I was very interested in Mantua as a source of art, since Duke Vincenzo II Gonzaga sold the family’s fabulous collection of Renaissance paintings to the English King Charles I in 1626-7. So when the very slim novel The Princess of Mantua popped up in a local bookshop, I bought it. The only blogs that even mentioned this novel were Reading Books in Mount To Be Read and normblog (Oct 2007), and they gave no information.
The story concerns the historical figures of Barbara von Brandenburg, who was brought from Germany to Mantua as a young girl to marry in 1433, and Ludovico Gonzaga her young husband. I found myself in the Mantuan court alright, but 200 years too early.
It appeared that the author used a large archive of family letters and other documents to record the story of the Gonzaga family, their court and the other noble families they interacted with eg the Sforzas, d’Estes and Malatestas. But on the very last page, the author explained that Barbara’s cou-sin Maria of Hohenzollern, the correspondent in most of the mail exchanges, never actually existed.
So Ms Ferranti must have really done her historical homework. Court life in the 1430s-70s seemed very finely observed in the book; this was a time when powerful lords wanted to surround themselves with some of the best known men of letters and artists of the era.
The early years of Barbara’s married life seemed difficult beyond belief. Her parents in law educated and protected her, but her husband Ludovico was away, establishing a reputation for himself as a military man. The most important man in her young life was a learned tutor. When Ludovico returned, Barbara became constantly pregnant, safely delivering ten babies in 19 years. Just as well Mantua was one of the liveliest, most intellectual courts in Europe.
In middle age, Barbara was surprised at the way she was depicted in Mantegna's amazing painting, The Court of Mantua - Gonzaga Family. Here Andrea Mantegna took an endless amount of time, but in the end he created a master-piece in the room Barbara most loved, the Camera Depicta.
Mantegna, Palazzo Ducale Mantua, 1471-4 (Barbara centre)
Barbara’s older age was unhappy, filled with self-imposed isolation from her family and mourning for her peers. Only the Camera Depicta remained a source of inspiration to the depressed marquess.
Normally I don’t mind slim novels, but in this case, I wanted more. As an afterthought, note that a blog called The Daily Evergreen Book Reviews added something that I, an art historian, had forgotten. Sometimes great fictional versions of court life can be produced, simply by examining a very real painting. Of course I knew Mantegna’s large painting, The Court of Mantua, very well. But a literary version of an art historical object is something we don’t teach under-graduate students. Perhaps that explains my discomfort at finding out that the letters sent between Barbara von Brandenburg and her cousin never actually existed.