Mantova: The Duomo

Duomo of Mantova or Cattedrale di San Pietro.

The cathedral of Mantova is dedicated to Saint Peter the Apostle. In Italian the building is therefore known as the cattedrale di San Pietro. It is a peculiar rather than a beautiful building, a remarkable mixture of styles, combining a Romanesque bell-tower, a Gothic flank, a sixteenth-century Renaissance interior with Mannerist paintings and a façade in the style of the Late Baroque. The diverging styles betray a long history, and indeed the history of the Duomo goes all the way back to Late Antiquity. The first cathedral may have been built as early as the fourth or fifth century, but this Paleochristian church was lost in a fire in 894. Its successor as cathedral was rebuilt in the twelfth century in the Romanesque style. The bell-tower dates from this century. The base of the tower is composed of large blocks of stone, which possibly date back to the Etruscan era.


In 1395 Francesco I Gonzaga, lord of Mantova between 1382 and 1407, decided to have the cathedral rebuilt in the Gothic style. The project was completed in 1401 and had by then resulted in, among other things, a beautiful Gothic façade for which the Venetian brothers Jacobello and Pierpaolo dalle Masegne were responsible. Unfortunately this façade was replaced in the eighteenth century, but we have a fairly good idea what it looked like, thanks to a painting by Domenico Morone (ca. 1442-1518) that is currently in the Palazzo Ducale. The painting was made in 1494 and is known as the Cacciata dei Bonacolsi (‘expulsion of the Bonacolsi’). In the fourteenth century the Bonacolsi and Gonzaga families fought each other for control of Mantova. In 1328 Ludovico I Gonzaga managed to expel his enemy Rinaldo Bonacolsi from the city. This ushered in an era in which the Gonzagas ruled over Mantova, first as lords, then as marquesses and finally as dukes. It was only in 1708 that this era came to an end.

Side view of the Duomo. The Gothic elements and Romanesque bell-tower are clearly visible.

Gothic façade on Domenico Morone’s painting.

On his Cacciata dei Bonacolsi, Domenico Morone depicted an event that had taken place in 1328, but the appearance of the cathedral in the background is that which the building would have had in 1494. We see a façade that is clearly Gothic, with pointed arches, rose windows and a large vertical loggia (protiro). Conspicuous elements are furthermore the baldachins on the façade that probably cover statues of saints. Unfortunately nothing has been preserved of this façade, but the right flank of the cathedral still has some Gothic elements. The windows have all been bricked up, but the little towers, pediments and rose windows all seem to be in fairly original state. In the 2013 movie Romeo & Juliet we can see a fairly convincing reconstruction of the Gothic cathedral. Just take a look at this YouTube movie from 9:20. What is rather odd is that the movie is set in Verona, which has a cathedral that looks way different from that in Mantova.

The Gothic façade was demolished between 1756 and 1761 and replaced with a Baroque façade that was designed by Nicolò Baschiera (died 1780), an engineer in the Austrian army. The job to build a new façade was given to him by the then bishop of Mantova, Antonio Guidi di Bagno. His simple coat of arms was included in the façade decorations. Topping the triangular pediment are four statues of saints. They are Pope Celestinus V and Saints Peter, Paul and Anselmus. The latter served as bishop of Lucca and was canonised the year after his death by Pope Victor III (1086-1087). Anselmus died in Mantova and was buried in the local cathedral. His relics are still kept there and he has been the patron saint of Mantova for centuries.

The other four statues of the façade, above the aisles, represent Speciosa, Luigi Gonzaga, Giovanni Bono and Osanna Andreasi. Speciosa was a nun from Padova, Luigi Gonzaga (1568-1591; also known as Aloysius Gonzaga) a Jesuit who died of the plague at the tender age of 23. He was buried in the church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Rome, which has a beautiful chapel dedicated to him. Giovanni Bono (1168-1249) was a lay brother and Osanna Andreasi (1449-1505) a Dominican tertiary. Both were from Mantova and both were beatified. Their relics are kept in the cathedral.

Interior of the Duomo.


The interior of the Duomo mostly dates from the sixteenth century. In 1545 the old interior was destroyed in a fire, after which cardinal Ercole Gonzaga (1505-1563) commissioned the architect and painter Giulio Romano (1499-1546) to provide the cathedral with a new interior. Unfortunately Romano was dead by 1546, so the work had to be continued by his student Giovan Battista Bertani (1516-1576). Four rows of rather ancient looking columns divide the interior into a nave and four aisles. If we look up, we see a mix of coffered ceilings and barrel vaults. As for the decorations, I will first of all mentions the fresco on the inside of the dome. It represents Paradise and was painted by Ippolito Andreasi (1548-1608) and Teodoro Ghisi (1536-1601). The huge vortex of angels somewhat reminded me of Corregio’s Assumption of the Virgin in the cathedral of Parma, but in terms of quality Andreasi and Ghisi’s work is clearly inferior. The same goes for the apse fresco by Antonio Maria Viani (ca. 1550-1635): it was technically well executed, but can hardly be called spectacular.

Dome fresco by Ippolito Andreasi and Teodoro Ghisi.

Adoration of the Shepherds on a Roman sarcophagus.

We may partly blame Napoleon Bonaparte for the fact that the art in the cathedral is a little disappointing. At the end of the eighteenth century Napoleon’s troops pillaged the cathedral of Mantova and took dozens of works of art with them to France. The best-known work was probably The temptation of Saint Anthony the Abbott by the famous painter Veronese (1528-1588). This painting can currently be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Caen. Now that there are no truly great works of art in the Duomo, we may perhaps consider the front of a Roman sarcophagus from the fourth or fifth century to be the most interesting object. The sarcophagus has an inscription mentioning the year 1543 and contains the relics of the aforementioned Blessed Giovanni Bono. Unfortunately the large scene on the sarcophagus is rather damaged, but above the inscription we do see a nice Adoration of the Shepherds with Christ as a swaddled child. In the sky the star of Bethlehem is visible, on the left sits the Virgin Mary and on the right we see the donkey, the ox and a shepherd.


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