The city of Mantova is surrounded by water on three sides. The river Mincio is so wide here that three lakes have come into existence: the Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo and Lago Inferiore. When we first visited Mantova in 2019 we parked our car on the other side of the river at a large free car park. We then crossed the Ponte di San Giorgio and entered the city. The view of Mantova from this bridge is magnificent. The domes and towers of famous buildings such as the Duomo and the immense church of Sant’Andrea are all clearly visible, and the same goes for the huge ducal palace (Palazzo Ducale). Part of this palace is the late medieval castle of San Giorgio on the corner. The castle is deservedly famous because of one of its rooms, the Camera degli Sposi. This ‘bridal room’ was embellished with frescoes made by the famous painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Unfortunately their condition is rather unsatisfactory, but I still consider them the highlight of the Palazzo Ducale.
The castle and the room
The castle of San Giorgio was built between 1395 and 1406 on the orders of Francesco I Gonzaga, lord of Mantova between 1382 and 1406. The architect was Bartolino da Novara (died between 1406 and 1410), who is also known for his work at the Castello Estense in Ferrara. Originally the castle served defensive purposes, but in the second half of the fifteenth century it was converted into a Renaissance palace by Luca Fancelli (ca. 1430-1502). The driving force behind the conversion was Ludovico III Gonzaga, a mercenary captain (condottiero) and a true Renaissance prince. Ludovico was the second marquess of Mantova. The Holy Roman emperor Sigismund had granted his father Gianfrancesco I Gonzaga this title in 1433. Ludovico would rule over Mantova from 1444 until 1478. He made Andrea Mantegna his court painter and put him to work in a square room in the north-eastern tower of the castle.
Because of Mantegna’s frescoes contemporaries spoke of the room as the camera picta, the ‘painted room’. The term Camera degli Sposi – ‘room of the newlyweds’ or ‘bridal room’ – came in vogue only in the seventeenth century. The name refers to the fact that the frescoes feature both Ludovico and his wife Barbara of Brandenburg (1422-1481). It should, however, be noted that the Camera degli Sposi is anything but a room for newlyweds, as Ludovico and Barbara had been married for over thirty years when Mantegna picked up the brush. Moreover, while Ludovico did use the room to sleep and had his bed set up there, it also served as a kind of office. The marquess had meetings with important guests here, and with the members of his family as well.
Andrea Mantegna started painting his frescoes on 16 June 1465. This is at least assumed, as this date was included in one of the frescoes, although without any context. Above the door Mantegna painted a group of putti holding a plaque that not only lionises Ludovico and Barbara, but also mentions the year 1474. This must be the year that the painter completed his work. To the right of the putti, between the plants and floral motifs, the impish Mantegna also hid his self-portrait.
The highlights in the Camera degli Sposi are especially the frescoes on the west and north walls, and on the ceiling. The first wall is also known as the Wall of the Encounter (Parete dell’Incontro), the second the Wall of the Court (Parete della Corte). The encounter on the first wall is that of Ludovico with two of his sons. Ludovico himself is depicted on the left, with a long dagger on his hip. On the far right is his eldest son and heir Federico I (1441-1484). The man in the middle is Ludovico’s second son Francesco (1444-1483). He became a cardinal when he was just seventeen years old and is depicted as such. He is holding the hand of his kid brother Ludovico Gonzaga, alternatively known as Ludovichino (1460-1511). The boys in the foreground are the sons of Federico I. Federico is having a conversation with two men, who have been identified as King Christian I of Denmark and the German emperor Frederick III. In the background the city of Rome is visible. The way it is depicted is not very accurate, but one will recognise the Aurelian walls, the pyramid of Cestius, the Colosseum and the Castel Sant’Angelo.
On the north wall, above the fireplace, Mantegna painted the court of Ludovico III Gonzaga. Ludovico is sitting in a chair, an unfolded letter in his hands. He is talking to a balding man with an aquiline nose who cannot be identified with certainty. In this respect, the names of Marsilio Andreasi and Raimondo Lupi have been dropped, but some see him as Ludovico’s brother Alessandro, who by the way died as early as 1466. Under the chair lies the dog of the Gonzaga family, who was apparently called Rubino. The sitting woman is Barbara of Brandenburg. As a condottiero, Ludovico often took service with cities such as Milan, Florence or Venice. In his absence, Barbara ruled over Mantova and she did that in an exemplary way. The fresco shows her surrounded by some of her children, her sons Gianfrancesco (1446-1496), Rodolfo (1452-1495) and the aforementioned Ludovichino (1460-1511), and her daughters Paola (with an apple; 1463-1497) and Barbara (1455-1503). Between the two eldest sons we see a man with white hair and a black beret. He is probably Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), a famous architect who was summoned to Mantova by Ludovico. There he was involved in the construction of the churches of San Sebastiano and Sant’Andrea. Impossible to miss is the small woman to the right of Barbara. She is Lucia, the family dwarf.
To the right of the Gonzaga family several young men are waiting for an audience with Ludovico. It is quite difficult to establish the identity of the men, but it is sometimes assumed that the blond young man with the rapier is Niccolò d’Este (1438-1476). He was a son of Leonello d’Este, marquess of Ferrara (1441-1450), and Margherita Gonzaga (1418-1439), a sister of Ludovico who died young. When Leonello passed away in 1450, he was not succeeded by his son, but by his brother Borso. Upon his death in 1471, Borso was in his turn succeeded by his half-brother Ercole I d’Este (1471-1505). Ercole was rather stuck with Niccolò d’Este, especially when the latter instigated a revolt against him in Ferrara. The revolt was, however, a failure, and Niccolò was arrested and decapitated.
Lastly, there is the beautiful trompe-l’oeil ceiling. Visitors looking up will see a blue sky and white clouds. Painted putti are looking down over the edge of the oculus. Mantegna also painted a peacock, a Moor and several ladies. Eye-catching elements of the ceiling are, moreover, the eight medallions with the heads of Roman emperors, from Julius Caesar to Otho.
- Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 13-15;
- Trotter travel guide Northwest Italy (2016), p. 426;
- Information signs in the Camera degli Sposi;
- Camera degli Sposi – Wikipedia.
 The numbering of the various Ludovicos is quite confusing. This is because Ludovico I Gonzaga (1328-1360) is also known as Luigi Gonzaga. That makes his grandson, who ruled from 1369 to 1380, either Ludovico I or Ludovico II, while we also find Luigi II. It follows that the Ludovico mentioned in this post is either the third or second ruler named Ludovico.