Monday, August 6, 2018

Lombardy Journal: Mantua or Mantova?

Mantegna self-portrait in the Camera degli Sposi (watercolor by Hallie Cohen)
Your tour leader or cheerleader will take you to the Ducal palace and describe a collection that was once the most famous in the world. But the Gonzagas, who ruled Mantova, liked wine, women and song and the art had to be sold to Charles I in 1637 to make ends meet. Which is one instance which underscores the English connection that gives Italian cities like Mantova anglicized names. Power was the name of the game. The Gonzagas ruled for 400 years (1328-1707). Every stone of Mantua breathes the Gonzaga name and when you learn about the Basilica of Sant'Andrea, you begin to understand that the great dynasty was a little like Robert Moses, imposing its will over the Benedictines who collected their tolls with an earlier structure whose Gothic bell tower remains amidst the baroque work of Leon Battista Alberti. When pilgrims visited the Basilica which houses a famous religious relic (and also the chapel in which Mantegna is buried) they now paid the Gonzagas. The confluence of baroque, medieval and gothic styles is what Dickens saw from the window of the apartment he lived in when he visited Mantua in 1844 and which now houses a restaurant called Tiratappi. The beauty of Mantua is highly touted, but it’s actually deeply strange. On a recent evening at the heart of the tourist season, albeit in the middle of a heatwave, the place was a deserted backwater with half-empty restaurants where no writer was going to be hanging his hat.

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