Prominent houses and palaces of the nobility 

Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

The urban landscape of Mantua is dotted with numerous buildings, some of which quite substantial in size, that once belonged to the nobility and whose variety of styles from different eras light up the city's streets. 

Mechant's House
This magnificent house, situated on the corner between Piazza Mantegna and Piazza Erbe, onto which it faces out, was built in 1455 at the behest of Concorezzo family from Brianza, the most prominent figures of which were the father Bertone and his son Giovanni Boniforte. After they moved to the city, these wool merchants became considerably wealthy. Their good relations with the Court of the Gonzaga and the Marquis Ludovico in particular inspired them to construct this residence, which is still a prominent landmark of the historic centre, at that time the subject of substantial urban redevelopment. The new buildings stood alongside more simple houses, which were often owned my merchant families and display clear traces of decorative elements inspired by the architectural style of Fancelli. So in addition to the magnificence of the Court and the numerous religious buildings, there are also accounts of the private splendour of old family dynasties.

Inscriptions that show the date of construction and the name of the owner can be found on the architraves of the portico with four columns, topped by beautiful floral capitals. Those capitals also display the family coats of arms, with the Z and the B of Zoan Boniforte quite apparent. But the beauty of this house is surely the curious harmony between a façade decorated with soft terracotta that combines Venetian and Tuscan motifs, and the sturdy portico - a symbol of the triumph of the Renaissance. The two rows with three windows on each that open out onto two Gothic arches clearly represent a unique feature of the city's artistic landscape for an almost oriental ethos.

The carved marble strip on the architrave, featuring an elegant floral decorative element alternated with other minuscule images, is particularly noteworthy.

House of the Blessed Andreasi
The House of the Blessed Andreasi stands at number 9 on Via Frattini alongside Palazzo Valenti Gonzaga in the old Cervo district. A 15th century building, it became the home of the prestigious Andreasi family around 1470. In 1780 ownership passed by inheritance to the Counts of Magnaguti. When Alessandro Magnaguti died, the house was bequeathed to the Dominican Province of Bologna. It has since become a museum and is now run with great care by the Association for Dominican Monuments of Mantua. Born in Carbornarola, Osanna Andreasi (1449-1505) was a Dominican tertiary who was beatified in 1694, after the cult had been granted in 1515. She was an important figure for two reasons. Firstly: her faith, good deeds and the stigmata that she received are testament to her earthly and spiritual progress. Secondly, her affinity with the house of Gonzaga, of which she was in fact a distant relative, and with the Marquis Francesco and his wife Isabelle d'Este in particular, made her a prominent religious figure for the dynasty.

The influence of the Fancelli architectural style can be clearly seen in the house's façade, which is marked by distinctive rectangular windows that open out from the pink surface. The interior features rooms on a number of floors that are adorned in part by decorations, rich in earthly details of the life of the Blessed, drawing on the influence of Mantegna or the later grotesque. Boasting a large, standout portico, the courtyard can be traced to the work of the attentive hands of Renaissance gardeners, who selected the right plants. This complex, then, is an authentic and complete Renaissance residence, with priceless charm and tranquillity - a place for diverse and regular cultural events. It was here that a few scenes from Ermanno Olmi's 2001 film "The Profession of Arms", which narrates the life of Lodovico de Medici, were filmed.

House at Via Franchetti 13
Located in one of the city's smaller streets, once known as the Croce Bianca (White Cross), this house illustrates how widespread the influence of Fancelli architecture was, given the use of brick to construct façade elements. While the work may be coarser than other residences of the nobility, the top floor of the block displays a row of fluted columns bearing faux capitals and a floral design, thereby softening the overall appearance. It is also worth mentioning that between the 15th and 16th centuries, this building served as a local government office, which also housed the city's prisons. It would appear that it was here that Mario Equicola (1470-1525), the humanist, writer and secretary to Isabella d'Este, performed his duties.

The interior of the residence boasts the same decorative style, which was once the main element of an outward-facing façade. Of particular interest is the large, Fancelli window, which now serves as a door.

Palazzo Arrivabene
One of the most majestic palaces in the city, this residence was home to the Counts of Arrivabene, among the most illustrious and longstanding families of Mantua, whose lineage stretches as far back as the brothers Giovanni and Giovan Pietro in the 15th century and as recently as Giovanni the patriot in the 19th century. It is located between the two perpendicular streets at 14 via Arrivabene and 18 via Fratelli Bandiera. When it was at its largest, however, it incorporated many other buildings on both roads, which now feature different architectural styles and have a different purpose. Restored in the first decade of this century, it is fundamentally Tuscan in its appearance, with the influence of Fancelli quite evident. Its most characteristic feature is the angular tower, with splendid windows that, together with the string-courses and the balcony, punctuate the vast reddish surface.

