As underlined across multiple works by Paolo Carpeggiani, the Ducal Palace of Mantua is an architectural complex created across a vast time-span, extending from the Middle Ages to the late Renaissance. The buildings are linked by streets, squares, courts and gardens: a veritable city within the city, to all intents and purposes, as it appeared to the Baron de Montesquieu, when he visited Mantua in 1729.
At the death of Federico II Gonzaga, in 1540, it was made of a series of building sites barely connected to each other; the Gonzaga residence acquired its characteristic appearance of a “palace in the form of a city” (palazzo in forma di città) in between the years of the regency, held in particular by Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga (from 1540) and the Dukedom of Guglielmo Gonzaga (d. 1587).
The chief reason for this remarkable transformation can be traced to the radical changes the Principality underwent in its institutions and in its economic policy as the result of a series of surgically designed reforms, to transform the Duchy into an absolutist State. The Palace had to meet the numerous needs of the new state organisation, while also providing a prestigious and functional venue for the celebration of court rites, both secular and religious.
Giovan Battista Bertani, who succeeded Giulio Romano as the prefetto delle fabbriche (lit: prefect of construction works) and occupied this position from 1549 to 1576, gave momentum to the construction of the Ducal Palace complex. We owe to him the first permanent court theatre and the Guglielmo Gonzaga’s apartment in the New Court. The most demanding of the tasks carried out by Bertani is without a doubt the Palatine Church of Santa Barbara. The temple was to occupy a key position in the Prince’s city, a fact chiefly underlined by the presence of the monumental bell-tower.
At Bertani’s death, the area in front of Santa Barbara was still shapeless: it was Bernardo Facciotto who, in 1581, gave a proper form to this space. His design, which is attested by three drawings, envisaged a three-sided corridor-cum-loggia, but the original appearance of the church square was radically modified in 1780, when Paolo Pozzo added the botteghe for the annual fair.
Once Santa Barbara had been completed, work soon got underway on the canon’s house: the project was entrusted to Pompeo Pedemonte, who designed a large quadrangular building with an internal colonnaded courtyard. Work on the site came to a halt shortly after Guglielmo’s death and was never resumed. The only part of the building to be completed was the one facing the cortile del Pallone. Quite unadorned, the building is of remarkable character, featuring seven, perfectly identical lodgings, located between the two upper units, reserved for high-ranking members of the clergy. A fine example of sixteenth century modular construction.
*See e.g., L’architettura dal Bertani al Viani, in Il Palazzo Ducale di Mantova, a cura di G. Algeri, Mantova, Sometti, 2003 e Santa Barbara chiesa palatina. Il palazzo, la piazza, la canonica, in La basilica palatina di Santa Barbara in Mantova, a cura di L. Mari, Lucca, LIM, 2022
The Palatine church of Santa Barbara, the Palace Chapel for the Gonzagas, was commissioned with a bell-tower by Duke Guglielmo and built between 1562 and 1572 to the designs of Giovan Battista Bertani.
The façade has three arches, surmounted by a frontispiece, leading to the vestibule, above which is the choir.
The aisle-less church has a number of side chapels and two large square lanterns, one at the centre, the other above the main altar, accessed by a semicircular staircase. Dominating the choir is the Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, the huge alter-piece in an ornate frame painted by Domenico Brusasorci and designed by Bertani. The upper lunette which can be seen today is the eighteenth century replacement by Pietro Fabbri of the fascinating original, kept with other treasures of the Church. To one side of the main altar a door leads to the crypt, with three aisles and elliptically shaped sacellum.
The alter-pieces of the two large side altars are by Lorenzo Costa the younger based on an idea by Bertani (on the right the Baptism of Constantine, on the left the Martyrdom of Saint Adrian). The figures painted on both sides of the organ casing (Saint Barbara and Saint Peter on one side, the Annunciation on the other) are thought to be by Fermo Ghisoni. Other paintings in the style of Giulio Romano can be found on the smaller alters: on the right, Saint Peter receiving the keys, by Luigi Costa and Santa Margherita by Giambattista Giacarelli; on the left The Baptism of Christ by Teodoro Ghisi and La Maddalena by Andreasino. The four oval paintings are by Pietro Fabbri (Santa Lucia and Santa Caterina) and Amadio Enz (Sant’Anna with child Mary), and an unknown seventeenth century artist (Sant’Antonio with baby Jesus). A small secluded chapel on the left has an eighteenth century painting by Bazzani (Madonna and Saints).
The raised presbytery is closed off by an eighteenth century railing; the finely sculpted choir stalls are late seventeenth century and came from the demolished San Domenico Church. The statues, in a variety of materials, are seventeenth century. The large lamp in front of the main alter was commissioned by Duke Vincenzo I.
A fitting church for Duke Gonzaga with rich decorations (tapestry cartoons by Raffaello, left by Cardinal Ercole to Guglielmo and donated by him to the Church), in which the divine is shown in sumptuous solemnity. A church “that sounds”, not only from the music chapel which was soon added but because of the numerous places from the music can originate. The church is different from all others because of Guglielmo’s wish to honour God and to show himself as a true gentleman, perhaps the gentleman of his era; and those who worked on the church and for the religious and cultural life of Mantova were able to enshrine these wishes in the Basilica di Santa Barbara.