Strong urban presences

Palazzo del podestà

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. 

Piazza Erbe
The complex of buildings in Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza Broletto were erected in the period of the Medieval communes. We don't know whether, next to the Rotonda di San Lorenzo, built in the second part of the eleventh century, perhaps at the time of Beatrice di Canossa Lorrena, there were other building dating to the period of Matilde di Canossa; we are not even certain of what function they may have had. It is however certain that in the early thirteenth century the so-called Old Palace, "Palatium Vetus", stood where the Palazzo del Podestà now is. It was one of the municipal administration centers of the time. The building is in fact mentioned in a plaque originally placed on Porta Mulina, which bears the date 1190, the same year the bridge was built: “et domus est burgi domus urbis facta per ipsos”. How many public buildings were in this area is something that is still being studied, and the precise location - Piazza delle Erbe or Piazza Broletto - of the building erected in 1190, is not known with certainty.

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 Tower, called “of the Hours” because of the large clock, reference for the city, stands high next to the Palazzo. To the left is a small sixteenth-century building in the style of Giulio Romano.

Il Palazzo della Ragione
Inside the big rectangular hall of the Palace, reopened after careful restoration, the walls are almost all bare and on the ceiling modern beams are visible. The important frescoes that still survive cover, with their several layers, the front wall (south-west wall) and the back wall (north-east wall), the one closest to the complex of the Palazzo del Podestà. On the wall to the left of the entrance, and in the corners of the room, traces of frescoes are still visible. This is an indication of the fact that the whole surface was once painted over. It is possible to say, simplifying, that there are at least five different layers of paint, and that each layer refers to a different iconographic project.
Frescoes at the entrance
In the upper part of the entrance wall that forms a triangle it is possible to identify some big and small boats sailing in a sea scattered with creatures. The big boat on the left has sails with black stripes, and dark-haired sailors or travellers. In recent years the meaning of this representation has been much debated. Some have argued that the ships evoke the times of the Crusades and perhaps represent the pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Others have even spoken of a celebration of the siege of Antioch in 1908, during which the lance of St. Longinus was found, a saint who had died in the city in the first century AD. Arturo Calzona, on the other hand, believes that it is the representation of a river siege, carried out by the people of Mantua to conquer the fortress of Ripalta (Rivalta) on the River Mincio in 1114.

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 bottom frescoes
The painting that has sparked the interest of academics is the large decoration of the gable on the back wall. It clearly shows a group of knights attacking a fortress. A large portion of the fresco is no longer visible, but the traces allow the viewer to reconstruct the scene. The anonymous painter chose to paint the actual bricks of the wall with a reddish colour which transforms them into a besieged castle. The work, which can be seen in relation to the ships on the wall of the entrance because of its style, is made more interesting by the different banners carried by the knights, which indicate the presence of a great many troops commanded by the various noble families of the area. One banner in particular stands out, it depicts a white cross on a red background.

Despite the almost childish strokes, this painting is on the whole very powerful; here the armed men, also thanks to the light tones, seem to be coming out of the wall. Each soldier carries a different emblem on his helmet, banner or shield.

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 Last Judgment
The back wall shows, over the squares in fake marble, a fragmentary representation of the Last Judgement. The writing indicating the author is particularly useful: “Grixopulus pictor parmensis depinxi hoc opus”. Although the word “parmensis” is partly erased, the writing clearly refers to a master, perhaps of eastern origins, working in Mantua in the fifties of the thirteenth century. This is confirmed by a document dating to 1252 that links the artist to the bishop Martino, also from Parma. Some experts claim the painter is also the author of the upper frescos of the baptistery of Parma, and of other works in Piedmont and in Savoia. He is the author of the religious frescos in the Palazzo della Ragione, which have many elements in common with the square shaped decoration in the bottom section of the wall.

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 beautiful section of the painting shows Jacob holding on his knees, like Isaiah, the small souls of the righteous that the Last Judgement rewards with sainthood.

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.

This is a close-up view of the same scene, in which the Virgin Mary, Saint John and the Angels circle the Cross, symbol of Universal Salvation. The angel on the right reject the souls condemning them to live in hell, as indicated by the sign “Ite maledicti in ignem aeternum”.

The naked bodies of the resurrected souls are saved and await to be granted eternal beatitude.

Overlays
The central section of the gable on the back wall, where once was the fortress attacked by the knights, is almost completely covered by a fresco by the same Grixopulo, as is indicated by writing on the right: “Grixopulus fecit hoc opus”. There is indeed a second signature of the painter himself on the same wall. This has lead some to suppose that at a certain moment in the history of the building the hall must have been divided horizontally into two separate parts.

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.

A poet magician
On the left side of the Palazzo del Podestà, that gives onto Piazza Broletto, an eadicule in terracotta is visible. Inside Virgil sits holding a small book on the portable desk he keeps on his knees. The great Latin poet (Publio Virgilio Marone, Andes 70 a.C., 19 a.C. Brindisi) was patron of the city in the Middle Ages. He was indeed born in Mantua, and the city is praised in many of his works. In the Middle Ages Virgil was also seen as a great magician, it was in fact believed that he had predicted the advent of Jesus Christ in the famous fourth eclogue.
From Rome to the Middle Age
The inscription "Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere: tenet nunc Parthenope: Cecini pascua rura duces" is visible at the feet of the poet. Under this inscription, an epigraph carved on a slab refers to the construction of the palace by order of the mayor Lodarengo di Martinengo from Brescia, dated 1227. During restoration traces of colour were detected, in particular a purple red over the robe. The terracotta frame can be dated to the beginning of the fifteenth century, as well as the marble columns to the right and left of the high relief. According to some researchers, the work dates to the early decades of the fourteenth century, its arrangement being the result of a more recent decision to place here a statue of the poet initially intended for another place. In any case, the popular devotion to this solemn looking man wearing a doctoral cap is well documented.
Credits: Story

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:
Sebastiano Sali

Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images:
Giovanni Pasetti

Foto di / Photo by:
Gian Maria Pontiroli

Redazione/ Editors:
Erica Beccalossi
Sara Crimella
Carlotta Depalmas
Veronica Zirelli

Un ringraziamento speciale a / A special thanks to:
Emma Catherine Gainsforth
Elisa Gasparini
Paola Menabò
Ciro Molitierno
Paola Somenzi

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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