao”.

My brother and I were hungry, too—the tour had started at 12:00 Noon and we had not had lunch—but we had found the Palace to be absolutely fascinating. We have long wondered how much of the regular tour of the Palace we missed because of the Texans.

Despite its amazing importance to the history of Italy, the Ducal Palace at Mantua is not heavily visited, just as the city of Mantua itself is generally bypassed by visitors to Italy.

The small number of visitors to the Palace is probably all for the best, because the Palace is crumbling. The Italian government does not have sufficient funds to maintain the Palace properly, let alone restore it to its original glory.

Original furnishings were long ago sold off, as was the finest art collection ever assembled up to the 17th Century. All that remains of the original glory of the Mantuan Court is the stately procession of Palace rooms, mostly empty now, and the famed frescoes that once were the envy of every court in Europe.

Run-down and musty, the Palace was nonetheless an essential stop for my brother and me. Three centuries of great architects had created the grand, stately spaces through which 800 nobles and courtiers formerly passed, living and working in this magnificent assemblage of interiors erected over the course of more than 300 years.

The exteriors of the Palace were not as imposing. The Ducal Palace is a massive sequence of buildings that flows from the very center of Mantua to the very outskirts of the city. The exteriors were built in a hodgepodge of Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, reflecting rapid changes in architectural design over three centuries. There is nothing unified about the Palace exteriors. Further, the exteriors are neither beautiful nor unique.

I remember our visit to the Ducal Palace well, and my memories were the only thing that kept me going while reading Kate Simon’s “A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga Of Mantua”, a history of Mantua, the Mantuan Court and the Gonzaga dynasty.

In Simon’s book, it is the Palace itself that is the most colorful presence, far more colorful than any of the rulers and courtiers that populated and governed what was once one of Europe’s most powerful and most important and most fascinating kingdoms.

“A Renaissance Tapestry” is an inept book. The research is inept, the writing is inept, the organization is inept. Even the photographs are inept. I suspect the only reason the book was published was because Simon was a popular travel writer in the 1960’s and 1970’s and, by the 1980’s, had developed a loyal readership. As a result, Simon was able to convince a reputable publishing house to bring out her first (and, to be thankful, only) history book.

Incomprehensibly, “A Renaissance Tapestry” was a bestseller when first published in 1988. The book was reviewed widely and respectfully—it was even reviewed TWICE by The New York Times (inanely on both occasions)—and treated as a major publishing event.

As history, the book is bunk. Neither an historian nor an expert on Italy, Simon uses secondary sources, some good, some not so good, to present the saga of the Gonzaga family. Most of her material is rehashed from old sources, and her rehashing is not very accurate, not very lively, and not very imaginative. Simon simply had no insight for or penetrating views about the subject she had selected.

Further, Simon’s book is inartfully, even clumsily, arranged. While reading 309 pages, I was never able to ascertain the organizing principle at work. The author flitted from subject to subject in no logical fashion, incoherently blending bits of biography with bits of history with bits of personal “interpretation”. The whole affair was a mess—and there was a grievous lack of citation for the more risible claims Simon made throughout the book.

Simon’s papers reside at Hunter College, and those papers hold the first two drafts of her Gonzaga volume. As the final draft was definitely not a case of the third time being the charm, I would be curious to see the first two drafts. They must be among the most comical pages ever written.

The Gonzaga family seized power in Mantua in 1328—they overthrew the previous ruling family in a bold, even reckless, act of subterfuge, an act of subterfuge that, against all odds, succeeded beyond the family’s wildest dreams—and governed Mantua for almost 400 years, scheming and conniving to hold power and expand the family’s influence into other Italian kingdoms, primarily Venice, Ferrara and Milan.

Because Mantua was situated midway between Venice and Milan, two powerful states in a perpetual state of conflict, Mantua was a valuable partner for Venice and Milan to court. In general, the Gonzaga family played off those two powerful rivals very skillfully, always allying with one or the other—and always demanding (and receiving) a hefty fee. The result was that riches from Venice or Milan continuously poured into the coffers of Mantua, riches that the Gonzaga family used to erect palaces, buy gold and jewels, acquire an art collection of staggering quality, and engage the best poets, writers, artists and composers of the day to create tributes to itself.

The Gonzaga family also used the ever-flowing sums from Venice and Milan to buy influence. Influence was sought and acquired in Rome—there was generally a Gonzaga Cardinal in place at the Vatican to bend the Pope’s ear—and in most other Italian kingdoms, as well as in France, Bavaria and Spain. Because of its desire for influence throughout Europe, the Gonzaga dynasty maintained the largest and most skillful group of diplomats in Europe, an ambassadorial retinue that was the envy of the British and French sovereigns.

Many rulers from the Gonzaga clan were extravagant spendthrifts, and several times over the centuries the Mantuan court was on the verge of financial collapse. Neighboring kingdoms were always on the lookout for an opportunity, and the demise of the Gonzaga clan was predicted (and sought) many times. Nevertheless, the Gonzaga family always managed to hold on to power, finding necessary sources of funds through marriages, unexpected political alliances, luck—or, if need be, theft.

When Gonzaga rule in Mantua ended in 1707, it did so not because of the family’s collapse but because there was no heir to carry on the line. Without an heir to continue the Gonzaga hold on power, Mantua ceded to the Hapsburgs of Austria. Excepting Napoleon’s brief occupation of Italy, Mantua was to remain under Hapsburg control until the unification of Italy in the 19th Century.

