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Painting and History: Mantegna and the Lords of Mantua

Soldiers of fortune yet passionate lovers of art—the Gonzagas were a typical product of Renaissance Italy. By F.M. Godfrey.

Mantua, in the second half of the fifteenth century, has justly been styled the “Florence of the North” and its most accomplished ruler, the Marquis Lodovico, the Arbiter Italiae. Successive Gonzaga princes, autocrats at home and condottieri abroad, now in the service of Venice, now of Milan, holding a precarious balance between the rapacious city-states of the north, are not so universally loiown as the Visconti, the Sforza, the Malatesta, of whom they were the equals or the betters.

“The house of Gonzaga at Mantua,” wrote Jacob Burckhardt, “and that of Montefeltro at Urbino were among the best ordered and richest in men of ability during the second half of the fifteenth century. The Gonzaga were a tolerably harmonious family; for a long period no murder had been known among them and their dead could be shown to the world without fear.” The story of their ascendancy is from the first more democratic than that of any other Renaissance lordship in Italy. From the fratricidal strife of the ruling families, there emerged in 1276 one Bonacolsi as Capitano of Mantua. This Bonacolsi ruled with harshness and insolence for half a century.

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