A new way of looking at things
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Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Andrea Mantegna Part 3

15 March 2013

Art, Literature, and Music at the Palazzo Ducale


The Galleria dei Mesi (Gallery of the Months) at the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Andrea Mantegna had finished painting the extraordinary frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in 1474 and only a few years later — in 1478 — the subject of these paintings, Ludovico II Gonzaga, died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Federico I Gonzaga (1441-1484).  Federico, who was a good friend of Mantegna, had received his education from Mantegna's mother as well as from Vittorino da Feltre (1378–1446), whose instruction in Greek, Latin, philosophy, mathematics, music, poetry, art, religion, and history was so delightful that his school was known as Casa Giocosa (Happy House).

Anonymous: Portrait of Federico I Gonzaga; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

But Federico died suddenly from a fever at the age of 43 in 1484.  With his death, as well as the deaths of Mantegna’s former patron Ludovico, Ludovico’s wife Barbara of Brandenburg, and Mantegna’s own son Bernardino all in such a brief span, these years were difficult for the artist.

Federico’s son Francesco II (1466–1519) was only 17 when he took power.  He was described as “short, pop-eyed, and snub-nosed;” however, he was also considered “exceptionally brave, and . . . the finest knight in Italy."

A simplified sketch of seven generations of the House of Gonzaga:
Ludovico II Gonzaga (1412–1478)
Barbara of Brandenburg (1423–1481)
Federico I Gonzaga (1441–1484)
Margaret of Bavaria (1442–1479)
Francesco II Gonzaga (1466–1519)
Isabella d'Este (1474–1539)
Federico II Gonzaga (1500–1540)
Margaret Palaeologina (1510–1566)
Francesco III Gonzaga (1533–1550)
Catherine of Austria (1533–1572)
Guglielmo I Gonzaga (1538–1587)
Eleonora of Austria (1534–1594)
Vincenzo I Gonzaga (1562–1612)
Eleonora de' Medici (1567–1611)


That the Gonzagas were into power marriages would be an understatement.  Ludovico had married the niece of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, Federico had married Margaret of Bavaria, and Francesco’s sister Maddelena (1472–90) in 1489  married Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and Gradara (he, in turn, would later marry the infamous Lucrezia Borgia).  But it was Francesco’s marriage that would have the greatest impact on history — helping to shape the course of art, literature,

Anonymous: Portrait of Francesco II Gonzaga; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

and music in the Renaissance.  In1490 he married Isabella d'Este (1474-1539), the sixteen-year-old daughter of Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara (they had been betrothed since Isabella was six).

Tiziano Vecelli (Titian): Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c. 1534-1536, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

Notably, during Francesco and Isabella’s reign Mantua was in a cultural ferment.  Already serving the court under Ludovico II, in addition to Mantegna, were the painter Pisanelli, the architect Leon Battista Alberti, and the sculptor Jacopo Bonacolsi (c. 1460–1528), who was nicknamed "L'Antico" because of his superbly detailed small bronzes in the antique manner.

Federico I added to the payroll the architect and Mannerist painter Giulio Romano (1499–1546) — a protégé of Raphael who would design and decorate the remarkable Palazzo Te, and curiously be the only Renaissance artist to be
mentioned by William Shakespeare (in Act V scene 2 of The Winter's Tale).Francesco II and Isabella d'Este embellished this roster with the author and ambassador Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529) — who later at Urbino, in addition to composing a series of Platonic love songs and sonnets in honor of Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga, wrote Il libro del cortegiano  (The Book of the Courtier), a portrait of court life in which he describes the ideal courtier, who should be able to read music and play
several instruments and understand the art of painting — and the writer Matteo Bandello (c. 1480–1562) — who, besides teaching mathematics, astronomy, rhetoric, and logic to Lucrezia Gonzaga (the wife of composer Giaches de Wert, and not to be confused with Lucrezia Borgia, but perhaps almost as notorious) and also writing a poem in her honor, penned the collection of Novelle (Tales), some of which became the basis for Shakespeare’s plays — and the composers Marchetto Cara (c. 1470 – c. 1525) and Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c. 1470 – c. 1535) — more about these two in a moment. In addition, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) likely

Andrea Mantegna: Madonna della Vittoria – detail of Francesco II Gonzaga, c.1495-1496, oil on canvas, commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga, Musée du Louvre, Paris

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

visited Mantua in 1495 and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was there in 1500 to draw a portrait of Isabella (now at the Louvre).  Rarely have so many gifted artists, writers, and composers breathed the same air.


