Mantua & Ferrara
June 2019
More photos here


Thursday 20th
Having cancelled three trips since March I decided that I needed to book something good. (Shropshire had been too expensive, I realised, Dresden would've been blighted by the city's old art gallery being closed and Umbria was not sensibly undertaken with a pulled muscle in my calf.) Poking around I found that a guided art-history trip I'd been on back in 2015 was happening again. The reason why this was a very good thing is that I have been smarting for four years at that trip not including Mantegna's famous Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, which didn't reopen, following post-earthquake restoration, until three days after we came home back in 2015.
An 8.00 flight from Heathrow meant an overnight stay at the Heathrow Hilton Garden, as ever. But being much later in the year than I usually take these guided trips my walk from the tube station to the hotel last night was in daylight. And what do you know - over the other side of the motorway opposite the hotel is a farm! With fields and horses and a tractor! Then this morning at 6.15, three widely spaced solitary chaps with cameras facing into the field. Horse fanciers? And then a landing plane, low and large, flew in to land, ideally placed for foreground horse detail, methinks. 
Check-in involved faffing due to not being found on the self service, but at least no queuing. Security pretty swift too. So all good. Old favourite lecturer and bestie Clare Ford-Wille and newer-favourite tour manager Tessa, along with some familiar faces from past trips, were met at the gate, but it was new blood mostly - 14 of us.
Arrival in Bologna involved a very real contrast in weather, from dull, damp and cool London to a steamy 30˚ at Bologna airport. We were coached to Modena for a brief intro to the Duomo before lunch, which I spent wandering, visiting two churches (Sant'Agostino and San Francesco), eating a mozzarella and tomato panzerotto and a very cinnamony strudel cake, and finding not one gelateria. Another shopping-related puzzle was spotting cherries being frequently labelled Ferrovia. Researching later revealed  that there's a variety of cherry discovered around 1930 next to the railway line between Turi and Sammichele di Bari in Puglia, so this cherry is called Ciliegia della Ferrovia (the Cherry of the Railway).
After lunch the sculpture panels on the Duomo façade got appreciated, before we went inside for more sculpture, on pulpits mostly, and some lovely Romanesque chunkiness. Then to the Galleria Estense for some surprisingly good art, the highlights being a Bernini bust of Francesco I d' Este, a Velazquez of the same chap, and Veronese's organ doors from San Geminiano in Venice. A catalogue of the collection, dominated by paintings, in English, was a surprise too.
Then the coach took us to our hotel in Mantua to check in, unpack and have a brief rest, before welcome drinks and nibbles, followed by a Clare talk on the Gonzaga, followed by a buffet dinner, with good veggie provision, and the yummy mostarda and pecorino well remembered from last time. Then an earlyish night.

Friday 21st
Today was a very full day in Mantua, dominated for me by finally getting into the Camera degli Sposi, in amongst Mantegna's wonderful frescoes, in the Palazzo Ducale and then not being able to find my credit card wallet in the palazzo shop. A dash back to the hotel failed to solve the mysterious disappearance. Coming back to the group in Sant'Andrea I could not find them. Coming out of the church I switched on the tour-audio-headphones thingy and heard Clare say 'Oh there's Jeff' but where was she?! Through the dark doorway into the Baptistery across the piazza.

Borrowing some cash from Tessa I wandered and got a takeaway lunch of vegan triangles and chips from a place called Love Chips. And later a fine first gelato combining apple/cinnamon and coconut flavours.
After lunch we took in the outsides of Giulio Romano's and Mantegna's houses and the Alberti church of San Sebastiano. The mad Mannerism and jaw-dropping delights of Palazzo Te were preceded by the much calmer Palazzo San Sebastiano - recently restored and reopened, but pretty plain and sedate. Both palazzi were for Gonzaga males to take their out-of-town leisure and mistresses.  I'd texted Jane to check in case I'd left my card wallet at home, maybe in a coat pocket, but she no find. So back at the hotel I rang and cancelled the cards. No unauthorised use so far, so the mystery continues.
After an evening talk finishing off the Gonzaga and introducing the Este, we trekked out for our evening meal. Roasted vegetables, with mostarda of course, was followed by a risotto with asparagus, but not a lot. Pasta with peas, for the vegetarians came next, and then a layered lasagne-like thing with aubergine. The sweet was fruit salad. Edible but not special.

