Here begins an enthralling journey along the facades of the two palaces that will takes us inside, to admire the frescoes that decorate the walls of the main hall of the Palazzo della Ragione. They represent episodes from the life of the city at the time of the Comune: they were painted here so that the people of Mantua could learn about the most important events in the history of their town.
Equally complex is the history of the actual Palazzo della Ragione, that now stands between the Podestà and the Rotonda. It is however absolutely certain that the New Palace was built here in 1250: “Factum fuit palatium novum supra broleto”, enacts the “Breve chronicon mantuanum”. The name of the Palazzo della Ragione is a reference, as in other cities, to the municipal administration of justice. The building underwent several changes in the eighteenth century and, from 1940 onwards, was subjected to a rather invasive restoration by the architect Aldo Andreani (1887 Mantova, Milano 1971).
Palazzo del Podestà underwent many radical changes, in part because of numerous fires. It was built, or perhaps rebuilt, by Podesta Loderengo of Martinengo in 1227, as is written on a plaque on the facade. Already in 1241 it was partially ruined by the first devastating fire. Another one occurred in 1413 and in 1430 it was almost demolished. During the Renaissance it underwent massive restoration by order of Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga. The facades as we see them today, with the so called Arengario, are the result of the interventions by Luca Fancelli (1430 Settignano, 1502 Mantova).
The two boats on the right side of the gable have red striped sails. It look likes the first boat is dragging the second one, much smaller, to the left. The men were painted using the same colour. In general, the three ships on the front wall seem to be sailing towards a port or a fortress. It is important to note that the wall on which the unknown author painted is not on the same level as the wall below, it does not stand out as much. It is hard to date the paintings that cover the gable both on the front and on the back wall, as the subject being represented and the technique do not provide enough information. Hypothesis go from the first decade of the twelfth century to the certain date of the construction of the Palace, 1250: “In tale anno a Mantova fu costruito il palazzo nuovo nel broletto”. Those who believe the frescoes date to an earlier period also believe that the Palazzo was erected on the site of a more ancient building.
This fresco is unique. Here the complexity of the various layers reaches its peak. Fortunately the interpretation of the main scene is made possible by the writing in it. Part of the painting is no longer visible, but the frescoed strip shows a sequence of figures, and the written names of some of them are still visible. Moreover, there is a date, 1251. A much larger vertical sign separates two characters: the one on the right is holding a book. The scene as a whole has been identified as one of the first examples, perhaps the first, of the so-called “defamatory” painting. It is in fact the representation of a shameful event in the history of the community, in which traitors from the city carried out an infamous scheme.
Here the names of some minor lords from Mantua are visible. We can, for instance, read about Aldrigotus Calarosi, about a certain Otholinus and about two characters “de Campedillo”, the current Campitello, that is Ubaldinus and Mocolinus. All of them were involved in the most important wars between the followers of the Emperor and the faction of the Guelfi, supporters of the Pope, in the Po Valley. The city of Mantua supported the Pope, and was for this reason continuously at war. The small town of Marcaria, with its fortress made of soil and wood on the banks of the Oglio River, which can still be seen standing on the road to Cremona, was for a long time bone of contention. The above mentioned characters, carrying bags around their neck containing money, are symbol of betrayal: they gave Marcaria away to the inhabitant of Cremona in 1251. The inhabitant of Mantua did take back the city immediately, and decided, after banishing the wrongdoers, to represent the infamous deed on the walls of the Palace, as an everlasting warning for the community.
This picture on the entrance wall allows to grasp the complexity created by the various layers of paintings: here we see the layer with the square shaped decoration, the layer of the scene of the traitors of Marcaria, the fourteenth century San Giacomo and a later layer, on which celebratory garlands were painted, where a large portal partially cancels the figures in the main scene.
On the wall of the entrance we can see a very beautiful representation of the face of Saint James. It is one of the less ancient frescoes in the hall. It dates to the first decades of the fourteenth century, when the city was divided into districts. The district of Saint James corresponded to the south-west area of Mantua. The Bonacolsi’s Statues of 1313 ordered that the patron Saints of the four parts of the town had to be painted over the thrones of the four justice consuls.
The dating of this small chivalrous pictorial series is very much debated. Some date it to the period of the famous plaque of Ponte dei Mulini, that announces the year 1190. Others claim it dates to a later period, which would however precede the restoration of the Palace in 1250. According to some these pictures also were composed between 1250 and 1260, although it is evident that they were then covered by another pictorial layer by the painter Grixopolo, almost surely active in that decade. Also, it is not clear what relation exists between this series and the “defamatory” painting of Marcaria visible on the opposite wall, which also depicts scenes from the Civil war.
Here the knights (and the infantrymen) march from right to left towards a fortress under siege. Here the banners stand out in an even more evident way. The meaning of the white lily against a red background that appears on the shield (and also on the helmet) of the most fiery knight has been very much debated. Also here in fact many have linked the emblem, very common in France, to the different noble houses that united to take part in the Crusades. Further to the right is a shield with white and black stripes that brings to mind the emblem of the Corradi di Gonzaga, known simply as Gonzaga. It is probably a coincidence, despite the historical evidence that confirms the participation of Gualtiero Gonzaga to a mission to the Holy Land in 1221.
The majestic figures of two Patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, appear on this wall. Around them some small trees and a unusual efflorescence, sometimes identified mistakenly as a comet. Probably on the right there was a representation of Abraham, where today the fresco is no longer visible. Above the two figures it is possible to see the inferior parts of other figures. The keys clearly indicate Saint Peter, who is welcoming Giovanni Bono in paradise, as is written very clearly near him. Giovanni Bono, a street actor, then a hermit and a symbol of Christian virtue, was born in Mantua and died in the same city in 1249. He was canonized, a process that was interrupted in the years this fresco was painted.
This is another scene from the Last Judgement, a theme very much present in the inferior part of the wall. In particular, on the left we can see some saved souls moving towards the Virgin Mary and Saint John, who stand at the bottom of the Cross. There are also, on opposite sides, two angels dressed with a white tunic. The bottom inscription reads: “Venite benedicti in vitam aeternam”. Below this it is possible to make out the frames that decorated the inferior part of the painted surface.
A large Saint Christopher appears on the left, accompanied by two figures, one on each side. The figure on the left is certainly a female figure, perhaps wearing a crown. The Saint is represented with the classical iconography, he is holding baby Jesus in his arms and his feet are in the water. A small whirl, mentioned in some versions of his story, is a reference to the arduous and dangerous crossing of a river.
On the right side of the gable we can see Virgin Mary on the throne holding baby Jesus, seen frontally, in her arms. She is surrounded by two flying angels, by Saint Peter and by other three figures, perhaps one of them is Saint Andrew, and by a hermit monk without the halo, probably Giovanni Bono. There is therefore a second reduplication in the high section compared to the low section: beyond the signature of the author, here we have the representation of the pious man who was an important personality of the city. Under the image of the Virgin Mary on the throne, we can see writing, a prayer for the Virgin Mary. From an iconographic point of view, but also considering the style, the meaning of this fresco is very different from the one of the Last Judgement, although the first one completes the second one.
Ideato e promosso da / Founded and Promoted by:
Mattia Palazzi (Sindaco del Comune di Mantova)
con Lorenza Baroncelli (Assessore alla rigenerazione urbana e del territorio, marketing urbano, progetti e relazioni internazionali del Comune di Mantova)
Coordinamento Scientifico / Scientific Coordinator:
Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images:
Foto di / Photo by:
Gian Maria Pontiroli
Un ringraziamento speciale a / A special thanks to:
Emma Catherine Gainsforth