Leonardo da Vinci:  Portrait of Isabella d'Este, 1500, black and red chalk, yellow pastel chalk on paper, Musée du Louvre, Paris

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Isabella herself was a generous patron and a lover of music, literature, and the arts.  In Ferrara she learned Greek, Latin, Roman history, and literature, and had likely studied singing with Johannes Martini (c. 14401497).  She also played several instruments, including the lira da braccio (a bowed string instrument), lute (having studied with Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa [1470-1530]), and viol — in fact, she may have been the first to import viols into northern Italy.  As a symbol of her ardor for music, she had her music room in the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace) decorated with light and dark intarsia (wood inlay), the square white notes in the floor expressing a three-part canon by the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (c.1425-1497): “Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux [Take me as your example in love].”

Directing the many musicians at Mantua was maestro di cappella Marchetto Cara, a composer, lutenist, and singer.  As a singer, he traveled throughout northern Italy and was in great demand.  When his fellow Mantuan Baldassare Castiglione, himself also a musician, heard him sing, he wrote in the above-mentioned Il libro del cortegiano:

And no lesse doeth our Marchetto Cara move in his singinge, but with a more softe harmonye, that by a delectable waye and full of mourninge swetnesse maketh tender and perceth the mind, and sweetly imprinteth in it a passion full of great delite.

—translated by Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561

At Mantua there was a distinctive tradition of improvising songs and poems to the homophonic accompaniment of the lute or lyra da brachia, and Cara was most renowned as a composer of this style known as frottola.  Cara composed more than 100 frottole, while his fellow composer at Mantua, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, who set poetry by Petrarch and even a poem by Michelangelo, composed 176 of these popular, secular songs.  Tromboncino was also a trombonist (the name gives this fact away: ‘little trombone’; he was the son of Bernardino Piffaro (Bernardino the shawm player) — see La bella lingua), and like Cara, also sang.  He was even asked to sing in Ferrara at the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d’Este in 1502.

It is significant that Isabella’s encouragement of the singing of these frottole at court helped bring about the development of the most important secular form of the sixteenth century, the madrigal, deriving as it does appreciably from the frottola.

Emblematically, the Sala del Labirinto (Hall of the Labyrinth) of the Palazzo Ducale features a gilded wooden ceiling in the form of a maze on which the words Forse che si, forse che no (maybe yes, maybe no) are repeated over and over — words that are thought to come from a popular frottola at the time of Isabella d’Este and Francesco II.


Maybe yes, maybe no?  — these are most likely lyrics to a frottola performed during the early sixteenth century in the Sala del Labirinto (Hall of the Labyrinth) of the Palazzo Ducale at Mantua


Even long after Mantegna, Francesco II, and Isabella d’Este passed from the scene, the Gonzaga court at Mantua continued for centuries to be a vortex of musical, literary, and artistic activity.

The composer Jachet de Mantoue (Jacquet of Mantua; 1483-1559) served under Federico II (1500–1540), the son of Francesco II and who ruled as the first Duke of Mantua.  Jachet was born in France but spent much of his life in Mantua, in fact composing for three successive Gonzaga dukes.  It was Federico who also commissioned Giulio Romano to build the magnificent Palazzo Te.  Sculptor and musician Benvenuto Cellini (1500 –1571) was briefly at Mantua at this time.

When Guglielmo Gonzaga (1538-1587), grandson of Federico II, was yet a child, the composer Orlande de Lassus (1532 –1594) visited Mantua.  Guglielmo founded at the Palazzo Ducale the basilica of Santa Barbara (the court chapel), of which Giaches de Wert (1535-1596) was maestro di cappella.  Guglielmo himself composed madrigals, motets, and masses, and commissioned works by Wert and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1526-1594).  Wert was later succeeded by Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi (c. 1554–1609) as maestro di cappella at Santa Barbara's.


The basilica di Santa Barbara —the cupola of this basilica was damaged when a 5.8-magnitude quake struck northern Italy on Tuesday 29 May 2012


Guglielmo’s composition teacher was Lodovico Agostini (1534-1590), who dedicated a book of madrigals to the duke.  It is believed that one of the greatest madrigalists of the sixteenth century, Luca Marenzio (1553?–1599), was also at the Gonzaga court for a time. The poet Bernardo Tasso (1493–1569), father of Torquato Tasso (1544 –1595), also was briefly at Mantua during Guglielmo’s reign.