Saturday 22nd
A coach to Ferrara this morning, where we began with a visit to the Palazzo dei Diamanti art gallery, which has been partly, or totally, closed on previous visits. Fully open and benefiting from a recent sprucing-up it was a treat. Some worth-the-trip highlights by the likes of Vivarini, Carpaccio, and a stupendous altarpiece by Dosso Dossi.
Lunch was again a wander for your correspondent, around the previously unexplored medieval quarter, which is a very pretty maze of arches and overhangs. I didn't manage any actually lunch, beyond some paprika and mango crisps and a bottle of iced tea from a supermarket that was sadly sandwich-free. A coconut and lemon gelato from Grom helped though. The Castello Estense was marginally less boring than I remembered, but it's still a place most interesting for who and what once lived there rather than for anything that remains. The Cathedral being closed for restoration work we resorted to the superior Cathedral Museum, with it's standout Jacopo della Quercia Madonna of the Pomegranate, organ shutters by Cosmé Tura and some fine Romanesque carvings of the seasons. The weather had got dark and biblical so our dash back to the coach involved some lurking in the Castello and serious dampening. The coach ride back involved a fair amount of dozing.
A four-person meal with Clare found us at an Italian/Mediterranean fusion-y place, but the Mediterranean menu, including the cous-cous, was meaty, so I had some pumpkin pasta-parcel in butter and sage, with a yummy strong almond flavour. It being a busy Saturday night we were given a table outside, but the meal had barely begun when it started to rain on us. A table inside was then found. More excitement followed when a couple nearby got the napkin in their bread basket too near their candle, and when the male half of another couple came and asked us, to settle an argument between them, whether we were American or English.

Sunday 23rd
Packing my rainproof jacket into my suitcase this morning I discovered a lump in the side pocket, which turned out to be my credit-card wallet. I mean who puts their wallet into a side pocket, albeit zipped up? And when?
A morning in Bologna beginning with the Pinacoteca, for a comfortable canter through highlights, taking in Giotto, fresco technique, Raphael, the Vivarini and the Carracci. Then a walk by way of the famous towers to Santa Maria della Vita, to admire the screaming terracotta Pieta tableau before lunch.
Wendy and Candy from our group trusted my recommendation of a pasta place near San Petronio, found on my stay in Bologna last year, and the three of us had some good pasta on the top floor, despite the motor-racing decor. I had some very piquant penne al'arrabiata, and an al fresco Grom copetta of pistachio and coconut for afters, the group regrouped for some time in San Petronio. Walking back to the coach we had one last burst of fresco joy in the oratory of Santa Cecilia. The coach to the airport didn't take long, but the BA flight was delayed by about an hour, as usual. I wasn't home much before midnight, empty of food (BA M&S food in-flight can't be paid for with cash) but full of culture, there was nothing for it but sleep.

Trip reading

Two books about princesses, one a work of 'docufiction' by a French novelist and the other a biography by a heavyweight Oxford historian with Italian political leanings. One is 110 pages of widely-spaced text with big margins, the other 300-odd pages of compact text, notes, a 9-page bibliography and an index.

Marie Ferranti The Princess of Mantua

This is the story of the life of Barbara von Brandenburg, who married Ludovico Gonzaga and appears in Mantegna's fresco of the family in the Camera degli Sposi. As you read there are mentions of sources and helpful experts, but this is all fake - the story is mostly made up. This might be a problem for you, or maybe it makes you ponder whether a story has to be true to be interesting, or at what stage such deception is annoying, bearing in mind the author's admission that it's fiction... With the very real risk of head explosion, just letting the story flow into an open mind seems best, but then you start to wonder why, as it's all invented, the story isn't more substantial and interesting. The commissioning and reactions to Mantegna's frescoes in the aforementioned camera provide some colour, but if this hadn't been a short book I'm not sure I'd have felt moved to finish it.


Christine Shaw Isabella d'Este -
A Renaissance Princess

But this one is a convincing and compelling read from the off. A woman whose life needs no embellishment gets her story well and truly told, as her fame, stature and letters mean there's more than enough material with which to build a picture. Half way through though, after the chapter about Isabella the patron and collector, I felt I knew enough. But that's just me.

Gallery guide corner

The Galleria Estense in Modena
- a brief guide
2015 €12 111pp
Published when the gallery reopened after post-earthquake-essential rebuilding and rehanging, this guide has the advantages of clear translation and good coverage of the antiquities, sculpture, decorative art and, especially, the paintings. On the downside the small images and brief paragraphs describing each work make this more useful for taking around with you, basic research and reminding, than as an eye-opening reading experience. An attractive and recommended thing nonetheless.

Museo della Cattedrale di Ferrara
€5 31pp
A floppy little booklet, made even sparser in content by being dual language, this one nonetheless does its job quite well for the money. The English is good and the illustrations are a good size, if few in number.



The Ducal Palace Mantua
2009 €14 131pp
A chunky and comprehensive guide to the complex's vast warren of rooms. This is as plush a volume as you'd expect from Electa and shines in all spheres. True the introduction by someone from the local Soprintendenza begins with the sentence 'The conjectures society is currently advancing about the museum, its future and its management, seem to have created a conceptual division which distance the territory from the museum.' But the content itself is clear and much less nonsensical.


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