The Castello di San Giorgio (Castle of Saint George), military structure built in the last
years of the fourteenth century, after a project by the architect Bartolino da Novara (who
also designed the castle in Ferrara), was originally used as prison too. In the first half of
the fifteenth century the prisoners were held in the dungeons of the castle. It’s quite
probable that, when Ludovico II decided to move and live in the castle towards the year
1459, it wasn’t no longer used as a prison.
The Hapsburgs, who ruled Mantua from 1707 to 1866, filled the piano nobile (the first
floor) with their archives and used the upper floor as a prison where the Martyrs of
Belfiore were jailed. They were the heroes of the Italian Risorgimento, hanged in a place
called Belfiore close to Mantua.
The Mantuan conspirators, don Giovanni Grioli, Enrico Tazzoli, Angelo Scarsellini,
Bernardo De Canal, Giovanni Zambelli, Carlo Poma, Carlo Montanari, Tito Speri,
Bartolomeo Grazioli, Pietro Frattini and Pietro Fortunato Calvi (he, however, had
nothing to do with the ”conspiracy of Belfiore”), were related to Giuseppe Mazzini and
were sentenced to death and executed between 1851 and 1855. They weren’t all from
Mantua, but they were all condemned by general Radetzky and all imprisoned in the
Castle, from which only Felice Orsini from Forlì managed to escape.
A monument was sculpted by Pasquale Miglioretti in 1872, to recall the tragic end of
those defenders of the Italian freedom and independence. The monument, formerly
placed in piazza Sordello, was moved in 1930; in 2002 it was rebuilt just in Belfiore, but
in the corridor of the prison there are still two bas-reliefs, which were already part of it,
portraying the conspirators.
The upper floor of the Castle doesn’t concern only the last time of the Martyrs of
Belfiore, but also bears important traces of its Gonzaga past. In the twenties of the
sixteenth century – therefore before carrying out the Appartamento di Troia (the
Apartment of Troy) – Federico II had a set of rooms decorated on the upper floor, both
in the Castle and in the buildings beyond the moat, corresponding to the actual Sala di
Manto and Sala dei Capitani (Rooms of Manto and of the Captains).
The decoration of the Zodiac Room, that was also the prison of Pietro Frattini, belongs
to that decorative season, mostly hidden or eliminated by more important works. The
wide cross-vault and the lunettes below were painted around 1520-25 for Marquis
Federico II, who would become duke in 1530. The powerful Hercules frescoed in the
center of the vault, holding a heavy club and carrying the inscription “UBIQUE
FORTIS” (strong everywhere), should allude to Federico himself. The “sky” is divided
into twelve sections by rays in gilded pastiglia, each of them corresponding to one of the
twelve zodiac signs: possibly the implicit subject is the birth theme of the Marquis.
The frescoes, already attributed to Lorenzo Leombruno or to an assistant of Giulio
Romano – but the fantastic landscapes would be a work of a Flemish artist – recall the
complex Mannerist culture that, in Mantua, mixed the knowledge of such painters as
Dosso Dossi and Pordenone with echoes of the Raphaelesque culture.
Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici di
Trad. A. Corbellani, A. Mossini
Isabella d’Este came in Mantua as a very young bride (in 1490) and lived on the piano nobile of
the Castello for a long time, while her husband Francesco II lived on the ground floor.
The cultivated and refined marchioness was a protagonist and a symbol of the Italian
Renaissance. In about ten years she created a set of rooms of great beauty inside the Castle,
although unluckly few of them is still extant. When she became a widow in 1519, she moved
into Corte Vecchia (Old Court) where she had part of her furnishings transferred from the
Castle and had them rearranged in the new apartment. However, at least some traces of the
Studiolo and of the Grotta survive, as well as a series of small chambers and larger rooms. The
Grotta (Grotto) is of particular interest. The actual wooden barrel vault covers paintings with
the signs of the Zodiac, frescoed when the small room was used as Ludovico II’s (1444-78)
studyroom. Today, the most interesting decorative element is the wooden ceiling, carved for the
marchioness by the Mola brothers around 1506-08 and decorated with tablets representing the
“musical pauses”. From 1534 onward, the Grotta became the passage leading to the Palazzina
of Margherita Paleologa. Exactly above the Grotta is placed Isabella’s Studiolo (Study). The
marchioness had it decorated at the end of the fifteenth century, but it was restored at Giulio
Romano’s age. A trace of the original inlaid marble floor is left. It housed paintings of great
value: works by Andrea Mantegna, Perugino, Lorenzo Costa the Elder, later transferred to Corte
Vecchia, like most of the furnishings and collections; since 1628, however, those paintings
moved to France and they can now be admired in the Louvre in Paris.
