The Camera degli Sposi (“bridal chamber”), sometimes known as the Camera picta (“painted chamber”), is a room frescoed with illusionistic paintings by Andrea Mantegna in the Ducal Palace, Mantua, Italy. During the 15th century when the Camera degli Sposi was painted, Mantua was ruled by the Gonzaga, who maintained Mantua’s political autonomy from its much stronger neighbors Milan and Venice by bidding their support out as a mercenary state. Ludovico III Gonzaga, the commissioner of the Camera degli Sposi and the ruler of Mantua at the time, himself trained as a professional soldier, was looking to give the Gonzaga rule more cultural credibility with his commissioning of Andrea Mantegna (who was already established as a famous painter) in a humanist Renaissance political landscape in which other courts such as the Ferrara were commissioning their own “painted chambers”.
The room chosen to be painted is on the first floor of a northeast tower in the private section of the Ducal Palace, with windows on the north and east walls overlooking Lago di Mezzo. This room would have been used for several different private and semi-private functions such as a bed chamber for Ludovico, a gathering area for family and close courtiers, and a reception room for particularly important guests. The semi-private functions of the room helped to create an air of exclusiveness to the Camera degli Sposi meant to impress viewer with the wealth and cultural prestige of the Gonzaga without an overt or gaudy display. The room itself was renovated before Mantegna began painting to be as close to a square as possible with the dimensions of roughly eight by eight meters wide and seven meters tall. Original architectural features of the room include the triple vaults on each wall, a fireplace on the north wall, doorways on the west and south walls, and windows on the north and east wall. Painted between 1465 and 1474, the Camera degli Sposi became well known shortly after its completion as a masterpiece in the use of both trompe l’oeil and di sotto in sù.
The effect of Mantegna’s illusionistic painting that is suggestive of a classical pavilion is complete with subtle shifts in vantage point that makes each fictive element of the illusion seem real to the viewer. On the north and west walls, framed by fictive marble title on the bottom and a painted curtain rod that runs the full length of each of the walls at the top, are meeting scenes of the Gonzaga and their court in front of sweeping idealized landscapes that appear to be revealed to the viewer by curtains that are drawn or loose in the breeze. The south and east walls appear to be veiled by golden brocaded curtains that mimic the ones that would have been used for the canopy of Ludovico’s beds, the hooks for which are still in the ceiling above the south east corner of the room. Above these scenes fictive ribbing divides the ceiling onto sections containing faux stucco mandolins of the first eight Caesars of Rome carried by winged putti, and in the center, an oculus that opens on to blue sky with putti that appear as if they are far above the viewer, playing on the balustrade.
The decoration of the room was commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga to Mantegna, court painter from 1460. The room originally had a dual function: that of the audience hall (where the Marquis dealt with public affairs) and that of the representative bedroom, where Ludovico met with his family.
The occasion of the commission is far from clarified by scholars, recording various discrepancies. The traditional interpretation links the frescoes to the election to the cardinal throne of the son of the marquis Ludovico, Francesco Gonzaga, which took place on 1 January 1462: the scene of the Court would then represent the Marquis who receives the news and that of the Meeting would show father and son who are in the happy event. The mature and burly figure of Francesco, however, is not consistent with his age in 1461, of about 17 years, evidenced instead by his alleged portrait preserved today in Naples. It was therefore thought that the frescoes celebrate the arrival of His Eminence in Mantua in August 1472, when he was preparing to receive the title of commendatory abbot of Sant’Andrea.
The chronological sequence of the paintings has been clarified by the restoration of 1984 – 1987: the painter started from the vault with limited dry backgrounds, which mainly concern parts of the “oculus” and the garland that surrounds it; it then passed to the wall of the Court, where a mysterious greasy tempera was used, laid dry by proceeding by “pontate”; followed the east and south walls, covered by painted curtains, where the traditional fresco technique was used; finally the west wall of the Meeting was painted, also treated as a fresco and led to very small “days”, which testify to a slowness that would confirm the almost ten-year duration of the company, regardless of other tasks that the master had to perform.
