Starting with 1308, Palazzo Ducale was the official residence of the lords of Mantua, belonging at first to the Bonacolsi family, until 1328, when it became the residence of the Gonzaga family, who ruled the city until 1707.
Distinct buildings were built in different eras, starting with the 13th century, initially by the Bonacolsi family, and subsequently by the Gonzagas.
It was Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga who commissioned the architect Giovan Battista Bertani to connect the various buildings into an organic form, to create starting from 1556 a single grandiose monumental and architectural complex, one of the largest in Europe, which stretched between the shore of Lake Inferiore and Piazza Sordello.
Bertani died in 1576, and the work was continued by the architect Bernardino Facciotto, who completed the gardens, squares, arcades, galleries, exedras and courtyards, definitively fixing the appearance of the ducal palace.
During the Gonzaga domination, the palace gradually expanded, both with the addition of new buildings and by modifying the existing ones. The complex includes Corte Vecchia (Old Court), composed of Palazzo del Capitano and Magna Domus, the oldest buildings overlooking Piazza Sordello, Domus Nova, an imposing palace built by Luca Fancelli, Corte Nuova, facing the lake, built by Giulio Romano and subsequently enlarged by Bertani and Antonio Maria Viani, and the Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara, built by Bertani.
In 1630, the palace was looted during the sacking of Mantua, and its remaining artworks were sold by the last duke of the Gonzaga family, Ferdinando Carlo di Gonzaga-Nevers, who fled to Venice in 1707. After the palace became the residence of the imperial governor Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1716, it was partially refurnished.
During the Habsburg and French domination, Palazzo Ducale lost its function as a multifunctional court at the service of the ruling family. The Castle of San Giorgio, part of the complex, was included among the buildings intended for military use.
With the annexation of Mantua to the Kingdom of Italy, the palace became part of the National Heritage. In 1915, a convention was signed between the State and local institutions for the establishment of a museum in the Ducal Palace of Mantua.
Palazzo Ducale covers an area of more than 35,000 square meters, which makes it the sixth largest palace in Europe after the Vatican palaces, the Louvre, the Palace of Versailles, the Royal Palace of Caserta and the Castle of Fontainebleau. The palace has more than 500 rooms and contains 7 gardens and 8 courtyards.
Palazzo del Capitano, which overlooks Piazza Sordello, is the oldest building of the Ducal Palace, commissioned by Guido Bonacolsi at the end of the 13th century. Initially built on two floors and separated from the Magna Domus by an alley, it was raised by one floor near the end of the 14th century and joined to Magna Domus by a monumental facade with a portico. The new floor of the palace consists of a single huge hall (67×15 meters), called Dell’Armeria (Weapon Hall).
Domus Nova was built between 1480 and 1484 by the Tuscan architect Luca Fancelli, and transformed more than a century later, under the impulse of Duke Vincenzo I, by the architect Antonio Maria Viani. On this occasion, the beautiful Ducal Apartment (Appartamento Ducale) was created.
Corte Nuova (New Court) was built in 1536 by the architect Giulio Romano for Duke Federico II Gonzaga, and enlarged later by Giovan Battista Bertani. The main feature of Corte Nuova is Sala di Manto (Mantle Hall). The current appearance of Sala del Manto dates to the intervention of Guglielmo X, who ordered the creation of the Appartamento Grande di Castello (Large Apartment of the Castle).
The Church of Santa Barbara, which was the Palace chapel for the Gonzagas, was built between 1562 and 1572 by Giovanni Battista Bertani, commissioned by Duke Guglielmo. The church has a central plan, with a square tiburium in the middle, followed by a raised semicircular presbytery, ending into an apse decorated with coffers. The bell tower has a square plan, and is topped by a small temple.
HOW TO GET THERE
Palazzo Ducale is located about 1.4 kilometers away from the Mantua railway station. The closest bus stop, Duomo, is located near the palace, on the bus Lines 4C, 4S, 4T, 6 and 12.