My trip to Italy this past September was filled with many memorable experiences: watching the gondolas float along the Canal grande in Venice; eating gelato as the figure of Dante Alighieri watches over the Piazza dei Signori in Verona; falling in love with pretty little Sommacampagna; and climbing through the castles of the peninsula of Sirmione. Northern Italy is full of breathtaking landscapes, architecture, and art that can touch the soul and inspire artists of any background who pay the region a visit. However, the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova was one of the most memorable sights I had the pleasure of experiences, with a single room earning a spot as one of my favorite places in the world: la Camera degli Sposi.
The Palazzo Ducale, or the Ducal Palace, is located in Mantua, Lombardy, northern Italy, and was built between the 14th and 17th century by the noble Gonzaga family. Each part of the palace is stunningly detailed, adorned with affrescos, or murals painted on wet or freshly-lain lime plaster. Responsible for these frescoes was Andrea Mantegna, an Italian painter whose enthusiasm for ancient Roman art, love for artistic experimentation, and knack for illusionistic paintings shines through throughout the beautiful 500+ room mansion. Arguably the most impressive of these rooms is la Camera degli Sposi.
This room, which in English is called the “bridal chamber,” is frescoed with mid- to late-15th century Mantegna paintings across the walls and ceiling. Over the fireplace on the north wall is the “Court Scene,” in which Gonzaga dynasty patriarch and painting commissioner Ludovico III is depicted in his royal colors with his family and members of his court. On the west wall is the “Meeting Scene.” Here, Ludovico meets his son Cardinal Francesco in front of a Classical Romanesque city. Mantegna experiments with perspective, adding realism to depictions of half-fictitious scenes. The other two walls are frescoed to look like heavy curtains; these portions are less decorated due to the lack of light shining on them.
However, it is the di sotto in sù ceiling that is the most awe-inspiring of Mantegna’s Palazzo Ducale frescoes. One of the earliest of its kind, the whimsical ceiling depicts an oculus that opens into a bright blue sky, with putto—similar to cherubs—frolicking throughout the scene. Human figures and symbolic animals gaze down through the oculus, watching those sitting in the room. The center illusion is only a part of the ceiling; it is adorned with faux panels and arches painted to resemble marble and gold. Mantegna’s oculus is one of the first di sotto in sù ceilings, a well-known motif in Baroque and Renaissance architecture and art.
Mantegna includes these elements of illusion throughout the entire room. Trompe l’oeil elements—such as a horse’s hoof and dog’s snout extending beyond the frame of the “Meeting Scene”—are notably used on the walls, as well as faux marble, gold, and architectural elements of the building.
The beautiful Camera degli Sposi cannot be fully enjoyed without experiencing it in real life; only an Italian tour guide—along with the help of a translator—whose days are spent analyzing the Palazzo Ducale can tip you into some of the secrets of the room. Some lunettes are said to resemble Mantegna himself, as well as some of his secret lovers, and there is incredible symbolism behind the three sets of eyes that follow you around the room. You can spend hours in one room and still not discover all of it secrets it has to offer.
While the canals of Venice and the Colosseum of Rome are the top go-to landmarks while visiting Italy, the beautiful artwork of la Camera degli Sposi is definitely worth a day-trip to the incredible city of Mantua, and a visit the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova should make the bucket list of art, history, and architecture lovers world-wide.