Various architectural additions were made to the building over time, lending it a diverse architectural feel. The halls of the palace are decorated with frescoes from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The next residence along on via Fratelli Bandiera, once a property of the Arrivabenes, boasts a vault of frescoes by Giuseppe Bazzani. The square courtyard, which can be reached by passing through an 18th century doorway, is Fancellian in its design, with 15th century capitals in the loggia, while the remaining decorative elements in the courtyard can be attributed to Geffels. At the corner between the two streets, a marble pillar bears the symbol of a serpent wrapped around a spear, while an epigraph testifies to when the place was founded: "concertedly, the brothers Giovanni and Giovan Pietro Arrivabene, on their own behalf and on the behalf of their dear son Alessandro and their grandchildren, residing at this house laid its foundation in the year 1481 A.D..."

The large balcony, which can undoubtedly be traced back to the Renaissance, is adorned with a splendid 18th-century iron balustrade. It is supported by five consoles, finely carved with plant motifs.

House at Via Frattini 5
This beautiful Fancellian house, belonging to the Valenti Gonzaga family from 1690 onwards, displays the Renaissance decorative elements that are so typical of the Tuscan master. Uniquely for Mantua, however, it also boasts five statues of the Virgin, the Annunciation and the three saints in five niches set between faux semi-columns. The superior quality of these columns, the originals for which can be found in the City Museum, prompted Paccagnini to conclude that Andrea Mantegna had partaken in their construction.

The harmonious quality of the façade and its four windows is supplemented by the pediment of the statues, each separated by four rectangular spaces with circular openings.

Palazzo della Dogana 
The history of this impressive façade at number 27 on Via Pomponazzo is a particularly intriguing one. It can be traced back to the time when the Customs House and other public buildings were transferred to the former Carmelite Monastery, built in the 15th century. This transformation was completed thanks to the Veronese architect Paolo Pozzo (1741-1803), who took up residence in Mantua in 1771 and worked on numerous renovations to the city's architectural heritage. But he wanted to embellish his work further, bringing the old marble doorway from the old site in Piazza Broletto (most probably a 1538 work by Giulio Romano), to the new Customs House as a decorative element. The portal is Ionic, with Corinthian bases on the half-columns and images of porters carved into the pendentives of the arch. What is striking, however, in the whole façade, is the neo-classical take on the grandeur of Giulio Romano, made motionless by a scenic desire that no longer corresponded to the constant quest for motion.
Casa del Bertani
The residence of Giovanni Battista Bertani, a pupil of Giulio Romano and Prefect of the Works after the latter's death, shows his own distinctive hand in the façade of via Trieste 8. Bertani chose this as his residence, reconstructing an existing building and making sure that all locals could understand the basis for his work. He set down two Ionic half columns at the sides of the entrance purely for decorative and illustrative purposes. While the column on the left is positioned in the classical fashion, the interior of the other column is on full view. This feature aroused a certain apprehension in the locals, who regarded this oddity as harbouring malicious intent, so much so that Bertani was tried by the Inquisition in 1567 on the charge of Protestantism and was forced to publicly recant.

Much like an instruction manual laid bare to the public, Bertani wanted his own architectural specifications to be imprinted on the base of the inverted semi-column. Next to the windows on the ground floor, there are two epigraphs with quotations from Vitruvius's De Architectura, which Bertani himself referred to in his book Degli oscuri e difficili passi dell'opera di Vitruvio ("On the obscure and difficult stages in Vitruvius's Ionic works").

Casa di Giulio Romano
The house that Giulio Romano chose as his residence is located at 18, via Carlo Poma. He reconstructed it from existing buildings, creating a façade which, although reshaped in the 19th century, stands as the ultimate legacy of his genius. The complexity of the design can be seen even in the apparent rigour of the architect's imagination. A cornerstone of the house is the ashlar-work, which covers the entire surface and which, on the first floor, is punctuated by niche windows separated by arches. Of particular interest is the tympanum on the entrance door, which is created from the interrupted cornice.

Above the entrance door is a niche, which houses a statue of the god Mercury carved from original classic marble and probably restored by Primaticcio (1504-1570), one of Romano's pupils. Scornful, grotesque masks stand out from inside the arches at the top of the window tympanums. Although the exact number of original doors and windows still remains a mystery, there is no doubt that the house was lit up by colours, so much so that Vasari described is as having a "fantastic façade, crafted with colourful stucco". Today the house is in private ownership. The interior is also remarkable, not least the central hall and 16th century fireplace, which is embellished with frescoes by pupils of Giulio Romano.

