Public property: Palazzo Ducale museum complex
The Palazzo Ducale of Mantua includes numerous open spaces: courtyards and five gardens, of which two are elevated, recreated in the 1900s but that can be traced back to the historical Gonzaga gardens. However, there is nothing remaining of the raised garden of the Palazzina della Paleologa, demolished in the late 1800s. In the Corte Vecchia area, there are four gardens. The oldest, the former Giardino del Padiglione, now called Giardino dei Semplici, is an area of 2,900 square metres, attached to the 15th century Domus Nova and surrounded on the other sides by the Metamorfosi and Rustica apartments, a narrow archway towards the lake and a surrounding wall lined with Thuja. It is surrounded by an avenue lined with plants in vases and by a long, narrow flowerbed with a box hedge border, filled with blue irises. The central area is framed by orthogonal avenues, with a level pool of aquatic plants at their intersection, divided into four square beds with a yew in the centre and pomegranates at each corner, divided themselves by box hedges into smaller beds planted with aromatic, medicinal and edible herbs. The design dates back to 1981 and recalls the Giardino dei Semplici, lost prior to 1775, attributed to the Florentine Zenobio Bocchi who had the plans printed in 1603. This replaced the previous garden, again divided into four squares but planted with fruit trees.
The garden known today as the Cortile d’Onore, an area of 1,160 square metres, has porticoes on two sides and is enclosed between the 14th century Magna Domus and the outbuildings built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its current layout, the result of work carried out in the 1930s, sees the space divided by four perpendicular avenues into four great flowerbeds with box hedge borders, grass lawns with a central sycamore and box hedge corners pruned into balls.
Originally, it was called the Giardino dela logia delle Cità, belonging to the apartment of Federico II, transformed from 1519-20 by Isabella d’Este into her widower’s apartment, to which she wished to add a secret garden. This rectangular space of 80 square metres, restored to its ancient form in the 1930s, is enclosed by walls punctuated by half-columns and niches that once statues from Isabella’s collection and ending in a three-part loggia. Two small diagonal avenues, with a circular pool at their intersection, divide the area into diamond-shaped flowerbeds with box hedge borders, with a fruit tree at the centre and the long-side corners pruned into balls.
The last garden in the Corte Vecchia, again attached to the Magna Domus, is the Giardino Pensile (roof garden), accessed directly from the main floor via the sala nova, later known as Sala dei Fiumi, the representatives’ antechamber of the apartment of Guglielmo, was created in the 1570s and 80s: 775 square metres surrounded on its three free sides by colonnaded porticoes, with a Kafeehaus mid-way along the far side, which replaced a cave and fountain in 1700. Avenues decorated with vases run through the garden, creating a small square flowerbed in the centre, placed diagonally with a central fountain, and four large lawns with box hedge borders, planted with roses.
The other roof garden, known as the Giardino dei Cani, is in the Corte Nuova and is surrounded by the Appartamento di Troia (1536-1539) and the Appartamento di Guglielmo (1551-61). This 140 square metres of space is a rectangular diamond shape, is accessed from the loggia with Palladian windows of the Appartamento di Troia and was restored in 1925-30. It is shaped by perimeter and diagonal pathways into four diamond-shaped flowerbeds with box hedge borders, which hold different species of perennial plants and, at the corners of the longer sides, box hedges pruned into balls. That which, today, is a closed garden, before the creation of the Appartamento di Guglielmo was a sort of panoramic terrace overlooking the lake, which served as a counterpoint to the large lower garden located between the Appartamento di Troia and Rustica, later transformed into the Cortile della Mostra, used for horse shows and today a grass lawn.
Finally, from the windows of the Appartamento di Guglielmo, you can glimpse, at the foot of the palazzo, the remains of the Baluardo della Pallata, the 16th century dock for the court boats, which was transformed into a geometrical garden in 1587. Today, the 5,500 square metres of former rampart, now completely below ground, are divided into five bed of lawn and surrounded in part by a low wall and in part by a privet hedge.
(From P. Carpeggiani, I giardini di Palazzo Ducale, in I giardini dei Gonzaga 2018, pp. 260-283)