by Roderick Conway Morris

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Brera, Milan
The Dead Christ by Mantegna, probably early 1480s, once in the Gonzaga Collections

The Gonzagas' Celestial Gallery

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA, Italy 23 November 2002


It is difficult to go to any of the world's great public galleries without encountering a picture that once formed part of the Gonzaga collection in Mantua, a collection amassed by six generations of Gonzaga marquises and dukes.

Well over a century and a half's assiduous and sometimes financially ruinous acquisitions were dispersed with startling rapidity. Between 1627 and 1630 much of the cream of the canvases was sold to King Charles I in England. Most of the rest was scattered or destroyed when the Ducal Palace was sacked by Imperial German troops during a dispute over the Gonzaga succession. Charles I's collection was sold off after the king's execution in 1649, though Cromwell held back for the nation Andrea Mantegna's glorious 'The Triumphs of Caesar' (now at Hampton Court).

So vast was the Gonzaga collection, consisting of well over 2,000 paintings and more than 20,000 bronzes, marbles, medals, coins, arms, ceramics, manuscripts, books and other objects, that it is still not entirely clear what it contained, let alone where in the Ducal Palace these treasures were displayed and kept.

A major project is in progress involving a special team of researchers entrusted with the task of reading some 10,000 surviving letters sent to and from Mantua. Its aim is to solve these outstanding mysteries. These investigations will go on for years to come, but in the meantime an exhibition is being staged at Palazzo Te, 'The Gonzaga: The Celestial Gallery.' Ninety paintings and some 200 other pieces that were once at Mantua have been lent by collections around the world for the show (which continues until Dec. 8), and while able to offer only a very small sample of what the Gonzaga once possessed, they give a suggestive impression of the collection as it once was.

The last inventory of the works before their dispersal was undertaken in 1626-7, but it has long been recognized that this was far from complete. A reason for this may be that the palace's in-house art expert was bed-ridden with chronic gout at the time, and had to direct the operation by remote control, employing assistants of varying competence. On one day, nearly 300 pictures were catalogued. The final total was around 1,800 - but this did not include pictures fixed in paneling or ceilings, which along with other strays, amounted to scores more. There is still plenty of detective work to be done before the fullest possible story emerges.

Mantua itself gave rise to no first-rate artists of its own, but the Gonzaga were both clever and lucky at attracting the best from elsewhere. Their first significant coup was to secure the services of Mantegna in 1460, who ended up spending nearly 50 years in Mantua, leaving the most abiding image of the Gonzaga - the frescoes of the duke, his family, retainers, dogs, dwarves and assorted visitors in the Camera dei Sposi at the Ducal Palace.

The Gonzaga's good fortune and determination persisted into the following century, when they recruited Raphael's chief assistant, Giulio Romano, who remained for 15 years, building and frescoing the Palazzo Te from 1527 to 1534. In the same period, Giulio Romano's patron, Federico II, the first Gonzaga to bear the title of duke, put together the largest collection of Titians in Italy. But, despite the fact that the later Gonzagas were born into an environment in which they were surrounded by old masters, they continued to update the collection.

In 1607, just over a 100 years after the death of Mantegna, Duke Vincenzo II was as active as ever buying art in Rome, scooping up (at the urging of his court painter, Peter Paul Rubens) Caravaggio's 'The Death of the Virgin' (now in the Louvre), after the religious order that had commissioned it had rejected it on the grounds of its shocking modernity.

In the second half of the 15th century, when Mantua was establishing itself as a cultural center, it was already rivaled by a neighboring city state, Ferrara. The pedigree of Ferrara's ruling family, the Este, stretched back considerably further than that of the Gonzaga, and the Este enjoyed the title of dukes from 1471. Under Ercole I d'Este (1471-1505), Ferrara earned an enviable reputation as a haven of literature and generous patronage of the arts, including music and theater.

One of the main beneficiaries of this ambiance was Isabella d'Este, sister of Ercole and one of the most educated and artistically influential patrons of the whole Renaissance. When Isabella married Francesco Gonzaga in 1490, Ferrara's loss was unquestionably Mantua's gain.

Nor did Ferrara prosper as long as Mantua. In 1597, after the death of its last duke, who failed to produce an heir, the city, which the Este had ruled for 300 years, but which was technically a church fiefdom, reverted to Rome and was absorbed into the Papal States. This led to as radical a stripping of the city's assets as Mantua was later to suffer, as the remains of the Este family decamped to Modena with some of their collection, leaving the Vatican to appropriate whatever else took its fancy.

The fate of the famous Este collection, and its original settings in the Este Castle and attached ducal residence, is the subject of 'The Triumph of Bacchus: Masterpieces From the Ferrara School at Dresden.' Although smaller than the Mantua show (it offers nearly 40 loaned paintings), it is in many ways no less interesting, given that the story and the pictures themselves are less widely known. (The exhibition continues at the Este Castle until Jan. 19, then goes on to the Residenzschloss in Dresden from Feb. 15 to May 18).

'The Triumph of Bacchus,' by Benvenuto Tisi, known as Garofalo, was the result of a scheme for a spectacular series of canvases commissioned from the most celebrated painters of the day by Alfonso I (1505-34) to illustrate bacchanalian scenes inspired by classical texts and purported descriptions of ancient pictures by the Greek author Philostratus.

The other canvases by Bellini, Titian and Dosso Dossi, are now dispersed among the Prado, the National Galleries of London and Washington, and the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay. In 1517, Raphael provided a drawing of what was to be his contribution, 'The Triumph of Bacchus,' but did not live to complete the commission. It was not until the 1540s that Alfonso's son Ercole II, finally had this amazing, teeming cartoon realized in oils by the native-born Garofalo. (Unlike Mantua, Ferrara produced a number of talented local artists, and Ercole II eventually entrusted to them almost all his commissions.) In the end, the 'Triumph' formed part of a large batch of paintings sent to Dresden in the mid 18th century.

Curiously, relations between Ferrara and Dresden actually date to the period when the 'Triumph' was painted, for it was in 1549 that Ercole II happened to invite Maurice, the prince-elector of Saxony, to visit Ferrara during his tour of Italy. So struck was Maurice with an allegorical canvas he saw there, painted by Dosso Dossi, of Ercole, in the guise of his namesake Hercules, making short shrift of a contumacious attack by an army of pygmies, that on his return to Dresden the Saxon prince had Lucas Cranach the Younger do a similar picture, giving Hercules his own physiognomy.

Two hundred years later King Augustus III of Poland and Elector of Saxony seized the opportunity to buy in Modena 100 of the Este's finest pictures, almost all of which had been acquired while the family were still rulers of Ferrara. These, less some losses during World War II, have been in Dresden ever since. Thanks to that, a considerable body of the 16th-century Ferrara collection has stayed together, offering a permanent overview, of a kind that no longer exists for the Mantuan collection, of the art at the court of Ferrara.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023