The nearby Sala delle Armi (Room of the Arms), placed in the northeast tower of the Castle,
houses a 1513 polyptych painted by Cima da Conegliano for the church of Sant’Anna in
It’s further possible to enter the Cappellina del Bertani (Bertani’s Chapel), passing through the
sacristy. The chapel was turned into a place of worship only in 1561 and it was the prefetto
delle fabbriche (supervisor of the works), the painter and architect Giovanni Battista Bertani,
who gave it the appearance of a refined small oratory, which seems to glorify the Corinthian
order even more than the Virgin to whom it was dedicated.
Through the Passo Oscuro (Dark Passage), we get to some rooms where the decorations of the
Palazzina della Paleologa were reassembled. The building was carried out by Giulio Romano
for Margherita Paleologa of Monferrato, between 1534 and 1536. The one-storey Palazzina had
also a hanging garden; the whole building was demolished in 1899. The protests of part of the
citizens led, at least, to the detachment of some pictorial decorations. In the twenties, they were
reassembled on wooden frames and placed in the rooms on the piano nobile of the Castello
where they still are now.
Among the rooms that were preserved, the first is the Camerino degli Armadi (Small Chamber
of the Cabinets), so called for the wooden closets painted by one of Giulio Romano’s assistants,
maybe Agostino de Ganis. Among the rich festoons on the corbels of the vault, the
representations of the Four Continents should be noticed. It’s quite probable that the pictorial
decoration was realized by Lorenzo Costa the Younger (1535-83). The next room contains
frescoes connected with an Oratorio, or Chapel. Anton Maria Viani (1550 c. - 1630) is
generally acknowledged as the artist who painted these scenes between the end of the sixteenth
and the beginning of the seventeenth century, but instead it is possible that they were frescoed
by Ippolito Andreasi, known as Andreasino (1548-1608). The third room, called the Camerino
delle Stagioni (Seasons Closet), is the only one that preserves the original decoration painted
by Giulio Romano’s assistants.
Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici di
Trad. A. Corbellani, A. Mossini
The Large Castle Apartment, built for Duke Guglielmo (1550-87), was at first designed by
the architect Giovan Battista Bertani, but, after his death, the works were concluded
probably under the direction of Pirro Ligorio from Neaples.
Under the apartment there is a long passageway that leads from the lakeside road directly
into piazza Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara square), skirting the Basilica. Guglielmo had the
whole apartment decorated to exalt his lineage and to commemorate the main events of the
city’s history, from the mythological origins to the more recent deeds of his ancestors. The
Room of the Captains follows the Sala di Manto (Manto’s Room). Four large canvases
(unluckly lost) were hosted herein and celebrated the exploits and events related to the first
Captains of the people, starting from Luigi Gonzaga.
The tempera mural depicting the Oath of Luigi Gonzaga – now to be seen on the wall
opposite the entrance – was thus to be covered by a similar huge canvas. Although the
painting shows strong archaisms, it dates back to the years 1576-78 and was realized by an
artist (probably Benedetto Pagni from Pescia) who took inspiration from a late fifteenthcentury composition. In the middle of the wall painting the dwarf Frambaldo is portrayed,
while on the right is the giant Guglielmone, armed: both are mentioned at the court of Luigi
in the oldest chronicles. The wooden ceiling and the fireplace were both carried out after a
design by Giovan Battista Bertani. The stuccoes, in the corners of the room, portraying the
four Captains Luigi, Guido, Ludovico I and Francesco I, are probably the work of the
modeller Iacopo d’Ughetto from Modena, who was also author of those in Manto’s Room.
In the following Sala dei Marchesi ( Room of the Marquises) the deeds of the Marquises
(Gian Francesco, Ludovico II, Federico I and Francesco II ) were celebrated in a series of
four very important canvases: the famous “Fasti”( Feats ) painted by Iacopo Tintoretto in
1579, that are now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The paintings represent the military
triumphs of the marquises, portrayed in stucco at the corners of the room, together with their
wives and accompanied by allegorical and mythological figures by Francesco Segala, an
artist from Venice who worked at the court of Guglielmo Gonzaga for some years and also
carved the rich ceiling.
The next space is called Loggia del Tasso, because it was believed, but with no ground, that
Torquato Tasso had stayed there in 1592, during a visit to Mantua that lasted for some
months. It is decorated with stuccoes representing the various stages of human evolution:
from the Invention of Fire, through Hunting and War, to the Invention of the Arts.
