Is it true that during the Renaissance all houses in Mantua had painted façades? Probably not. But if you walk through some of the most typical streets in Mantua today, you can still see many frescoed exteriors. From the late Gothic era until the 16th century, simple structures show some highly inventive decorative elements, which are partly down to the tastes of the court and partly to the great Gonzaga dynasty. It is highly likely that even the great Andrea Mantegna readied his brushes to depict coloured figures for all to see.

House on Via Massari
The impressive façade of the house at numbers 11 and 13 on Via Massari features some distinctive concealed crenellations painted with courtly frescoes most probably in the second half of the 15th century. The sheer number of the frescoes on display, coupled with their good state of preservation, make this house particularly striking. It is almost as if the men and women depicted in these late Gothic-style paintings are looking out proudly from the balconies and windows just to show off their youthful charm and joie de vivre. 

One particular detail about these frescoes is that the various groups of figures - originally around a dozen - are looking out from balconies adorned with the Mantuan style rings, the very same that can be seen in the Camera degli Sposi at the Ducal Palace. What can be seen here, therefore, is a mixture of styles, or rather the great iconography of the Gonzagas combined with a modern depiction that still indulges in the fashions of the past. Here we see a solitary youth holding a scroll with the obscured writing O PER MIO, which may be a motto that could have been associated with the unknown commissioning family.

The woman looks out from the balcony, resting her left hand on the railing and raising her right hand in the sign of a greeting. Beside her there stands a vase or cup, a symbol of abundance.

Palazzo Boldrini
This palace was built at the behest of the wealthy Boldrini family, originally from Sermide, and later came to belong to the Cantoni family. Located at number 42 on Via Chiassi, it is striking for its size and for the gracefulness of its forms. Its crenellations are concealed and were previously dotted with some prominent frescoes, which now appear only partially on the façade overlooking Via Sacchi. The quality of the frescoes is such that scholars have attributed them to Niccolò da Verona. Born in Verona around 1420, Niccolò Solimani was the uncle of the painter Liberale da Verona. He produced other works in the district of Mantua and worked for the Gonzaga family on a regular basis.

The best-preserved figure has been identified as the prophet Amos, in view of the letters "AMO" that appear on the scroll that he is holding. Elsewhere, other surviving fragments bear the names IACOB and IUDITH. It is therefore reasonable to assume that all the embrasures were adorned with figures from the Old Testament.     The clear outline of the prophet's face, with his blond hair and oriental headdress, is a clear indication of the mastery of an exceptional artist, a man recruited by the Boldrini family to add further prestige to their residence.

House on Via Fratelli Bandiera
Situated at numbers 17 and 23 on Via Fratelli Bandiera, this house is an exceptional example of painted Mantuan façades, given its size and the impact of its colours. Although the exterior of the house features motifs that date back to before the Renaissance, such as the Gothic-outline brick window, at the centre of the decorative elements are multi-coloured interwoven tondos that also appear in Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi and the famous hall at the Castello di San Giorgio. This motif, which can in fact be attributed to Donatello given that it was also used for the Altar of Sant'Antonio in Padua, was extremely common throughout the city. In this case, it is depicted with a particular intensity and grace, in closer proximity to the sublime source from which it is taken.

Other notable decorative elements of the house are the fine stone portal, carved with Renaissance motifs and, just below the roof, a long frieze depicting angels that are holding up wreaths which are adorning circular windows. They once stood on a reddish background, which drew inspiration from the two fundamental colours of the interlinked rings: red and green, the symbolic colours of the Gonzaga family.

Casa Talarico
Among the many painted façades in Mantua, the most important from an artistic and historical perspective is undoubtedly the one at Piazza Marconi 13, a building which is now the surviving half of an original Renaissance house. Scholars have long debated the possibility that the fine hand on display here is that of Andrea Mantegna. There is no doubt that the overall inspiration and the specific details bear the hallmarks of Mantegna. What gives him away is the constant references to antiquity, the decisive and coarse brush strokes for the faces and figures, the supreme quality of the colours, the highly refined use of the playful angels, and the use of Tritons and Nereids that can be traced back to the original prints of the Paduan master. Moreover, many have wished to believe that Mantegna, who we know lived in the area just before the district, resided under this very roof. What we now know for certain is that in the late 15th century the building belonged to the Viani family. In fact, Mantegna's daughter, Taddea, was married to Antonio Viani.

The fine capital, engraved with what may be the owner's initials, gives way to two arches, surmounted by a decorative element dominated by a splendid blue colour.

