Masque of the Gonzagas

Written by Clare Colvin
Review by Mary Sharratt

This panoramic epic of the Italian Renaissance is set in the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, 4th Duke of Mantua, who has devoted his life to the pursuit of art and pleasure. The story begins in 1589 when the young and handsome Vincenzo seems to have everything. The young Monteverdi is his court composer and Pieter Paul Rubens, his court painter. He is blessed with both a fertile wife and an enchanting mistress, whose own court is a centre of culture. The Duke’s darker side emerges in a string of rape-like conquests as he preys on the maidens in his court. Monteverdi’s betrothed is included in this gallery of bruised young womanhood. Brimming with hubris, the Duke squanders his fortune on gambling, mistresses, spectacular festivals, and foreign wars. His death in 1611 signals the end of the dream of the Renaissance itself. While his corrupt sons squabble over the spoils of debt-ridden Mantua, the exuberant humanism of Renaissance Italy gives way to an age of religious intolerance and Inquisition.

The author is at her best when describing the mirage-like beauty of Mantua, the beautiful city perched on an island in malarial marshland. An opera critic, she brings the music of the period to life and does a fine job portraying the court’s intrigues and splendour. Her narrative authority is undermined by certain anachronisms: a servant wears a dress of “sprigged cotton” in an age when cotton was more exotic and expensive than silk. The main flaw is that there is just too much story crammed into 285 pages and too little character development. The only fully realised character is the Duke himself and when he dies on page 198, the rest of the book feels like padding and anti-climax. Ambitious but uneven.