Ducal Palace of Mantua
The Ducal Palace of Mantua (Italian: Palazzo Ducale di Mantova) is a monumental architectural complex and a museum in the town of Mantua, northern Italy, renowned also for its fresco paintings by Andrea Mantegna.
The palace is called ducal because it was the official residence of the House of Gonzaga, marquis and then dukes of Mantua, that ruled the town from 1328 to 1707.
The oldest structures part of today’s form the Ducal Palace, those located on Piazza Sordello square, were built between the 13th century and the 14th century by the Bonacorsi family, who dominated Mantua before being ruled out by the Gonzagas in 1328.
In the late 14th century, an imposing fortress, the Castle of Saint George (Italian: Castello di San Giorgio), was built near the city’s lakefront. The castle was designed by military architect Bartolino da Novara as a defensive structure aimed at protecting the heart of the town, and subsequently converted into the main residence of the Gonzaga family.
During the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, the palace was not a unitary structure but it actually consisted of various buildings, independent and physically separated from one another.
In 1556, Guglielmo Gonzaga took the decision to merge those buildings into a single, grandiose architectural complex encompassing a floor area of about 365,000 square feet. Therefore, a number of late Renaissance-style courtyards, gardens, passages, porticoes, and new wings were built in the second half of the 16th century after designs by some of the most renowned architects and artists of the time, including Giulio Romano, Giovan Battista Bertani, and Antonio Maria Viani.
After the fall of the duchy in 1707, Mantua became a possession of the House of Habsburg and subsequently part of the Austrian Empire.
Under the Austrian rule, the Ducal Palace was renovated and its collection of art, dispersed and greatly impoverished during the decadence of the House of Gonzaga, were partially reinstated.
In the second half of the 19th century, after the foundation of the Kingdom of Italy, the palace has become a state-owned monument and museum open to the public.
The Piazza Sordello square in Mantua with the main entrance of the Ducal Palace on the right; photo: Cecco
Architecture and buildings
Today, the Ducal Palace of Mantua consists of four main nuclei.
The Corte Vecchia (Old Court) comprises two medieval buildings overlooking the Sordello square: the Captain’s Palace (late 13th century, Italian: Palazzo del Capitano) and the Magna Domus (14th century), both renovated and enlarged between the early 16th century and the 18th century, and three courtyards.
The Corte Vecchia was the old residence of the rulers of Mantua, before they moved into the Castle of St. George, and includes richly decorated apartments, two Baroque-style galleries (the Gallery of Mirrors and the Hall or Rivers), a hanging garden, a Renaissance-style garden, and a late-Gothic chapel.
The Corte Nuova (New Court) was built between the 15th and the early 16th century to accommodate the private apartments of the Duke of Mantua.
Designed in 1536 by Giulio Romano and thereafter enlarged by various architects, including Luca Fancelli and Antonio Maria Viviani, it consists of private and public spaces, galleries for the Gonzagas’ art collections, and gardens – including the Giardino dei Semplici (Garden of Simples) botanical garden and a small hanging garden called “of the Dogs” because it was the burial place of the Gonzaga family’s favorite pets -, and porticoed courtyards such as the monumental Cortile della Cavallerizza (Equestrian Court) designed in 1556 by Giovanni Battista Bertani to mimic the surrounding Mannerist-style building by Giulio Romano.
A late-Renaissance-style church designed in the second half of the 16th century by Bertani, the Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara, is located between the Corte Vecchia and the Corte Nuova.
The medieval fortress of the Castle of Saint George forms the north-eastern part of the Ducal Palace complex. It is a massive defensive structure built between 1395 and 1406, converted in the 15th century into a magnificent residence by Ludovico I Gonzaga.
The complex includes a fourth palace, the Domus Nova – built in the second half of the 15th century after a design by Fancelli – which is currently not open to the public.
Aerial view of the architectural complex of the Ducal Palace of Mantua (the church of Santa Barbara is the blue building in the middle); image: Bing / Inexhibit
Artworks on view
Works of art on view in the Ducal Palace comprise both original decorations, particularly fresco paintings, and what remains of the enormous 20,000-piece collection of art of the House of Gonzaga, especially paintings and sculptures.
