309 pages, Harper & Row, ISBN-13: 978-0245547386
In A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua, Kate Simon pulls together the threads of history about the Gonzaga, a powerful family that ruled one of the city-states in northern Italy for several centuries. Mantua is usually passed up by visitors in favor of Verona and Venice (even though Shakespeare used it in three of his plays: Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew), but since its publication in 1988, Mantua may have become (in the Baedeker phrase) “worth a detour”. Neither an historian nor an expert on Italy, and working in the archives instead of the streets (yet still discovering the telling detail), Simon notes that one of the clues to the Gonzaga family could be found in the motto of the fourth Duke of Mantua: forse che si, forse che no: “maybe yes and maybe no”. Principles took second place to power; the family members moved this way or that to retain their leadership, their gold ducats, their palaces and estates. The Gonzaga rulers knew how to watch their backs and to form alliances with equally strong families; as condottieri (hired guns) for Venice, the family earned large sums of money commanding other mercenaries. Like the Medici of Florence, the Gonzaga family put its earnings and energy into embellishing its city: building programs were drafted and achieved, and Mantua was divided into boroughs headed by responsible citizens. The Gonzaga rulers were great patrons of the arts; Andrea Mantegna served as their court painter for three generations.
A reader can savor the gossip about arranged marriages, corrupt popes and the alliance of the church with dynastic families. Delving into the past through paintings, sculpture and tapestries as well as manuscript records, Simon has put her reporting abilities to work, filling in the historical blanks. With great imagination, she dares to interpret characters and events by studying the figures, their weapons, their cruel or handsome faces, their posturing. Regrettably, the book is sparse in its art photographs and scenes that could link past and present Mantua. Furthermore, as Simon uses secondary sources almost exclusively (some good, some not so good) to present the saga of the Gonzaga family, most of her material is rehashed from old sources, and her rehashing is not very lively or imaginative. Simon simply had no insight for or penetrating views about the subject she had selected. The book is also rather clumsily arranged; while reading the 300+ I was never able to ascertain the organizing principle at work as the author flitted from subject to subject in no logical fashion, incoherently blending bits of biography with bits of history with bits of personal “interpretation”. The whole affair was a mess, and there was a grievous lack of citation for the more risible claims Simon made throughout the book. I was informed and even entertained from time to time, but the chaos of the work just got to me, and I at last put it down a little-less ignorant about Mantua than before but not very well-informed.