One naturally goes first into the oldest part, the red-brick castle of the older Marquises, in one of whose great square towers are Mantegna's really delightful frescoes: charming cupids, like fleecy clouds turned to babies, playing in a sky of the most marvellous blue, among garlands of green and of orange and lemon trees cut into triumphal arches, with the Marquis of Mantua and all the young swashbuckler Gonzagas underneath. The whole decoration, with its predominant blue, and enamel white and green, is delicate and cool in its magnificence, and more thoroughly enjoyable than most of Mantegna's work. But the tower windows frame in something more wonderful and delectable--one of the lakes! The pale blue water, edged with green reeds, the poplars and willows of the green plain beyond; a blue vagueness of Alps, and, connecting it all, the long castle bridge with its towers of pale geranium-coloured bricks.
One has to pass through colossal yards to get from this fortified portion to the rest of the Palace, Corte Nuova, as it is called. They have now become public squares, and the last time I saw them, it being market day, they were crowded with carts unloading baskets of silk; and everywhere the porticoes were heaped with pale yellow and greenish cocoons; the palace filled with the sickly smell of the silkworm, which seemed, by coincidence, to express its saecular decay. For of all the decaying palaces I have ever seen in Italy this Palace of Mantua is the most utterly decayed. At first you have no other impression. But little by little, as you tramp through what seem miles of solemn emptiness, you find that more than any similar place it has gone to your brain. For these endless rooms and cabinets--some, like those of Isabella d'Este (which held the Mantegna and Perugino and Costa allegories, Triumph of Chastity and so forth, now in the Louvre), quite delicate and exquisite; or scantily modernised under Maria Theresa for a night's ball or assembly; or actually crumbling, defaced, filled with musty archives; or recently used as fodder stores and barracks--all this colossal labyrinth, oddly symbolised by the gold and blue labyrinth on one of the ceilings, is, on the whole, the most magnificent and fantastic thing left behind by the Italy of Shakespeare. The art that remains (by the way, in one dismantled hall I found the empty stucco frames of our Triumph of Julius Caesar!) is, indeed, often clumsy and cheap--elaborate medallions and ceilings by Giulio Romano and Primaticcio; but one feels that it once appealed to an Ariosto-Tasso mythological romance which was perfectly genuine, and another sort of romance now comes with its being so forlorn.
Forlorn, forlorn! And everywhere, from the halls with mouldering zodiacs and Loves of the Gods and Dances of the Muses; and across hanging gardens choked with weeds and fallen in to a lower level, appear the blue waters of the lake, and its green distant banks, to make it all into Fairyland. There is, more particularly, a certain long, long portico, not far from Isabella d'Este's writing closet, dividing a great green field planted with mulberry trees, within the palace walls, from a fringe of silvery willows growing in the pure, lilied water. Here the Dukes and their courtiers took the air when the Alps slowly revealed themselves above the plain after sunset; and watched, no doubt, either elaborate quadrilles and joustings in the riding-school, on the one hand, or boat-races and all manner of water pageants on the other. We know it all from the books of the noble art of horsemanship: plumes and curls waving above curvetting Spanish horses; and from the rarer books of sixteenth and seventeenth century masques and early operas, where Arion appears on his colossal dolphin packed with _tiorbos_ and _violas d'amore_, singing some mazy _aria_ by Caccini or Monteverde, full of plaintive flourishes and unexpected minors. We know it all, the classical pastoral still coloured with mediaeval romance, from Tasso and Guarini--nay, from Fletcher and Milton. Moreover, some chivalrous Gonzaga duke, perhaps that same Vincenzo who had the blue and gold ceiling made after the pattern of the labyrinth in which he had been kept by the Turks, not too unlike, let us hope, Orsino of Illyria, and by his side a not yet mournful Lady Olivia; and perhaps, directing the concert at the virginal, some singing page Cesario.... Fancy a water pastoral, like the Sabrina part of "Comus," watched from that portico! The nymph Manto, founder of Mantua, rising from the lake; cardboard shell or real one? Or the shepherds of Father Virgil, trying to catch hold of Proteus; but all in ruffs and ribbons, spouting verses like "Amyntas" or "The Faithful Shepherdess." And now only the song of the frogs rises up from among the sedge and willows, where the battlemented castle steeps its buttresses in the lake.
There is another side to this Shakespearean palace, not of romance but of grotesqueness verging on to horror. There are the Dwarfs' Apartments! Imagine a whole piece of the building, set aside for their dreadful living, a rabbit warren of tiny rooms, including a chapel against whose vault you knock your head, and a grand staircase quite sickeningly low to descend.
Strange human or half-human kennels, one trusts never really put to use, and built as a mere brutal jest by a Duke of Mantua smarting under the sway of some saturnine little monster, like the ones who stand at the knee of Mantegna's frescoed Gonzagas.
After seeing the Castello and the Corte Nuova one naturally thinks it one's duty to go and see the little Palazzo del Te, just outside the town. Inconceivable frescoes, colossal, sprawling gods and goddesses, all chalk and brick dust, enough to make Rafael, who was responsible for them through his abominable pupils, turn for ever in his coffin. Damp-stained stuccoes and grass-grown courtyards, and no sound save the noisy cicalas sawing on the plane-trees. How utterly forsaken of gods and men is all this Gonzaga splendour! But all round, luxuriant green grass, and English-looking streams winding flush among great willows. We left the Palazzo del Te very speedily behind us, and set out toward Pietola, the birthplace of Virgil. But the magic of one of the lakes bewitched us. We sat on the wonderful green embankments, former fortifications of the Austrians, with trees steeping in the water, and a delicious, ripe, fresh smell of leaves and sun-baked flowers, and watched quantities of large fish in the green shadow of the railway bridge. In front of us, under the reddish town walls, spread an immense field of white water lilies; and farther off, across the blue rippled water, rose the towers and cupolas and bastions of the Gonzaga's palace--palest pink, unsubstantial, utterly unreal, in the trembling heat of the noontide.