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The House of Gonzaga

Even if you haven’t heard of the Gonzaga, it’s likely you recognise artwork that has been commissioned by and of them. Specifically Andrea Mantegna’s fresco cycle in the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace. 

Between 1328 and 1708, the condottiere family ruled Mantua, an island settlement in the Lombardy, situated in the north of Italy. Their time was filled with political prestige and cultural magnificence. 

Their ranks included: 

  • A saint – Aloysius Gonzaga who was canonised in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII and became the patron saint of youth and students by Pope Pius XI in 1926; 
  • Twelve cardinals – including Ercole Gonzaga who presided over the Council of Trent;
  • Fourteen bishops;
  • Two Empresses of the Holy Roman Empire – Eleonora Gonzaga and Eleonora Gonzaga-Nevers; and
  • One Queen of Poland – Marie Louise Gonzaga. 

Like so many other families we’re discussing in this series, the Gonzaga family’s reign began with a coup d’état.

THE GUELPHS AND THE GHIBELLINES

During the 12th and 13th centuries, there was a continuous power struggle between the Guelphs (supporters of the Pope) and the Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor). You can still see the allegiances of Italian cities via their architecture – squared crenulations showed support to the Pope while fishtailed crenulations demonstrated loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor. 

While the Guelphs and Ghibellines fought in Mantua, the Bonacolsi family, with the aid of the Gonzaga family, took advantage of the chaos. The Bonacolsi ruled Mantua for roughly 55 years before a coup was staged and the Gonzaga usurped them. 

The usurpation was headed by Ludovico I, the founder of the Gonzaga family, who had been Podestà under the Bonacolsi and was elected Captiano del Popolo of Mantua in 1328. 

MARQUIS OF MANTUA

Under Gianfrancesco’s rule, the city was renovated and became a hub of Renaissance art and humanism. Casa Giocosa – a humanist school begun by Vittorino da Feltre, was opened; a workshop for the manufacturing of tapestries was begun; and artists such as the Naples born Pisanello flocked to the city. 

In 1433, a little over a hundred years after they became players on the board, Gianfrancesco bought the title Marquis from the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund of Luxembourg. The price? 120,000 golden florins and the marriage of the emperor’s niece, Barbara of Brandenburg to his son, Ludovico. He also married his daughter, Margherita, to Leonello d’Este, the Marquis of Ferrara, solidifying his family’s standing. 

ANYTHING IS PERMISSABLE

Ludovico III is possibly the most well-known of the Gonzaga family. He was the man who made Andrea Mantegna his court painter, producing some of the most incredible works of Italian Renaissance art. By all accounts, he was also incredibly ferocious, making himself the central power of Mantua by eliminating his relatives. 

No better example of this is his battle with his brother, Carlo. Ludovico served as condottieri for the Venetians in a league that formed against the Milanese in 1449. Ever the strategist, Francesco Sforza convinced him to turn his back on Venice, promising him the return of the states the Venetians had taken from Mantua –  Lonato, Peschiera, and Asola. In response to Ludovico’s betrayal, Venice sent Carlo to invade his territories. In March of that year, Carlo and 4,000 soldiers seized Castel Bonafisso and Biarello. But now allied with some of the most formidable condottieri in Italy, Ludovico not only defeated Carlo, but pursued him throughout his retreat. He served Milan for most of his life after this. 

A decade later, Ludovico hosted the Council of Mantua. The eight-month council was summoned by Pope Pius II who wished to launch a crusade against the Ottoman Turks and reclaimed Constantinople. Though the Pope was far from happy with the city itself, he did gift Ludovico’s son, Francesco, a cardinal’s hat. 

THE HUSBAND OF ISABELLA D’ESTE

In 1490, the infamous Isabella d’Este moved from Ferrara to Mantua to become the wife of Francesco II. The couple succeeded Federico I, who reigned for only six short years. 

Though he was considered one of the bravest, most successful knights in Italian history, he wasn’t the greatest man. When captured by the Venetians – whose army he had commanded until he left them for the French – he offered his son, Federico II, as hostage. He was then given the Papal troops to command, though did very little fighting. 

While her husband was away, Isabella governed Mantua. There she set up her studiolo, commissioning art works from Mantegna, Perugino, Costa and Correggio. It is said that during the Sack of Rome, instead of fleeing immediately, Isabella used the opportunity to steal some art pieces, later promising she had only intended to save them from destruction. It was in their reign that the Palace of St. Sebastian (the home of Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar) was built. 

Despite being described as short, pop-eyed and snub-nosed, Francesco was quite the adulterer. He had a long-term affair with Lucrezia Borgia, the wife of his brother-in-law, Alfonso d’Este, and openly acknowledged many a male lover. 

ONCE A HOSTAGE, EVER A DUKE

Francesco’s role as father was a thing of concern. His son, Federico was not only used as hostage by the Venetians, but also by the Papacy under Julius II, and the French under Francis I who wanted to ensure his father aided the French in Italy. 

When he finally succeeded Francesco, Federico was named Captain General of the Church by Pope Leo X and fought against the French who had held him captive. He was then, in 1530, elevated from Marquis to Duke by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Through marriage (he entered the Palaiologos family who had once been Byzantine Emperors before the Ottoman’s claimed Constantinople) he also acquired the Marquisate of Montferrat. 

The most significant contribution to the arts made by Federico was the Palazzo Te, a pleasure palace in the suburbs of Mantua. Designed and decorated by Raphael’s student, Giulio Romano, the villa boasts the Sala dei Giganti. 

THE GONZAGA WITCH

The primary branch of the Gonzaga family ended with Vincenzo II, son of Duke Vincent I and Eleanora de’ Medici. If you thought Ludovico and Federico’s stories were dramatic, they don’t compare to Vincenzo’s. 

When offered a cardinalate upon his brother, Ferdinando’s, succession to the Duchy, Vincenzo secretly married his cousin, Isabella. Standing firmly against the marriage, his brother attempted to declare the marriage invalid and return Vincenzo to the cardinalate, but annulment proved difficult. 

Ferdinando saw no other way than to accuse Isabella of witchcraft, indirectly provoking the beginning of the Mantuan Inquisition. Witnesses were procured and Isabella had no choice but to flee to Rome where she was inevitably imprisoned. Thankfully, she was eventually cleared of all charges and the ‘witnesses’ recanted their testimony.

Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t the end. Not only did the couple run into a number of issues regarding money, requiring them to sell paintings and valuables to King Charles I of England, but they were also the targets of an assassination attempt. This too failed and when, in 1627, their marriage was officially marked valid, Vincenzo died. 

Vincenzo did, however, succeed in one thing: he secured his dynasty by marrying his niece, Maria, to Charles of Nevers’ son, Charles. It was on the day of their wedding that he passed away. 

THE END OF A BLOODLINE

Only three members of the Gonzaga-Nevers line inherited Mantua. They ruled from 1628 to 1708, with Charles I Gonzaga perhaps being the most interesting of them all.  

As his grandmother was Margaret Paleologa, Charles declared himself the King of Constantinople and attempted to begin a crusade, though this never saw fruition. Naturally this infuriated the Ottomans who sent an army of 20,000 men and 70 ships to invade his territories.

During his reign, the War of the Mantuan Succession also occurred. As Charles had only inherited the title through an agreement, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II saw this as illegitimacy and sent an army to sack the city. The siege, plus a bout of plague, would make sure Mantua was never able to recover. 

Charles I was succeeded by his grandson, Charles II and then, finally, Ferdinando Carlo Gonzaga, whose death saw the end to the House of Gonzaga. 


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