The most famous work on display in the palace is arguably the group of fresco paintings which decorates walls and vault of the so-called Camera degli Sposi (Bridal Chamber), also known as Camera Picta, in the Castle of St. George.
The cycle was painted by Andrea Mantegna between 1465 and 1474 as a celebration of the Gonzaga family, particularly of the Marquis Ludovico III who commissioned him the work.
A series of grandiose fresco and oily tempera paintings – depicting various court scenes, antique monuments, and prominent members of the House of Gonzaga – decorates the walls of the room almost entirely, while the vault, painted by Mategna using a trompe l’oeil technique, features a false oculus from which a group of cherubs (or putti) looks down into the chamber, together with eight medallions with portraits of Roman emperors.
Another remarkable fresco painting in the Ducal Palace is a work representing a tournament (probably the Tournament of Louvezerp from the French medieval version of the Arthurian legend) painted by Pisanello (Antonio di Puccio Pisano) in the first half of the 15th century and located in the Corte Vecchia. This monumental fresco, unfortunately badly damaged, was rediscovered and restored in the 1960s after being concealed for centuries beneath a layer of white stucco.
Other interesting frescoes includes the 16th century decoration of the Sala dello Zodiaco ceiling by Lorenzo Costa the Younger, and the decoration of the Sala di Troia (Trojan Room) in the Corte Nuova painted by Giulio Romano between 1536 and 1539.
As mentioned, the palace still features a part of the art collections of the House of Gonzaga, including a series of 16th century Flemish tapestries based on cartoons by Raphael, on view in the Sala degli Arazzi (Room of the Tapestries), a portion of the painting The Gonzaga Family in Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1605) by Peter Paul Rubens, the large painting Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes by Domenico Fetti (ca. 1620), various ancient sarcophagi, and a collection of sixty-four busts in white marble dating back to the Roman Age.
Andrea Mantegna, fresco paintings of the Camera degli Sposi (detail), 1465 – 1474, Ducal Palace of Mantua; photo courtesy of Palazzo Ducale di Mantova
The complex of the Ducal Palace of Mantua includes a temporary exhibition space on the ground floor of the Castle of St. George, which frequently accommodates special exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, and a bookshop.
Due to its historical structure, the complex is only partially accessible to physically-impaired people; we invite you to contact the museum’s staff, by phone or e-mail, for more information about the Ducal Palace accessibility.
Gallery of images
The Castle of St. George; photo: Jim Forest
The hanging garden in the Corte Vecchia; photo: dvdbramhall
The Cortile della Cavallerizza (Equestrian Court), designed by Giovanni Battista Bertani in the 16th century in the typical Mannerist-style of Giulio Romano; photo: Christian Ostrosky
The imposing Baroque-style Galleria degli Specchi (Gallery of Mirrors) in the Old Court; photo: Robert Shea
The Galleria del Passerino (Gallery of the Sparrow) in the Old Court; photo: Camilla Perondi
The 16th century Sala del Manto (Room of the Mantle) in the Corte Nuova; photo courtesy of the Mantova Chamber Music Festival
The so-called Pisanello Room, featuring an early 15th century fresco painting by Tuscan painter Pisanello (Antonio di Puccio Pisano); photo: dvdbramhall
The Sala degli Arcieri (Hall of the Archers) with the painting “The Gonzaga Family in Adoration of the Holy Trinity” (1605) by Peter Paul Rubens; photo: dvdbramhall
Roman-age marble busts dating back from the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. from the Ducal Palace museum’s collections; photo: dvdbramhall
Andrea Mantegna, the “oculus” of the Bridal Chamber’s vault; photo: Nuno Gavina Couto
Andrea Mantegna, detail of the wall paintings of the Bridal Chambet; photo: Jacqueline Poggi
Cover image: The Ducal Palace of Mantua, the 13th century Captain’s Palace facade on the Piazza Sordello square; photo: wolfB1958