The smaller rooms behind were the private part of the apartment. The decorative plan of the
first room was designed by Pirro Ligorio, a leading artist of the Mannerist culture of the
second half of the sixteenth century. In the Camera delle Virtù (Room of the Virtues) the
lunettes were painted by Lorenzo Costa the Younger, while the bas-reliefs in stucco below
illustrate classical musical themes, perhaps alluding to the contrast between Dionysian and
Apollonian art. The adjoining Studiolo is decorated with a frieze representing instruments
of study and research.
The last room of the apartment, known as the Sala dei Duchi (Room of the Dukes) was
decorated with four paintings, depicting Federico II Gonzaga’s “Fasti”. The four war
scenes, once hung on the walls, were also painted by Iacopo Tintoretto and assistants
between 1579 and 1580 (the canvases are now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich).
Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici di
Trad. A. Corbellani, A. Mossini
The Appartamento dell’Estivale (Summer Apartment) was built for Federico II in the years
1537-38 by the painter and architect Giulio Romano. He designed an isolated building, which
was perpendicular to the lake; its main façade was decorated with heavy ashlers and Salomonic
columns that give it a rustic and picturesque appearance. The rustication recalls, in architecture,
the non-finito (the un-finished) used by Michelangelo in sculpture; the spiral column, generally
a symbol of the temple of Jerusalem, here loses its sacred meaning and gets wrapped with vine
The interior of the apartment is the result of two successive phases: little survives of the
decorations dating back to Giulio Romano’s time, while most of the work was carried out under
the direction of Giovan Battista Bertani, in the 1560s.
It was then that Lorenzo Costa the Younger, the most skilled artist under Bertani’s direction,
painted the Loves of Jupiter in the Camera di Giove: the episodes show him seducing under
different disguises. The adjoining Camerino di Orfeo (Orpheus Closet) is lavishly decorated
with refined stuccoes describing the myth of the famous singer.
His beloved Eurydice died from the bite of a snake, but he descended into the Hades where he
obtained permission to take her back to the world of the living, thanks to his musical talent on
condition that, leaving the Underworld, he didn’t turn back to look at his lover. But he did it and
so he lost her for ever. He was loved by the Maenads, but he rejected them and so he was torn
to pieces by them and killed. The classical myth was also the subject of several musical works
composed at the court of Mantua, such as the fable set to music in 1494, basing on a libretto by
Poliziano, and the version written by Ottavio Rinuccini and set to music by Claudio
Monteverdi, the musician from Cremona who was active at the Mantuan court between the end
of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century.
One of the most charming rooms is, no doubt, the Stanza di Nettuno (Room of Neptune),where
the aquatic theme is exalted, by the tritons and the sea divinities painted in the corners and by
the marvellous still life stuccoes and frescoes on the vault. The high quality with which the flora
and fauna of the lake are painted, interlaced in fishing nets with great naturalism, can be also
found in the figures painted on the vault by Lorenzo Costa the Younger. The theme of the
mythic origins of Mantua is illustrated in the Sala della Mostra (Exhibition Room). The same
theme would be painted again a decade later in the monumental Sala di Manto (Manto’s
Room).The gallery, that ends with a serliana, houses a precious collection of thirteen Greek
marbles, including an Insular Funerary Stele from 350-340 B.C., a Funerary Banquet relief
from 300 B.C., two fragments of a puteal with a Dionysian Thiasos from the1st century B.C., a
funerary stele of the Isidian type and a Neo-Attic relief with Dancing Maenad and Satyr.
Through the passage on the right we reach the Sala delle Quattro Colonne (Room of the Four
Columns); actually they are three separated rooms – decorated at different times during the XVI
century – that underwent deep structural changes during the eighteenth century, when they were
united. In the third room is a remarkable lumachella fireplace, probably designed by Giulio
Romano himself, as the analogies with the fireplaces in Palazzo Te reveal. In the other three
rooms looking onto the Prato della Mostra (Sala delle Due Colonne (Room of the Two
Columns) and Sala delle Mensole (Room of the Corbels) there are decorations, or traces of
decorations, dating back to Bertani’s time.
Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici di
Trad. A. Corbellani, A. Mossini
The Palazzo del Capitano (Captain’s Palace), of which the first floor can be visited fom
the First Room of Appartamento di Guastalla, is in the highest part of Piazza Sordello
(formerly Piazza San Pietro), on a sort of ridge, originally called “scaglione”, that runs
through what was known as the “old city”. Its actual aspect, both inside and outside, is
the result of a series of restorations that have brought to light, where possible, the
original structure. The oldest part, dating back to the second half of the tirteenth century
and corresponding to part of the rooms looking onto Piazza Lega Lombarda, was deeply
transformed and enlarged by the fourth decade of the fourteenth century (or 1300 c.
according to a different critical tradition), when the Captain’s Palace reached the actual
width; the portico in front was added together with the long corridor above and the so
called Salone dell’Armeria on the top floor. The majestic mullioned gothic windows of
the crenellated façade date back to the beginning of the fifteenth century.
