Sabbioneta – Ideal city of the Renaissance
A dramatic and tragic fate did not distract the founder of Sabbioneta – Ideal city of the Renaissance from his project.
The Po plain is not the most inspiring Italian landscape, but somewhere among the endless flat maize and corn fields there are beautiful man-made wonders waiting to be discovered. Like Sabbioneta – Ideal city of the Renaissance in Lombardy.
Capital of one of the smallest states in Italy
We were driving from Parma to Mantua / Mantova and decided to stop by the star-shaped fortress of the late sixteenth century, decribed by UNESCO World Heritage as ‘a single-period city’ representing ‘the implementation of the period’s theories about planning the ideal city’.
UNESCO goes on to explain that ‘Sabbioneta was the capital of one of the smallest states in Italy, created when Mantova was divided into several parts in 1478. These parts were still ruled by different branches of the Gonzaga family. It has been known since Roman times as a locality along the Vitelliana road but, even though it has a long history, it can be considered a new foundation. Sabbioneta is the creation of one man, the ruler of the little state Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna (1531-1591). He had studied the writings and theories of ideal city planning but his aim was to build an impregnable fortress and functioning capital of the state with all moderne amenities such as a permanent theatre. It is believed that he himself designed the plan and the fortifications with the help of military expertise. The work began sometime between 1554 and 1556.’
Today almost 500 years later the Renaissance visions are still visible. We crossed a one-way stone bridge over a dry moat, entered the gate and found ourselves in a silent city of well-kept yellow and orange houses interspersed with colonnades, palaces, squares and churches on cobble stoned streets laid-out in a neat rectangular grid. Except for one small section the circuit of the town walls are complete, so traffic is limited as are the number of permanent residents. This in itself feels kind of unreal. After all Sabbioneta lies in one of the most densely populated areas of Europe, and we were visiting at the height of the summer tourist season
Still, the café opposite the Ducal Palace is filled with locals, discussing holiday plans and drinking alcohol before noon. This is rather unusual anywhere in Italy, and adds to the melancholy of the place.
The Tragic Duke
Sabbioneta was designed and built by Vespasiano Gonzaga, who was born in 1531 in Italy but educated and married in Spain. He returned with a vision of creating an ideal place where artists, painters, scientists and writers could live in harmony with the perfect patron.
After having initiated the project, Vespasiano was called away to war, and when he returned, he found that his wife had been unfaithful. Some say he killed her lover and locked her up in a room with the corpse where she was served a glass of poisoned wine a day with the word ‘bevi’. After three days she drank from the cup and died.
More tragedies ensued. The duke kicked his only son by a second wife in the balls for disobedience, causing an injury that led to the boy’s death. And at the age of sixty he was suffering from some neurological disease, and to cure him doctors drilled a hole in his skull. After the trepanation he woke up one morning, sat up in bed, and said ‘I am cured’, before he fell back and died.
The ducal palace in Sabbioneta is still standing, but you have to know the story beforehand to see the drama of this failed Utopia. The most striking reminder of Vespasiano Gonzaga are some frescos and wall panels and the wooden statues of the four surviving horsemen of the Gonzaga family including himself.
Other places to visit near Sabbioneta