Palace of Justice, formerly Palazzo Guerrieri
Now home to the Court of Mantua, this grand building on Via Poma was built by Giovanni Battista Guerrieri between 1599 and 1603. It was then sold to a branch of the Gonzaga dynasty, changed hands once more and eventually came to be the property of the City of Mantua in the 19th century. The architect would seem to be Antonio Maria Viani, who at that time was the Prefect of Works for the Gonzagas. The large external façade features giant, grotesque figures. Incorporated into false pillars, they are men and women who appear to be supporting the uppermost part of the building with their shoulders.

Antonio Maria Viani's tastes would appear to attenuate even the most complex of architectural displays. At Palazzo Guerrieri, this effect is obtained by combining the geometrical elements of the windows and other decorative elements, shaped by the motionless, expressive qualities of the fictional, almost demonic figures.

House of the Rabbi
Located at number 54 of the present-day Via Bertani, this building was an integral part of the Ghetto of Mantua, which was home to the city's flourishing Jewish community. The residence is undeniably very old, having been built for the first time in the 15th century and having taken on its current appearance in the second half of the 17th century. Featuring a number of different elements, the façade has been attributed to the Antwerp-born Flemish architect Frans Geffels (1625-1694). From 1663 onwards Geffels was the Prefect of the Works for the Gonzagas. He designed a number of buildings in the city, of which this house, which was most probably completed around 1680, may have been one. It is believed that the 17th-century restoration was commissioned by some wealthy Jewish families. The variety of alternating architectural elements make this façade particularly striking. For instance, atop the marble doorway is a fine boat, with a distinctive iron railing.

The windows are almost Spanish in their design, illustrating how the development of the Baroque style increasingly moved towards the formal refinement of details.
But the architect's imagination is most evident in the stucco panels, which depict stylised landscapes of real or possibly fictional cities.

Here is one of the panels that shows the view of a city vaguely similar to Mantua. Some scholars have suggested that the places shown on the panel largely correspond to cities that are referred to in various ways in the Bible.

Palazzo Sordi
With its majestic façade, Palazzo Sordi stands at 23 Via Pomponazzo. The bright colours, illuminated by an excellent restoration, bring out the size of the building - the product of the genius of the Flemish architect Frans Geffels (1625-1694). The façade is dominated by an additional, central floor, which corresponds to the reception room. The ashlar-work is alternated with smooth surfaces, while the doorway is adjoined to a marble balcony. Above this balcony, on the inside of a tympanum enriched by refined faux capitals, there is a tondo displaying a beautiful Madonna and Child, the hand of the stucco worker of the Val d'Intelvi, Gian Battista Barberini.

Here is a closer view of the sumptuous Madonna and Child that lights up the space above the marble balcony. The Madonna's gesture of pathos is particularly striking.

In the niche on the right-hand corner of the building there stands the bust of the patron Benedetto Sordi, a prominent dignitary of the Court of the Gonzagas.

Palazzo Valenti Gonzaga
Palazzo Valenti and its majestic façade stands at number 7 on Via Frattini. The commissioning family were the Valenti Gonzagas, who lived here from the 16th century. It was Odoardo who entrusted the baroque renovation to the architect Frans Geffels. The 16th century, diamond-tipped marble plinth was retained on the façade, but new and large baroque windows - both square and rectangular - were added, giving this noble residence its distinctive appearance and contrasting with the colour of the brick through the whiteness of the marble.

The large inner courtyard is undoubtedly the work of Geffels. The purpose of the decorative nature of the design is simply to render the surfaces more spectacular, displaying elements that have no structural function but contribute to an interplay of forms.

Palazzo Canossa
This monumental building, which makes up all of one side of the piazza of the same name, dates back to the restoration of a 16th-century mansion owned by the Alberigi family, which was later purchased by the Canossas in 1659. They were a family of Veronese descent and very obliquely related to the famous medieval dynasty that ruled Mantua. In the 17th century, they obtained the domain of Calliano nel Monferrato and the title of Marquis from the Gonzagas. The new appearance of the building, which remains the same today, can be dated back to 1675, although the entrance door, featuring dogs - the emblem of the family - carved in marble, is from the 18th century. But the 16th century origins of the building are supported by the fact that the current ashlar-work, which characterises the two large façades, drew on inspiration from the underlying ashlar of Romano influence. The design of the windows can also be attributed to the age of architectural mannierism. The building as a whole therefore takes on the appearance of a singular union of Mannerist styles that developed during the Baroque period.

Now private property having once belonged to the City of Mantua, the interior is spectacular. The staircase above the front door is considered one of the most magnificent in Italy. Now almost completely lost, the frescoes that once adorned the halls were the work of the Bolognese painter Giovanni Battista Caccioli. Returning to the piazza, it is striking that the façades are lit up by inserts showing figures, landscapes and curious geometric patterns. In the 18th century, a house and portico was built at the behest of the Canossas at the bottom of the square. It incorporates the themes of the palace, but lightens them a touch.

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

Un ringraziamento speciale a / A special thanks to:
Paola Somenzi

Credits: All media
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