Italian Renaissance Families: Gonzaga family

Italian Renaissance Families: Mantua and the Gonzaga This blog is part of a series on five influential Italian Renaissance families that shaped Italy, especially during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is based on both…

7 Mar 18 · 7 mins read

Italian Renaissance Families: Mantua and the Gonzaga

This blog is part of a series on five influential Italian Renaissance families that shaped Italy, especially during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is based on both our Italian Renaissance Summer School course, and our Small Group Tour of Italy, structured around the story of these five families.

Mantua, home to the Gonzaga family

The entry of Pope Pius II into Mantua, a small northern Italian city, for the great church Congress of 1459 marked a triumph for Gonzaga diplomacy. Leaders from all over Italy poured into the city. Ludovico Gonzaga’s wife, Barbara of Brandenburg, had helped to engineer this triumph, and the court went into a frenzy of activity in order to prepare for the big event. As part of this Congress, the pope called for a crusade against the Ottomans, however this effort was largely unsuccessful

Mantua may have been a small, damp, malaria-infested town, but it had a great strategic position on the main route linking Italy with Northern Europe. From 1327 it had been under the control of the Gonzaga family, a family in which the lords, like those such as the Montefeltro in Urbino, made their money by hiring themselves out, as fighters, to the highest bidder. The city was small but there was plenty of money to be spent on art and architecture.

Today, Mantua is a city of cuisine and culture, with a number of beautiful churches and palaces, along with a series of signature dishes. One of the more famous Mantuan dishes is the Torta Sbrisolona, a cake that is sweet and especially crumbly.

The influencers in Gonzaga family


Ludovico, who became marquis in 1444, hired himself out as a condottieri to richer cities such as Florence, Venice, Naples and Milan. He was an astute politician and it was he who launched Mantua as a centre of renaissance culture.

Ludovico had been educated at the humanist school, under the leadership of Vittorino da Feltre, established by his father Gianfrancesco. The same school attended by Federico Montefeltro. Here Ludovico, too, became inculcated with humanist ideals which were to influence him for the rest of his life.

Ludovico (seated) and the court at Mantua, Andrea Mantegna.

Ludovico (seated) and the court at Mantua, Andrea Mantegna.

The pope’s visit provided Ludovico with further impetus to transform Mantua into one of the most impressive of the smaller Italian city-states. Hearing that the pope had made some complaints about the state of the city streets, he began by paving the muddy central piazza but he didn’t stop there.

Leon Battista Alberti, born in Genoa in 1404, came to Mantua in the pope’s entourage and stayed on for several months after the pope left. Over the next years he returned several times to Mantua. Alberti was the author of the first modern treatises on painting, sculpture and architecture. He also wrote dark, witty satires imitating the Greek-Syrian sophist Lucian. Alberti was also a sculptor, musician and architect. He worked in Ferrara and Urbino as well as in Mantua where he designed at least two churches for the Gonzaga family. The basilica of Sant’Andrea, in Mantua, begun in 1471, a year before Alberti’s death is probably his most significant work.

Basilica Sant’Andrea.

Basilica Sant’Andrea.

The Gonzaga Family

The Gonzaga Family, 1407-1550

Gianfrancesco Gonzaga inherited the rule of Mantua at the age of 12 in 1407. He was the first Gonzaga to carry the title of Marquis having purchased the right from the Emperor Sigismund in 1433. Gianfrancesco hired himself out as a mercenary to various city states including Venice and finally Milan.

It was during his rule that the famous humanist boarding school, Casa Giocosa (Joyous House), headed by Vittorino da Feltre was established. The school was unusual in educating girls along with the boys and for offering an education to the poor. Vittorino offered scholarships to those who could not afford tuition. Gianfrancesco’s daughter, Cecilia, was one of the school’s pupils. Cecilia was a star pupil at the school, proficient in Greek by the age of seven. (She later defied her father’s wishes by refusing to marry and entered a convent on his death.)

Ludovico Gonzaga followed his father as ruler of Mantua from 1444 until his death in 1478. Like his father he was a successful mercenary soldier. He married Barbara of Brandenburg and together they did much to beautify the city. He was responsible for enticing the artist Andrea Mantegna to the court of Mantua, where he stayed for 47 years!