After Ludovico’s death, the room and its cycle suffered a series of troubles, which often degraded, in addition to physical preservation, also the role in the history of art. A few years after the death of the marquis, the room was used as a deposit for precious objects: perhaps for this reason Vasari was not allowed to visit it, excluding it from le Vite’s account. During the imperial occupation of 1630 it suffered numerous damages, to then be practically abandoned to the bad weather until around 1875. The room began to be called “Camera degli Sposi” in 1648 by Carlo Ridolfi. In any case, the reference was due to the predominant presence of Ludovico depicted next to his wife, not so much because it was a bridal chamber. In fact, Gonzaga used the room to draw up and keep his commercial documents and to receive, almost a representative study. There is actually a wardrobe to keep the documents but also the hook that determined the position of the bed.
The technique used, which included in some episodes dry parts more or less broad, did not facilitate the conservation and we have vague news of restoration before the nineteenth century. Those following, up to that of 1941, were numerous and inadequate. Finally in 1987 a widespread restoration was carried out with modern techniques, which recovered all that survived, returning the work to studies and public enjoyment.
The Emilia earthquake of 2012 reopened an old micro-spinning that runs vertically and then oblique in the Court scene and has detached a portion of painted plaster. Technical interventions are underway (2014) to make the Picta Chamber safe from earthquakes. After almost a year of work on 2 April 2015, Camera Picta reopened its treasures to tourists, with the inauguration by the Minister of Cultural Heritage, counting, already the following day, an influx of 1400 tourists.
Giulio Carlo Argan highlights how mantegnesca painting here, as in other works, is characterized by its evocation of images of classical antiquity. Mantegna is the first great “classicist” of painting: his art can be called an “archaeological classicism”.
In the almost cubic room (about 8.05 m on each side, with two windows, two doors and a fireplace), Mantegna studied a decoration that affected all the walls and vaults of the ceiling, adapting to the architectural limits of the environment, but at the time himself by smashing the walls with painting, as if he were in the center of a loggia or pavilion open to the outside.
The reason for the connection between the scenes on the walls is the fake marble plinth that runs all around in the lower band, on which rest the pillars that divide the scenes into three openings. The vault is frescoed suggesting a spherical shape and centrally presents an oculus, from which characters and animals stand out against the blue sky. Around the oculus some painted ribs divide the space into lozenges and plumes. The ribs go to fake capitals, which in turn rest on the real corbels of the vaults, the only elements in relief of the whole decoration, together with the door frames and the fireplace. Each corbel (except for those in the corner) rests on one of the painted pillars.
The upper register of the walls is occupied by twelve lunettes, decorated with festoons and deeds of the Gonzagas. At the base of the lunettes, between peduccio and peduccio, figuratively run the rods that act as a cursor to the curtains, which are depicted as offset to allow the vision of the main scenes. These drapes, which actually covered the walls of the rooms of the castle, simulate brocade or leather embossed with gold and lined with blue, and are lowered on the south and east walls, while they are open on the north wall (the Court) and west (the Meeting).
The general theme is the political-dynastic celebration of the entire Gonzaga family, although decades of studies have failed to unequivocally clarify an interpretation accepted by all scholars. Probably the conception of the complex iconographic program required various consultations, including certainly that of the Marquis himself. Very numerous are the portraits, extremely cured in physiognomy and, sometimes, in psychology. Although a certain identification of each of them is impossible due to the lack of testimony, some are among the most intense works of Mantegna in this genus.
From the fictive columns the separate the different scenes on the walls (capped with real stone corbels) rise illusionistic ribs embossed with scroll work that divides the ceiling into sections. In the corbeled sections between the vaults are illusionistic relief cravings from the lives of Arion, Orpheus, and Hercules set in painted gold mosaic that harken back to antiquity. Above them are the first eight Roman emperors in medallions held aloft by putti, all depicted in grisaille on gold lite from below in order to achieve the effect of real stucco reliefs. The implied connection between the glory of Italy’s Roman past and the Gonzaga’s Mantua through the classical references of the ceiling ennobles the Gonzaga as both a military and learned might that is comparable to the Roman Empire.