Between the two beautiful Fancelli windows on the first floor is the best preserved part of the two large fresco episodes. These depict the "Clemency of Alexander", an anecdote taken from the text by Curzio Rufo. The Latin inscription declaims that nothing is more commendable or worthy for a great man than leniency and clemency. After the battle of Issus, Alexander shows himself to be merciful towards the defeated Persians. It is worth noting that this theme, while alluding to Alexander's magnanimity, is clearly directed at the upper echelons of government and not at everyday folk in the city.

The house's crowning achievement is a frieze of bright cherubs on a dark background around two circular openings. On the second floor below there is a second painting, most probably depicting Rome, that has unfortunately been almost totally wiped out. It is accompanied by a Latin inscription that underscores the importance of forgiveness towards those who have insulted you.

Rearing horses on a red background, buildings showcasing the glory of Rome scattered on the horizon and frolicking cherubs that add a touch of the light-hearted to a noble and intense story. Although the work of Andrea Mantegna himself is not on show here, there is no doubt that we at least find ourselves in the presence of the pictorial fruit of some of his best pupils, who were in all probability working under his tutelage. Nevertheless, the direct influence Mantegna should not be ruled out altogether.

House at Via Broletto 10
Only a few fresco fragments have survived from what is believed to have once been one of the most striking façades in Mantua. The vivid colours and elegant brush strokes - bearing all the hallmarks of Mantegna's style - can still be admired today. The second floor displays the customary chain pattern of rings. In this instance they are not in the traditional red and green, but in faux bas-reliefs with the outlines of some mythical sea creatures. Running alongside the cornice above is a cupped frieze with plant motifs surrounding the circular openings of the highest windows.
Palazzo de Grado
The splendid Renaissance palace that stands at the corner of No. 3, Piazza San Giovanni and Via Finzi was once completely adorned with frescoes, starting from the top of the arch at the entrance, featuring a golden-yellow band with clear plant motifs. Those frescoes covered the whole area and spanned as far as the cornice, with a grid of vertical and horizontal stripes on a light blue background adorned with plant elements, forming white rectangles inside. All of this was bordered at the top and bottom by two strips that were similar to the yellow band, but in this case light blue in colour. The cornice featured a pattern of golden eggs, painted on a light grey background. Just below, there was another blue and white frieze with alternating baskets of fruit and spirals of leaves.
House at Via Governolo 7
The façade of this house is illustrative of how extensive fresco decoration was, even in the more minor streets of Mantua. The frieze at the top depicts soldiers, possibly fictional ones, on a dark background, punctuated by a female winged creature, probably a chimera or a sphinx. The most substantial part of the fresco features large, dark red leaf lobes on a light background, supplemented by neatly arranged circular adornments reminiscent of stylised yellow flowers. Other patterns adorn the façade at the level of the current entrance doors, reprising elements that are more usually carved onto 15th and 16th century doorways.

A detail of the decorative elements in the middle.

The frieze beside the cornice, showing fictional beings in brighter colours.

House at Via Broletto 54
A group of houses at numbers 50 and 54 of the present-day Via Broletto, which were once part of the same building: the Merchants Guild and the Ufficio della Stadera, Stadera is the Italian for "lever scales", where one plate was balanced against a weight. This was therefore the Weigh House. These houses line the entrance to Via Leon d'Oro (number 52) and are illustrated by some interesting capitals.                       Following restorations, a 16th century frieze - displaying putti and a figure which has unfortunately now almost perished completely, supposedly Federico Gonzaga on horseback - can now be admired and deciphered on the façade of the house on the right, number 54. The fact that the frescoes were taken down quite recently and then restored, probably incorrectly, makes understanding them even more difficult. A few scholars attribute the paintings to Pordenone (Giovanni Antonio De Sacchis, known as Pordenone, 1484-1539), a leading mannerist master.
House at Via Govi 10
This elegant painted façade, with a few remaining fresco fragments, is found on the same road where the Synagogue stands today. The paintings can be traced with some certainty to the 16th century, and are an example of the decorative style that featured putti and plant wreathes that emerged from the Court of the Gonzaga to adorn some of the most affluent houses in Mantua. While the upper frieze displays elements that were referred to previously, it is interesting to note the decoration that was supposed to cover the rest of the façade. Coloured and patterned bricks that depicted the brick wall on the plaster surface, with the wall hidden by the same plaster.
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:
Sara Crimella
Gian Maria Pontiroli
Alessia Lodi Rizzini

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

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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