This post is an excerpt from the book “100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go” by Susan Van Allen. The book is filled with gorgeous descriptions of some of the most enchanting spots in Italy as well as lively anecdotes and fascinating historical insights. The chapters are arranged according to themes, such as Gardens, Palaces, Spas, Active Adventures, Cooking Classes, Beaches and yes, the section you’re really waiting for: Shopping!
I’ve chosen to highlight a beautiful chapter from the section on Palaces. Enjoy!
The Palazzo Ducale in Mantua
Of all the 500 rooms in the humongous Palazzo Ducale, the two teeniest, hidden away on the ground floor, are the most enchanting. They are the grotta and studiolo of Isabella d’Este, aka First Lady of the Renaissance. Here’s where she’d come to leave the world behind and read the classics, play her flute, or have her friends over to marvel over the paintings, antiques, and gems she’d collected.
It was all the rage for Renaissance palaces to have a studiolo. The idea behind it was to move away from the sterile, monastic retreats of the Dark Ages and into a space inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans, where the appreciation of beauty was the path to transcendence.
The treasures that once filled Isabella’s rooms have been sent off to museums, but there’s still a tantalizing magic here. Her studiolo’s deep blue walls, stars, and gilded woodwork create the ambience of an evening sky in paradise. In the grotta, polished cabinets of wood inlays form pictures of idyllic cities and palaces. Alabaster carvings of mythological figures grace the moldings. Right out the door is her secret garden, a square patch of trimmed shrubs and pots of laurel. I’d love to move in.
Isabella moved into the Palazzo Ducale in 1490 when she was sixteen and married Marchese Francesco Gonzaga. His powerhouse family dominated Mantua for 300 years, and the town is full of Renaissance buildings built during their reign. Francesco was a Captain General, off on fighting trips for long stretches, but came home enough so Isabella ended up having seven children. She was a faithful wife, while Francesco dallied about, even having a fling with the infamous Lucrezia Borgia.
Isabella let her husband’s affairs slide and put her energies into ruling Mantua while he was away. She was already highly educated, from growing up the daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, and then studied agriculture, architecture, and industry to get up to speed in other areas. Besides her brains, she had a natural talent for diplomacy, and could deftly swim in the shark tank of Renaissance politics. She did such a bang-up job that Mantua was raised in status to a Duchy.
While she was at it, she also made the palace a gathering place for poets, artists, and musicians, turning Mantua into a thriving cultural center. Leonardo da Vinci stopped by and made a sketch of her that now hangs in the Louvre. Titian painted her twice.
Her voracious appetite for beauty was where this almost perfect woman slid into naughty behavior. She insisted on wearing sables and elaborate costumes, even though the Mantua treasury couldn’t afford it.
She left behind hundreds of letters and some are hilarious to read, showing her needy-greedy side. These are the ones she’d address to relatives of sick people whom she knew had precious collections. She’d begin with much sympathy, but soon enough stick it to them, all but begging to be informed immediately if their relative died, so she could get her hands on their stuff.
As an art patron she could be downright annoying. In one instance, she hounded the established master Perugino demanding the painting she commissioned fit her standards exactly. The goddesses could not be naked. The theme had to be Chastity (Minerva and Diana) triumphing over earthly love (Venus and Cupid). It was Isabelle’s blatant way of standing up against that ne’er-do-well husband of hers, pushing a “Purity is Power” line.
All through the early years of her marriage, Isabelle filled her downstairs grotta with her growing collection. When Francesco retired from the army, he came back to Mantua debilitated and addled from syphilis, but still managed to grump about how Isabella had become the boss, which she didn’t let bother her in the least.
“Nec Speranza, Nec Metu: Neither Hope, Nor Fear”
Isabella was forty-six when Francesco died, which was old in those days. She’d always had weight problems, so climbing the palace stairs to her rooms was getting to her. Just like empty nesters who trade in their family home for a condo, Isabella moved out of her upstairs palazzo digs and redecorated this ground floor space which would be her beloved haven until she died eighteen years later.
Engraved in the wall is her motto, from the Roman poet Seneca: Nec Speranza, Nec Metu: Neither Hope, Nor Fear. It was this forge-ahead attitude that fueled strong, independent Isabella, who in an age when many women couldn’t even leave the house, undeniably triumphed.
Palazzo Ducale: Tuesday – Sunday 8:30am – 7pm.
Golden Day: Visit Isabella’s studiolo and grotta in the Palazzo Ducale, and don’t miss the upstairs Camera degli Sposi and Hall of Mirrors. Eat nearby at Ristorante Aquila Nigra (Vicolo Bonacolsi 4, closed on Monday), a converted Gothic townhouse. Sleep at Casa Poli Hotel, a sleek boutique hotel about a ten-minute walk from the Palazzo Ducale.
About Susan Van Allen
Susan Van Allen’s love for Italy stems from her maternal grandparents, who emigrated from Southern Italy. She was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up on the Jersey shore amidst wonderful food and drama.
When she first stepped off the train into Roma Termini in 1976, she got hooked on Italian travel. Since then she’s explored the country up and down the boot–visiting relatives, immersing herself in the country’s masterpieces and culture, taking language and cooking classes, and going on boating, biking, and hiking adventures. She’s written about Italian travel for many media outlets, including National Public Radio, Town & Country, Student Traveler, Tastes of Italia, Chicago Daily Herald, several Travelers Tales anthologies (including Best Travel Writing 2009), and CNN.com. Van Allen also writes for television, and was on staff of the Emmy winning sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. When she’s not in Italy, she is based in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and makes scrumptious lasagnas.
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