Peter Paul Rubens: Famiglia Gonzaga – detail showing Vincenzo I Gonzaga and Guglielmo I Gonzaga, 1604-1605, oil on canvas,  Palazzo Ducale, Mantua

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

The arts and sciences at Mantua truly blossomed during the reign of Guglielmo’s son Vincenzo I (1562-1612), who was a friend of the poet Torquato Tasso.  The astronomer Giovanni Antonio Magini tutored Vincenzo's sons, and when Galileo visited the court to explore an opportunity for employment, he was almost hired; however, he remained at the University of Padua. The painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640) was also at the Gonzaga
court for a time. Vincenzo generously financed Rubens’ travel to Rome to study classical Greek and Roman art, and in the process he encountered the paintings of Caravaggio and his pronounced chiaroscuro (strong contrasts between light and dark).


Peter Paul Rubens: Self-portrait in a Circle of Friends from Mantua, early 1600s, oil on canvas, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Germany

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Also during Vincenzo's reign, three other composers were retained, Benedetto Pallavicino (c. 1551-1601), well-known for his madrigals, the violinist and composer Salamone Rossi (c. 1570–1630), and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), who initially served as a singer and violist, then as maestro di cappella.  Wert had a particular influence on Monteverdi. Vincenzo regularly presented Friday evening concerts, as well as chapel services, banquets, wedding feasts, and theatre productions at which the music of these composers was played.

In 1607 Francesco IV (1586-1612), Vincenzo's son, soon-to-be duke, and also a composer of sacred music, arias, and canzonettas, asked Monteverdi to compose an opera.  La favola d'Orfeo was the result — one of the earliest music dramas, and the first operatic masterpiece.  The libretto for L’Orfeo was written by another Mantuan, Alessandro Striggio the Younger (c. 1573-1630), the son of the composer Alessandro Striggio.  The opera was performed in the courtyard at the Palazzo Ducale during carnevale.




The following year, Francesco commissioned Monteverdi to compose another opera, L'Arianna, with a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621; the first opera librettist, having collaborated with Jacopo Peri on the opera Dafne in 1597), for which all the music has disappeared except one portion.

In 1998, a hidden room was discovered at the Palazzo Ducale by a team of scholars led by the musicologist Paula Bezzutti.  This room is believed to have been used in the late sixteenth century for performances of Monteverdi's music.


Anonymous: Claudio Monteverdi, about age 30, at the Gonzaga Court in Mantua, 1597, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford — this is the earliest portrait identified as Monteverdi, in which he is shown holding a viola da gamba. Another viola da gamba is depicted behind him.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Additionally, serving at the Gonzaga court with Monteverdi was the violin maker Gasparo da Salò (1542-1609), who was also a double bass player.

Unfortunately, after Vincenzo’s death in 1612, there were financial problems and the music budget was severely curtailed, resulting in Monteverdi’s dismissal.  Monteverdi, however, would go on to achieve great renown at Venice’s San Marco.

Later, during the reign of Ferdinando I (1587-1626), composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583 –1643) visited Mantua while he was under consideration for employment at the Gonzaga court, and still later, during the reign of Carlo II (1629–65), composer Johann Jakob Froberger (1616 –1667) also visited Mantua.

During the reign of Ferdinando Carlo (1652-1708) — the last ruler of the Duchy of Mantua of the House of Gonzaga — Antonio Caldara (1670–1736), composer of operas, cantatas and oratorios, several of these works with libretti by Metastasio (1698-1782), became maestro di cappella.  Attilio Ariosti (1666–1729) was also a composer for the court.  Pietro Giovanni Guarneri (1655–1720; also known as Pietro da Mantua, the son of Andrea Guarneri) was a violin maker as well as violinist and violist for the Gonzaga court.

Subsequently, long after the Gonzaga dynasty had ended, the 13-year-old child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), stopped in Mantua in 1770 to inaugurate the Castello’s concert hall with a performance.


Anonymous, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (1721-1782): The Boy Mozart, 1763, oil, Mozarteum, Salzburg — this painting, made when Mozart was six years old, was commissioned by Leopold Mozart

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


It should be noted that Mantua has been involved in a few fictive exigencies as well.  After Romeo killed Tybalt Capulet in a sword fight he ran to Mantua; he returned to Verona only after hearing of Juliet’s death.  Speaking of Shakespeare, the House of Gonzaga also inspired the play-within-a-play in Hamlet:  in Act 3 scene 2, a play called The Murder of Gonzago (or The Mousetrap) is performed.  And then, when Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist adapted Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse for the opera Rigoletto, the Austro-Hungarian powers-that-be made him move the story from France . . . to Mantua.

Thus ends our excursus into the synergistic, vibrant cultural center that was Renaissance and Baroque Mantua.  Next, we’ll return to Andrea Mantegna and some of his crowning artistic achievements.




The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

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Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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