Illusion and reality at the Gallery of Antiquity in Sabbioneta


Welcome to the wonderful Gallery of Antiquity, in Sabbioneta: a 97-meter-long cotto portico built in the late 1500s by duke Vespasiano Gonzaga, a man “of rare wit, yet capricious and cruel, who suffered because he felt inferior to his more powerful cousins in Mantua”. He had the gallery (also known as “Corridor grande”) built so he would have a place to gather his antique marble collection and the hunting trophies coming from Prague’s imperial collections.

In his novel “Woman of Wonders”, author Alberto Bevilacqua takes readers into this building where “false perspectives […] enhance the impression of space” and rooms fill with “the art of transforming things into what they are not, and into what we want them to be” (translated from “La donna delle meraviglie”, Mondadori, Milan 1984). Gonzaga entrusted frescoes to brothers Sansepolcro Giovanni and Alessandro Alberti, requesting they “increase space and depth with fake columns and views of the city, painted on the walls”. After all, everything in Sabbioneta “was miniature size. So he called upon the masters of illusion to paint his rooms, and transform them into boundless spaces”.

It is in this evocative setting, where walls feature allegoric figures, panoplies, festoons, vases and coats of arms and the wooden coffered ceiling – once painted blue – peaks down at us with small golden rosettes, Salvatore Nocita set the gruesome scenes of the plague for his 1989 TV miniseries based on Manzoni’s “Promessi sposi” (“The Betrothed”), which brought together an amazing cast including Alberto Sordi (Don Abbondio), Burt Lancaster (cardinal Federigo Borromeo), Dario Fo (Dr. Quibbleweaver), Valentina Cortese (Donna Prassede), Fernando Rey (Attilio’s uncle), Helmut Berger (Egidio) and Walter Chiari (Tonio).

So let’s follow Renzo Tramaglino, as he enters Milan’s lazaret, crowded with sick people in 1630. What he sees is no illusion, but the sad reality of contagion and disease: The reader may imagine the lazaretto, peopled with sixteen thousand persons infected with the plague: the vast enclosure was encumbered with cabins, tents, cars, and human beings. Two long ranges of porticoes, to the right and left, were crowded with the dying or the dead, extended upon straw; and from the immense receptacle of woe, was heard a deep murmur, similar to the distant voice of the waves, agitated by a tempest. (A. Manzoni, “The Betrothed”, chapter XXXV).

Galleria degli Antichi
Sabbioneta (Mantua)
Via Galleria, 5
+39 0375 52039

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May 7, 2019