Originally the palace was the residence of the Bonacolsi family; the Gonzaga took
possession of it when they seized power on 16th August 1328. However, Luigi Gonzaga,
the first captain of the people, didn’t live in this palace, but he moved into another
palace, called Palazzo Acerbi-Cadenazzi, that stands opposite the square and formerly
belonging to the Bonacolsi family. The Palazzo del Capitano was instead the residence
of his three sons Guido, Feltrino and Filippino.
By the fourth decade the chapel, probably identified with the palace’s “capella magna”,
had been magnificently decorated, and during the century several artists came and
frescoed the walls of the rooms that had evocative names, certainly deriving from the
scenes painted therein: Rooms of the Leopards, of the Emperors, of the Crests, of
Lancelot, of the Paladins. The Palazzo del Capitano remained the main residence of the
family until the beginning of the fifteenth century, when it was linked with several other
buildings, restored or built ex novo, up to a new monumental complex. From the middle
of the fifteenth century, when Ludovico II Gonzaga moved into the Castle, the building
was probably used as offices and as a residence for the court; it was partly restored and
renewed from the middle of the sixteenth century, between the regency of cardinal
Ercole and the duchy of Guglielmo Gonzaga, and finally underwent deep
transformations at the age of Francesco IV, in 1612.
It was then that the prefetto delle fabbriche Antonio Maria Viani gave the interiors the
aspect that, to a great extent, they still have, renovating the decorations and the ceilings.
Between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, Anna
Isabella di Guastalla, the wife of the last duke Ferdinando Carlo, lived on the piano
nobile of the palace and so the whole apartment is still called Appartamento di
Guastalla. The division of the rooms, in the long gallery looking onto the cathedral
square , was eliminated only at the beginning of the twentieth century.
We enter exactly the gallery from the first room of the Guastalla apartment; the very
long corridor, facing directly onto piazza Sordello, was divided into various rooms
during the fourteenth century. Among the bright fourteenth century frescoes it’s worth
noting those reproducing curtains made from the expensive fur of a squirrel, small
loggias and balconies, crests, lozenges and elaborated geometric shapes, all recorded in
the ancient documents because the names of the rooms derived from the decorations. At
the beginning of the corridor a short frieze frescoed with very light and brilliant colours
is what remains of a Stanza degli Imperatori (Room of the Emperors). In an adjoining
room, according to the ancient chronicles, Agnese Visconti, the wife of Francesco
Gonzaga, committed adultery and was subsequently beheaded.
At the opposite side of the gallery we enter one of the rooms facing onto Piazza Lega
Lombarda. On the wall opposite the windows are traces of medieval decorations: the
upper part of the large room is decorated with phytomorphic shoots and lozenges in
which monstruous animals can be seen; at the bottom, on the other hand, there is a
curious geometric pattern, brightly coloured. Here there is an important nucleus of
medieval frescoes, all transferred from the city’s churches. A painting with an
Annunciation was detached from the church of Ognissanti. It reflects the style of the
coeval Venetian picture, with a composition still influenced by Byzantine art. Two
frescoes, both representing the Virgin and Child and dating back to the early fourteenth
century, were detached from the church of San Francesco. They show the transition of
the local art to Gothic style. The influence of Giotto’s presence in Padua can be seen in a
panel with Three Saints, a work by the so-called “Master of the Bonacolsi chapel”. A
more mature phase, linked to the Emilian culture, can be noticed in a fresco, the Virgin
and Child with Saint Gregory Nazianzus, from the church of Sant’Andrea and in a
Virgin and Child between two Saints, detached from the bell tower of San Domenico. In
the same room are displayed Gothic sculptures and a fourteenth century bone triptych
from the Embriachi workshop. The next room houses sculptures and detached frescoes
from the fourteenth and early fifteenth century.