Mantegna’s playful ceiling presents an oculus that fictively opens into a blue sky, with foreshortened putti playfully frolicking around a balustrade painted in di sotto in sù to seem as if they occupy real space on the roof above. Breaking with the figures from the scenes below, the courtiers who look down from over the balustrade seem directly aware of the viewer’s presence. The precarious position of the planter above as it rests uneasily on a stray beam suggests that looking up at the figures could leave the viewer humiliated at the expense of the courtiers’ enjoyment. Mantegna’s exploration of how paintings or decorations could respond to the presence of the viewer was a new idea in Renaissance Italy that would be explored by other artists. The Camera degli Sposi’s illusionistic ceiling also set a new standard for di sotto in sù ceiling paintings that would go on to inspire the ceiling paintings of Correggio and other Baroque painters.
The vault is composed of a lowered ceiling, which is illusionistically divided into painted sails and plumes. Some fake ribs divide the space into regular figures, with a golden background and monochrome paintings that simulate stucco sculptures and clipei. The skillful articulation of the painted architectural elements simulate a deep, almost spherical vault, which in reality is a slight curve of ” clawed ” type.
At the center is the famous oculus, the most astonishing piece of the entire cycle, where the illusionistic experiments of the Ovetary Chapel of Padua are carried to its extreme consequences. It is an illusionistically open round to the sky, which was to recall the famous oculus of the Pantheon, the ancient monument par excellence celebrated by the humanists. In the oculus, foreshortened according to the perspective from “underneath”, we see a balustrade from which a court lady protrudes, accompanied by a black maid, a group of servants, a dozen putti, a peacock(reference to the exotic animals present at the court, rather than a Christological symbol) and a vase, against the background of a blue sky. To reinforce the impression of the open oculus, Mantegna painted some dangerously poised hangings clinging to the inner side of the frame, with dizzying glimpses of plump bodies. The variety of the poses is extremely rich, marked by a total freedom of movement of the bodies in space: some putti come to stick the head in the rings of the balustrade, or they are visible only by a small hand that appears.
If the possible identification of the maidens with real characters gravitating around the Gonzaga court is not clear (a feminine face is styled like the Marchioness Barbara), they are caught in different attitudes (one even has a comb in her hand) and their playful expressions they seem to suggest the preparation of a joke, an episode taken from everyday life in the wake of Donatello’s lesson. The heavy citrus vase is in fact leaning against a stick and the girls around, with smiling and complicit faces, seem about to make it fall into the room.
In the cloud near the vase there is a hidden human profile, probably a self-portrayed by the skilfully masked artist.
The oculus is enclosed by a circular garland, in turn enclosed in a square of fake ribs, which are painted with a woven pattern reminiscent of palmettes of old-fashioned bas-reliefs. At the meeting points between there are golden medallions. Around the square there are eight lozenges with a golden background, each containing a circular garland that contains a portrait of one of the first eight Roman emperors, painted in grisaille, supported by a putto and surrounded by fluttering ribbons. This representation seals the strongly antiquarian conception of the whole environment. The Caesars are portrayed counter-clockwise with the name within the medallion (where preserved) and their poses have changed to avoid schematism.
Around the lozenges, in the outermost register, twelve plumes are placed (clockwise) corresponding to each bezel on the walls. They are decorated with fake bas-reliefs of mythological inspiration, which symbolically celebrate the virtues of the Marquis as a condottiere and statesman, such as the courage (myth of Orpheus), the intelligence (myth of Arione di Metimna), the strength (myth of the twelve labors of Hercules). I’m:
1.Orpheus enchants the forces of nature
2.Orpheus enchants Cerberus and a Fury
3.Death of Orpheus (Orpheus torn by the Bacchantes)
4.Arione that enchants the dolphin
5.Arione rescued by the dolphin
6.Periander who condemns bad sailors
7.Hercules shoots an arrow towards the centaur Nessus
8.Nessus and Deianira
9.Hercules fighting with the Nemean lion
10.Hercules who kills the Hydra
11.Hercules and Antaeus
12.Hercules who kills Cerberus
The ribs end in fake capitals with vegetal decorations, on which the bases of the medallion support putti are set. These capitals rest on the royal corbels.
