What springs to mind might be a medieval dining hall of a Cambridge University college or a ballroom of a Venetian palazzo dripping with stucco and gold. In fact the space dubbed ‘the most beautiful room in the world’ involves neither soaring architecture nor extravagant costly materials. Indeed, it could be said that the beauty of the room is all an illusion as the architectural details and wall decorations are entirely frescoed. The room in question is the Camera degli Sposi in the Castello San Giorgio in Mantova.
The Art of Illusion
Using the art of fresco to adorn an entire room giving architectural and spatial definition has resulted in some very famous interiors. Raphael’s scenes in the Papal rooms of the Vatican are presented in half-moon openings supported by painted caryatids, and in the Villa Farnesina in Rome Peruzzi created the Sala delle prospettive where an illusionistic loggia seems to give a breathtaking view of Rome.
The Camera degli Sposi is a masterpiece of illusion by Mantegna, commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga. The physical space is not expansive, but Mantegna’s frescoes attempt to adjust this. On two walls three arches are painted and strung between are brocade curtains giving the illusion that there is a further space behind. The other two walls feature scenes acted within the arcade space, contained by a wall beyond which is a garden or outdoor space.
Perhaps the greatest architectural trompe l’oeil of the room is the ceiling. Inspired by the Pantheon, dedicated to all gods, Mantegna designed the ceiling with a central occulus opening to a heavenly blue sky, thus linking the earthly with the celestial and suggesting that the Gonzaga’s rule is governed by divine guidance. Mantegna is perhaps most famous for his foreshortened Christ (in the Brera museum in Milan) and here he demonstrates his formidable understanding of perspective with several putti seen from directly below requiring extreme foreshortening.
But it’s not all serious. Peeking over the parapet are two grinning faces beside a barrel of fruit that is precariously balanced on a plank of wood over the opening, ready to be emptied onto the unsuspecting marquis in the room below.
The Art of Theatre
The two scenes decorating the walls depict pivotal moments in Ludovico’s public life. Mantegna chooses to set these scenes within the arcade space as though being enacted on a stage, accentuated by the curtains in front which seem to have been swept aside to reveal the drama. This implies that the Marquis’s rule has acquired an almost legendary status, worthy of an eternal re-enactment like a famous historical play. Indeed to the left of one scene there are several figures who are entering from behind the curtain, from ‘back stage’. In a sense it is a play within a play, with art mimicking drama mimicking real life.
Being a room to receive guests, these scenes of Ludovico’s life and family were not just for personal enjoyment, but to impress upon the visitor the power and heritage of the Gonzaga family.
On the north wall the Gonzaga family is gathered together in a courtyard with the Marquis to the far left hand side. Although not central, his figure draws the viewer’s eye as he twists in his throne to speak to a messenger, forming a peak of movement. He is pictured receiving an important missive from Milan, dated January 1, 1462, in which the Duchess of Milan, Bianca Maria Visconti, informs the marquis of her husband Francesco Sforza’s deteriorating health and urges Ludovico to join her as lieutenant general of the Lombard dukedom. Surrounded as the marquis is by his family, the scene seems to be a clear portrayal of the growing power of the Gonzaga dynasty, flourishing like the orange tree blooming in the background.
The adjacent wall presents the Meeting between father, Ludovico, and second son, Francesco, who has been made a cardinal by Pope Pius II. Ludovico, on the left side in profile, is mimicked on the right side by his eldest son Federico, also in profile, implying his forthcoming inheritance of his father’s title and continuation of the dynasty. The presence of Ludovico’s grandchildren yet further reinforces the importance of the Gonzaga lineage.
The ceiling is also decorated with frescoed busts of the first eight Roman emperors, gazing down ancestorially on Ludovico implying the strength and virtue of Gonzaga power derives from the legendary Roman era.
Perhaps this imagery was to inspire Ludovico and to represent his family pride, but it is also undeniably a lesson in self-proclamation intended for his visitors.
For the Eagle Eyed…
Look out for:
1. A self-portrait of Mantegna peeping out from some leaves in the architectural decoration.
2. Ludovico’s faithful bloodhound Rubino beneath his chair representing fidelity and the marquis’ comportment in political and diplomatic relations.
3. La nana – the dwarf.