The following Room was created by Antonio Maria Viani by enlarging the original
fourteenth century chapel of the palace. This room had a barrel vault and a side entrance;
the altar must have been placed against the back wall, where a magnificent Crucifixion is
painted, and the chapel was illuminated by two windows, looking onto the piazza del
Brolo (Brolo Square, now Piazza Lega Lombarda), which are also frescoed in the splays;
finally the walls were covered with white and red velvets. It was used as the palatine
The artist who painted it toward the end of the 1330s was able to use both a narrative
strenght in the dramatic and tumultuous Crucifixion, and a very precious touch that is
particularly evident in the two figures of saints frescoed in the splays of the windows,
Saint Louis of France and Saint Catherine, homage to Luigi Gonzaga and to his wife
Caterina Malatesta, probably died before 1340. In the main scene should be noticed the
daring foreshortening of the horse in the foreground, the crucified thief turning his back
on us and, above all, the group of figures on the right. It’s probable that the three men on
horseback are Guido (wearing the cap with cheekpieces), Feltrino and Filippino, who
lived in the palace and commissioned the fresco to an excellent painter of incredible
narrative vigour, probably the so-called “Master of Mombaroccio”. The subject and the
iconographic solutions adopted certainly refer to eucharistic themes that were
particularly felt in Mantua, where a relic of Christ’s Blood is still kept.
The last Room of Guastalla houses the supposed funerary monument of Margherita
Malatesta, the second wife of Francesco I Gonzaga, sculpted towards the 1400 by Pietro
Paolo dalle Masegne. There are also several stone and terracotta fragments, from the
city’s sacred and secular buildings, some epigraphs and a cippus dating back to 1296,
inscribed in elegant naskhi characters. It comes from Cilicia and was rediscovered in the
early nineteenth century in the underground of the church of San Francesco.
Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici di
Trad. A. Corbellani, A. Mossini
The Appartamento dell’Imperatrice is so called because it was created by Paolo Pozzo in
1778 for Beatrice d’Este, the wife of Ferdinand of Austria, on the occasion of their stay
in Mantua. The rooms were realized inside the thirteenth century Magna Domus, which
constitutes, together with part of the Palazzo del Capitano (Palace of the Captain), the
main testimony of the earliest architectonic phase of Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale),
dating back to the Bonacolsi period. The building is formed by the union, that took place
in the Middle Ages, of a tower with a palace (the two structures can be seen from the
external portico; the span on the right of the Romanesque portal corresponds to the
tower). The whole block remained the property of the Bonacolsi until 1355 c., when the
last of their possessions of any importance were bought by the Gonzaga. Changes
occurred to the Magna Domus during the sixteenth century and, above all, towards the
end of the eighteenth century, when it was completely restored together with the Palazzo
del Capitano, up to the actual aspect.
In the bedroom there is a rich canopy bed dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth
century that the viceroy Eugène de Beauharnais had transferred from Milan in 1810. The
furnishings are completed by mirrors in neoclassical style, consoles, fireplaces and even
fire-wood boxes. Also the next small room presents neoclassical decorations, while the
third room, looking onto Piazza Sordello, houses a richly decorated mirror from the early
nineteenth century and four eighteenth-century paintings: the Portrait of Maria Theresa
of Austria by Felice Campi (1775) and three other portraits of Austrian dignitaries,
Prince Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz-Rietberg, Prince Joseph von Sperges and Count Karl
von Firmian. The furnishing of these rooms and of the back rooms is the original one
dating back to the end of the eigheenth century. There are tables and consoles in the
Louis XVI style but also in the Empire style, therefore dating back to the turn of the
century. In a room some canvases painted with herbs juices are displayed: curious
imitation tapestries entirely made of vegetal substances. They date back to the eighteenth
century and probably come from the Ducal Palace in Revere.
The next rooms have their original eighteenth and nineteenth century furnishing: divans
and stools, consoles, card-tables with folding legs, mirrors of Murano glass, but also
paintings, including four by Giuseppe Zais, an artist from Agordo, representing
Landscapes; four other Landscapes, tempera on paper, are by the Veronese artist
Giuseppe Canella. Some marble tabletops were made around 1773 by cutting marble
slabs kept in the palace’s storehouses. A similar work was done for the fireplaces: the
sixteenth century ones were sometimes reworked and a more sober appearance was
given to them, in line with the taste of the time .A large room houses a collection of
paintings from the “Carlo Poma” Hospital in Mantua, including works of value: a Virgin
Mary and Child with the Infant Saint John by Daniel van den Dyck, a Christ crowned
with thorns by Lucrina Fetti (1629) and some paintings by Pietro Fabbri from Vicenza.
Finally in the bathroom there is a marble tub probably transferred from Sabbioneta.
Some precious marbles, moved from there, were used in various parts of the palace, in
the small chamber next to the Sala di Amore e Psiche (Psyche’s Room), in the
Kaffeehaus and probably in the Appartamento delle Imperatrici.
Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici di
Trad. A. Corbellani, A. Mossini

The Castello di San Giorgio (Castle of Saint George), military