My kind of Town

Alun Jones, ‘My kind of Town’, in: Architecture Today (London, UK: June 2001)

My kind of town - Mantua

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I spent my year-out with Joseph Rykwert and Robert Tavernor as part of their research group, working on an exhibition of Alberti’s work. It was 1990; Rykwert and Tavernor had just published the first direct translation of Alberti’s architecture treatise in English and had secured funding from Olivetti for an exhibition that would take place in the Palazzo Te in Mantua.

In the months preceding my first visit, I submerged myself in the study of Humanist Mantua, and set off, rather naively, with an idealised, academic preconception of what I would find. After hours on a temperamental train crawling across the Po valley in the mid-July heat, I arrived to find a rather dusty normal place getting on with everyday life. It was not a museum, it was not perfect, but it was somehow strangely beautiful.

Mantua was a relatively insignificant city state until the early fifteenth century when Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua, gained the right to raise a salt tax. With the tax came banking and the  establishment of Mantua as a political and commercial force. In 1459, Gianfrancesco’s son, the then duke, Ludovico, inspired by the virtuous example of the Medici in Florence, set about a programme of patronage that would see the construction of two of Alberti’s five realised buildings, the installation of Andrea Mantegna as court artist, and the catapulting of this little state to the forefront of the history of ideas.

Mantua is situated in the centre of the flat and featureless Po valley; it sits on an island, surrounded by lakes, in a tributary of the Po. The city is made of brick and stucco painted in shades of ‘earth’ burnt to varying degrees, and is structured around a series of inter-connected piazza which are colonnaded and deeply articulated. These piazza are flanked with both public and private buildings, deep courtyards with grand staircases that lead to ceremonial rooms, family towers and palazzi. Lying to the north of the Piazza d’Erbe and completely buried within the fabric of the city is Alberti’s masterpiece, the church of Sant’Andrea. Its chapels share party walls with the butcher and baker, and only the remarkable facade reveals its presence. The piazza immediately infront of Sant’Andrea is small and gives the impression of being more embeded in the culture of the city than being the forecourt of a cathedral. Emerging from the narrow colonnaded streets, thick with everyday life, into this space, and being suddendly in the presence of such beauty, is a shocking experience. It is as though you are being told the truth about something.

Sant’Andrea is a deeply grounded building, both within a tradition of ideas and the city that it serves. It houses a phial of the Blood of Christ which is venerated on Ascension day by being paraded around the city by candlelight. It is a theatrical situation in which the everyday life of the city and the paradigmatic meet. The back-drop to this event is the facade of the building, itself a triumphal arch and thus the iconic figure of the classical theatre.

Alberti’s other Mantuan church, San Sebastiano, is by contrast more enigmatic. It was Alberti’s first commission for Ludovico Gonzaga and was built as a votive church to ward off the plague. It was Gonzaga’s first step towards edifying his position as a wise and virtuous patron and all which that implied. But unlike Sant’Andrea it was never completed. The construction of the church was beset with technical difficulties which necessitated the modification of the design during construction. Thirty years after work started, the incomplete church was given by Gonzaga to the Lateran Canons, who enveloped it within a monastery. Centuries of abuse, culminating in the 1925 ‘renovation’ which turned the church into a war memorial, have rendered San Sebastiano little more than a curiosity for academics to propose reconstructions of, in the impossible attempt to recover for themselves Alberti’s most perfect theoretical proposal: the centralised temple.

Today, Mantua is still a rich city, the banking that developed in the fifteenth century is still present and the Mantovani enjoy a good life. Mantua is a very easy place to be; there is a relaxed confidence about the people on the street, the quality of the local food and wine is excellent and the climate is enviable. Unlike many of its more famous neighbours, Mantua seems to be unaffected by the presence of great art and architecture. That Ludovico Gonzaga chose to adopt a philosophical position that would align him and his virtuous intentions with those of Solomon goes unnoticed in everyday Mantua. What you are aware of is that this is a city grounded in ideas and not image. 

In his essay The Relevance of the Beautiful, the German phenomenologist Gadamer states that ‘the ontological function of the beautiful is to bridge the chasm between the ideal and the real’. Mantua is beautiful.

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