On the north wall over the fireplace, the “Court Scene” shows a family portrait of the Gonzaga. Ludovico Gonzaga is seated, discussing a document with his secretary Marsilio Andreasi. Surrounding him are members of his family and court, including his wife Barbara of Brandenburg, daughters Barbara and Paola, sons Gianfrancesco, Rodolfo, and Ludovichino, and dog Rubino. The whole scene is illusionisticly painted as if the figures are resting on the mantel of the fireplace, exhibiting Mantegna’s masterful ability to blend fictive and actual elements together in his work. The figures’ placement on top of the fireplace also puts them above eye level, which, along with their implied disinterest in engaging eye contact with the viewer, has the effect of making the Gonzaga court lofty in both position and intellect. Ludovico would often sit in front of his portrait in the “Court Scene” when he had distinguished visitors, reportedly so that they would take the portrait’s non-idealized likeness to Ludovico as a sign that he was trustworthy and that all the other flattering elements of the Camera degli Sposi, such as its aim to connect the glory of ancient Rome with Mantua under the Gonzaga, were true.
The “Court Scene” also plays with the idea of access by framing Ludovico as the distant paternal ruler that viewers of the fresco are lucky to have an audience with. Ludovico appears in the painting as informally dressed compared to his family members in a loose gown that nods towards the semi-private function of the room. From the note in his hand and his consultation of his secretary, it appears to the viewer that they have caught Ludovico in his private routine of governing though there have been arguments made that this is a particular moment in time, either the receipt of a letter from Francesco Sforza delivering word that he is ill or the commissioning document for the Camera degli Sposi. In the right third of the wall courtiers wait on the steps for their turn to get an audience with Ludovico. The fictive curtain suggests the brevity of the viewer’s own audience with Ludovico by “uncovering” the scene as it is blown in the wind.
The court scene has a particularly original layout to adapt to the shape of the room. The presence of the fireplace, which in fact invades the lower part destined for narrative frescoes in half, made it very difficult to set the scene without interruption, but Mantegna solved the problem by using the expedient of placing the scene on a raised platform accessed by some steps down to the right side. From this platform, whose floor coincides with the shelf above the fireplace, hang precious carpets that enrich the sumptuousness of the scene.
The first sector is occupied by a window overlooking the Mincio: here Mantegna limited himself to designing a closed curtain. In the second, the tent is disclosed and shows the court of the Gonzagas gathered, against the background of a high barrier decorated with marble medallions, beyond which a tree breaks through the lunette. The third sector has the curtain closed, but a series of characters passes in front of it, walking also in front of the pillar, according to a device that confuses the border between the real world and the painted world, already used by Donatello.
The central sector shows the Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga seated on a throne to the left in a “de nocte” robe, with particular emphasis thanks to the slightly secluded position. He is portrayed holding a letter and talking to a hooked-nosed servant, probably his secretary Marsilio Andreasi or Raimondo Lupi di Soragna ; or it could be the brother of Marquis Ludovico III, Alessandro. The marquis’s pose is the only one that breaks the static nature of the group, inevitably attracting the attention of the viewer. Beneath the throne is the marquis’s favorite dog, Rubino, a symbol of loyalty. Behind him is the third son Gianfrancesco, who holds his hands on the shoulders of a child, perhaps the protonotary Ludovichino. The man with the black hat is Vittorino da Feltre, preceptor of the Marquis and his sons. In the center sits the Marquis’s wife, Barbara of Brandenburg, in an almost frontal position with an expression of dignified submission, with a child on her knees who seems to hand her an apple in a gesture of childlike naivety, perhaps the last-bornPaola. Behind his mother stands Rodolfo, flanked on the right by a woman, perhaps Barbarina Gonzaga. The other characters are uncertain. The first profile in the background from the left has been interpreted as a possible portrait of Leon Battista Alberti, while the woman behind Barbarina is perhaps a nurse of the Gonzaga family or, as some scholars claim, Paola Malatesta, mother of Louis III, in monastic dress; below is the famous court dwarf Lucia affected by neurofibromatosis, which looks directly at the viewer; standing partially covered by the pillar is a familiar (courtier).
The next sector shows seven courtiers approaching the Marquis family, partly on the platform, partly climbing the stairs through an antechamber. The last “enter” the scene by moving away from the tent, behind which we can see a sunny courtyard with masons at work.