Just like the Gonzaga dynasty, the city of Mantua has long departed from the world stage. Today’s Mantua remains the capital of Lombardy, an Italian province, but it is of interest to outsiders solely for the legacies of the Gonzaga’s. The buildings they left behind and the art they once owned are the only surviving testaments to Gonzaga glory from days gone by.

Art from the Gonzaga collection is now everywhere. Gonzaga paintings form the basis of the collections of the Hermitage, the Louvre, and the most important galleries in Britain and the United States.

The dispersal of the Gonzaga painting collection began almost a century before the Gonzaga line ended. The Gonzaga collection had been rumored to be for sale for decades, but in the 1620’s a sale of a significant portion of the collection finally occurred, when agents for Charles I purchased 700 Gonzaga masterpieces and shipped the paintings to London (the ship carrying the artworks to Britain almost sank en route during a storm, and dozens of major masterworks were irreparably damaged when mercury in the ship's hold spilled onto numerous canvases).

Charles continued to purchase Gonzaga paintings for three years. When Charles grew short of funds, the Gonzaga family had to look for other buyers, often using noted dealers in Venice. On one occasion, more than 1000 paintings were transported by a train of horses and mules from Mantua to Venice, where the paintings were offered for private sale.

Charles I was not to enjoy his new art collection for long, as he was to lose his head in 1649. One of the results of his execution was the dispersal of the collection for the second time in a generation. After Charles's death, most of his collection was put up for sale by Cromwell, and the bulk of the collection was sold to continental buyers.

One type of art could not be moved from Mantua and sold: the frescoes that adorned various parts of the Palace. Numerous artists from the Early Italian Renaissance and High Italian Renaissance contributed to the frescoes, but the most celebrated frescoes in Mantua are those by Andrea Mantegna, who devoted more than four decades of his life to creating art for the Gonzaga family. Mantegna’s most important legacy is his series of frescoes for Mantua, the greatness of which may still be glimpsed through centuries of damage and decay.

There is an important need for an authoritative account of the Gonzaga era, but Simon does not provide it. Hers is very much an amateur’s book, and a dismal one at that. Fatally, it lacks the two qualities that often make an amateur’s work readable: good prose and an intense passion for the subject.

If Simon were alive, I would want to ask her what made her choose to write about Mantua and the Gonzaga dynasty in the first place. There is no passion in her work, no inkling that she found a good story here, no suggestion of an abiding love for Italy or art or the Renaissance. Her book struck me as the expanded updating of a decades-old term paper, supplemented with the experience of a single late-in-life visit to Mantua.

There was one striking thing about “A Renaissance Tapestry” that none of the reviewers mentioned: the book was the work of more than one hand.

Ninety-nine per cent of the writing was slop, but a dozen times in the volume the writing suddenly became elegant and cogent, even sparkling, for three or four paragraphs at a stretch. Such paragraphs clearly were the work of another writer, and generally involved summations and transitions.

This other, vastly-superior writer was undoubtedly responsible, too, for the entire closing chapter, a truly elegant and concise wrap-up of all that had come before, as well as the last half of the penultimate chapter, where the writing suddenly switched from dogged to gleaming at the blink of an eye. Who was this uncredited writer? I suspect it was an academic to whom the publisher had farmed out the manuscript in order to obtain a hasty clean-up prior to publication.

The publisher should have requested even more drastic measures from the uncredited book doctor—the entire manuscript should have been rewritten, and afterward turned over to a team of fact-checkers in order to correct the misstatements of fact, which were legion.

Whenever Simon stepped outside of Italy and addressed historic events and personages elsewhere, she was totally lost. Her discussions of people and politics in Austria, Britain, France, Germany the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey were laughable, displaying an astonishing if not unforgivable lack of knowledge and understanding about European history and culture.

Given the remarkable cast of characters she was given, Simon should have been able to make her book about the Gonzaga family one of the most riveting reading experiences of the last fifty years. That the book is so lame is testament to the fact that Simon was so profoundly untalented, both as a writer and as a thinker.

To cite merely a handful of the persons who lived in the Ducal Palace at Mantua and worked for the Gonzaga’s is almost too much for a modern-day person to contemplate: Giulio Romano, Peter Paul Rubens, Claudio Monteverdi, Baldassare Castiglione.

During our tour of the Ducal Palace, my brother and I heard the guide drop these and other names in rapid succession. Clearly, room-by-room, she was talking about long-ago events, involving the most famous of names, which had occurred in the various corridors, staterooms, salons, ballrooms and private apartments through which we were passing.

Names were the only things we could pick out in the flow of Italian, but the richness of the names added a layer of excitement to our visit. We knew we were being offered one remarkable story after another, with remarkable characters, recalling remarkable events—and yet we could understand none of it. It was very frustrating.

Simon’s book is most remarkable for how little she makes of this extraordinary cast of characters participating in extraordinary events during extraordinary times.

That, too, was very frustrating.


  1. Was your visit to Mantua the same year you and Alex spent a month in Italy? And didn't like the Uffizzi and decided you had better learn something about art?

  2. Yes, and yes. One and the same--and I hope I've picked up a little something since 2002.

  3. I love this article and I need to ask: What is your recommended reading on the Gonzaga family?

    I am dearly in love with this with dynasty, and have a need to read and immerse myself more.