Ludovico was followed by his son Federico who died of fever in 1484 and then by his grandson Francesco who became Marquis at the age of seventeen. Francesco was married to Isabella d’Este and is reputed to have been one of Lucretia Borgias’s lovers. His chief passions were race horses, cartography and military weapons, but he was also a patron of the arts and continued to employ Mantegna as the court painter.

Francesco, attributed to Mantegna or Francesco Bonsignori c 1495

Isabella d’Este, the eldest daughter of Ercole d’Este of Ferrara and his wife Eleonora of Aragon, married Francesco at the age of seventeen. She, too, was a great patron of the arts hampered only by her lack of personal funds. She refused to let this stop her and frequently bought paintings second hand. She also established her own studiolo.

It began as two rooms she selected in her apartments, where she both pursued her own creative work, and showed archaeological works and artworks. She began commissioning allegorical and literary works from significant artists. While a number came through, it is said that she repeatedly requested work from Leonardo da Vinci, but was turned down. The rooms were successfully recognized as containing a worthwhile collection, and became attractions for dignitaries visiting the city.

Isabella was regent of the city during her husband’s frequent absences on military duties and also regent for her young son on the death of her husband.

After her husband’s death in 1519, Isabella dismantled the studio and set it up in a new space, this time including a garden. During this two paintings by Corregio were added, Allegory of Virtue and Allegory of Vice, along with a marble doorway from sculptor Tullio Lombardo.

The studiolo’s collection was not only limited by money, but also a papal ban on exporting sculptures from Rome! However, she developed a network of contacts and was able to collect a number of modern and ancient works, including Michelangelo’s Cupid!

Palazzo Te; The palace.

The Palazzo Te (or Palazzo del Te) was constructed between 1524 and 1534 for Federico II Gonzago. It was to be a pleasure palace, built just outside the city walls, where Federico could meet with his mistress. The architect Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael, was commissioned to build the palace. Once the shell was erected it took another ten years to cover the interior walls with carvings and frescoes. Today the frescoes are the most amazing thing about the palace, and it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.

The Palazzo is a museum and cultural centre. While many think that the Palace’s name means ‘Tea Palace’, it in fact derives from the fact that the building was ocnstructed on the outskirts of the city, once referred to as “Tejeto” (linden grove), abbreviated as “Te”.

Giulio Romano’s famous fresco, The Fall of the Giants, at the Palazzo Te.

Giulio Romano’s famous fresco, The Fall of the Giants, at the Palazzo Te.

World Heritage Sites: Mantua and Sabbioneta

Mantua and Sabbioneta, in the Po valley, in the north of Italy, represent two aspects of Renaissance town planning:

Mantua shows the renewal and extension of an existing city, while 30 km away, Sabbioneta represents the implementation of the period’s theories about planning the ideal city. Typically, Mantua’s layout is irregular but with regular parts showing different stages of its growth since the Roman period and includes many medieval edifices among them an 11th century rotunda and a Baroque theatre. Sabbioneta, created in the second half of the 16th century under the rule of one person, Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna, can be described as a single-period city and has a right angle grid layout. Both cities offer exceptional testimonies to the urban, architectural and artistic realizations of the Renaissance, linked through the visions and actions of the ruling Gonzaga family. The two towns are important for the value of their architecture and for their prominent role in the dissemination of Renaissance culture. The ideals of the Renaissance, fostered by the Gonzaga family, are present in the towns’ morphology and architecture. (UNESCO)

Teatro Olimpico, Sabbioneta

Teatro Olimpico, Sabbioneta

Visiting Mantua Today

One of the most appealing things about Mantua is that it is often bypassed by tourists . The skyline of the city has undergone few changes since it was first constructed in the middle ages.

One essential sight for visitors is the Palazzo Ducale. It is the second-largest residence in Italy, beaten only by the Vatican, and was the base of the Gonzaga family for nearly 400 years, 1328 to 1707. It’s not so much a single palace as a small city in its own right. After the Gonzaga family’s reign ended, the buildings deteriorated until the 20th century, when restoration efforts took place. Until recently, the ancient buildings were still revealing their secrets. In 2000 it was revealed on Howard Goodall’s music program, Big Bangs, that a secret room had been discovered in the enormous palace, in which composer Monteverdi had written his music. The Palazzo also once included the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este, as described above.

The palace includes nine gardens and courtyards. One of the most beautiful is the Cortile della Cavalerizza, originally it was used to show Gonzaga horses before they were sold.

To learn more about what it’s like to be a tourist in the city, check out this excellent profile in The Guardian.

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