In the window opening there is a fake marble wall, furrowed with veins between which the date 16 June 1465 is hidden, painted as a fake graffiti and usually interpreted as the date of beginning of the works.
The exact episode to which the fresco on this wall refers is unclear. It would have been fundamental to read the writings on the letter held by the Marquis, according to some the same held by the cardinal in the west wall, which the last restoration confirmed as definitively lost. Some have interpreted the letter as the urgent summons of Ludovico as commander of the Milanese troops, by the duchess of Milan Bianca Maria Visconti, due to the aggravation of the conditions of her husband Francesco Sforza: sent from Milan on 30 December 1461 she arrived in Mantua on 1 January 1462, precisely the date intended for the celebrations of the new cardinal. Having left for Milan loyally, renouncing the celebrations, Ludovico would have thus met Bozzolo with his son Francesco, who was walking in the opposite direction (scene of the Encounter), returning from Milan where he had gone to thank Sforza for the role he had played in the negotiations for his appointment as cardinal. The knob of the faldistorio in the throne would cover the address of the letter, a detail that has been interpreted as a sort of damnatio memoriae decreed by the Gonzagas to the Sforza, guilty of having prevented their heir from marrying one first (Susanna) and then the other daughter (Dorotea) of Ludovico’s daughters. But many have raised the doubt that such a hermetic revenge could be represented in a work of such importance and some doubt even if the episode of the marquis’s letter and departure for Milan were so significant as to have to be immortalized.
Recently, a study by Giovanni Pasetti and Gianna Pinotti believed to identify in the figures of courtiers painted on the north wall most of the Sforza family, including a young Ludovico il Moro.
The last person depicted on the right, wearing a blue dress, could be Caterina Gonzaga, the natural daughter of the Marquis Ludovico, blind in one eye, married in 1451 to the condottiere Francesco Secco.
On the west wall is the “Meeting scene”. This fresco shows Ludovico’s meeting with his second son Francesco Gonzaga, who ten days prior had become a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Surrounding them are another one of Ludovico’s sons, Ludovichino (a young boy), two grandsons, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III and Christian I, king of Denmark. While this meeting between the Gonzaga and these noteworthy political leaders never actually took place, Mantegna’s depiction of it does shed light on the political aspirations of the Gonzaga, who wanted to seem at the same time both good feudal servants and equals of the upper tier of the political elite (as evidenced but the emperor’s and king’s lack of visual prominence over the Gonzaga). Notably, this ideal political meeting excludes the primary employer of Mantua’s military forces, Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza, showing again the Gonzaga aspirations for not being beholden to or less than other political leaders. In the landscape that serves as a backdrop to this meeting rises an imaginary Roman city branded with the Gonzaga coat of arms, another allusion to Mantua’s comparable splendor under Gonzaga rule.
The west wall, called “dell’Incontro”, is similarly divided into three sectors. In the right one takes place the real “encounter”, in the central one some putti hold a dedicatory plaque and in the left one it marches the marquis’s court, which continues with two characters also in the central sector: the latter are represented in the narrow space between the pillar and the actual shelf of ‘ lintel of the door, showing the difficult implemented effectively interpenetration between the real world and world painting. In the pillar between the meeting and the putti is hidden among the grisaille a self – portrait of Mantegna as a mask.
Nell ‘ Meeting are represented Marquis Ludovico, this time in official robes, perhaps joined by Ugolotto Gonzaga, son of the late brother Charles. His son Francesco is a cardinal. Below them are the sons of Federico I Gonzaga, Francesco and Sigismondo, while his father Federico is on the far right: the generous folds of his suit are a ploy to hide the kyphosis. Federico is talking to two characters, one in front and the other in the background, indicated by some as Christian I of Denmark(opposite; brother-in-law of Louis II, as husband of Dorothea of Brandenburg, sister of Barbara) and Frederick III of Habsburg, figures that well represent the pride of the family for the royal kinship. Finally, the boy in the center is the last son of the marquis, the protonotary Ludovico, who holds his cardinal brother and nephew, the future cardinal, by the hand, representing the branch of the family destined for the ecclesiastical cursus. The scene has a certain fixity, determined by the static nature of the characters portrayed in profile or three quarters to emphasize the importance of the moment.
In the background an ideal view of Rome is represented, in which we recognize the Colosseum, Castel Sant’Angelo, the pyramid of Cestius, the theater of Marcellus, the Nomentano bridge, the Aurelian walls, etc. Mantegna also invented some well-preserved monuments, such as a colossal statue of Hercules, in an architectural whimwhich has nothing philological, probably derived from a fantastic elaboration based on printed models. The choice of the eternal city was symbolic: it underlined the strong bond between the dynasty and Rome, corroborated by the cardinal’s appointment, and could also be a well-deserving citation for the cardinal as a possible future pope. On the right there is also a cave where some miners are at work sculpting blocks and columns.
The central part
The central part is occupied by putti holding the dedicatory plaque. It reads: ” ILL. LODOVICO II MM / PRINCIPLES OPTIMO AC / FIDE INVICTISSIMO / ET ILL. BARBARAE EJUS / CONJUGI MVLIERVM GLOR. / INCOMPARABLE / SVVS ANDREAS MANTINIA / PATAVVS OPVS HOC TENVE / AD EORV DECVS ABSOLVIT / YEAR MCCCCLXXIIII “. In addition to the “public” signature of the artist, who declares himself “Paduan”, we read the date 1474, generally referred to as the end of the work, and words of adulation towards Ludovico Gonzaga (“very famous… excellent prince and of unparalleled faith “) and his wife Barbara (” the incomparable glory of women “).
In the last restoration, a caravan of the Magi was rediscovered in the left compartment, lying dry and already covered with filth, perhaps added to indicate the winter season of the Encounter, despite the luxuriant vegetation, which however also includes some orange trees, which bloom in end of the year. In the left compartment there is no long side band, which had been covered by an eighteenth-century repainting: the restorations confirmed the complete loss of the paintings, where a figure was hidden which is still seen today as a hand.
The south and east walls are covered by curtains, beyond which the lunettes appear. In the south one opens a door and a built-in wardrobe. Above the lintel of the door is a large gonzaga coat of arms, rather battered, and the lunettes are almost illegible. The east one is better preserved and presents three beautiful lunettes with festoons and heraldic enterprises.
Reopening of the Wedding Chamber
Closed due to the earthquake of May 2012, after the consolidation of the Castello di San Giorgio, the Camera degli Sposi was reopened to visits starting from 3 April 2015 simultaneously with the exhibition of the collection by Romano Freddi, an industrial from Mantua, sold in free loan comprising a hundred works from the Gonzaga period, including a panel by Giulio Romano and pupils and the fragment of the altarpiece of La Trinità adored by the Gonzaga family of Rubens portraying Francesco IV.
On account of its size, with more than 900 rooms in total, and for its masterpieces, the Ducal Palace of Mantua is a building like no other in Europe. It boasts untold artistic riches: the Camera degli sposi, featuring fresco paintings by Andrea Mantegna, Pisanello’s frescoes of courtly life, Flemish tapestries from cartoons by Raphael, an altarpiece by Rubens, paintings by Domenico Fetti, a collection of 14th century artworks, as well as the beautiful wooden inlays and frescoes – ranging from the age of the Renaissance to the 18th century – that adorn the studiolo of Isabelle d’Este. Gardens, internal courtyards, decorative elements, the Temple of Santa Barbara, the view of the lakes. A complex that burst to fruition as soon as the Gonzaga family seized power and that was constantly developed, with renovations of the oldest buildings, until the age of the Empress Maria Theresa.
Mantova Urban Museum
A city raised on the shores of beautiful lakes which in the past encircled and decorated it. A city celebrated by Virgil who was born in Andes: “I will raise a marble temple in the green countryside”. A city which hosts the most ancient christian relic, Jesus’ Blood that drained on Longino’s lance. A free city, raised in spite of matildic domination. A miracle of the Reinassance which has its center in the Ducale Palace and in the “Camera Picta” by Andrea Mantegna. A sixteenth century court which has collected infinite masterpieces, while the music and the theatre created unique moments.
Finally, a city which hosted treasures, part of many ages and cultures, in the Teresiana Library, in the National Archive, in the museums. All these elements explain, together with Festilavletteratura, the title of Italian Capital of Culture 2016.