For more than 300 years the enormous Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Gonzaga – a family of wealthy horse breeders who rose to power in the 14th century to become one of Italy's leading Renaissance families. Their 500-room, 35,000-sq-metre palace is vast; a visit today winds through 40 of the finest chambers split into three historical parts: the Corte Vecchia, the Corte Nuova and the Castello di San Giorgio. Outside is a courtyard garden known as the Giardino dei Semplici.
Along with works by Morone and Rubens, the highlight of the palace is the witty mid-15th-century fresco by Mantegna in the Camera degli Sposi (Bridal Chamber). Executed between 1465 and 1474, the room, which is entirely painted, shows the marquis, Lodovico, going about his courtly business with family and courtiers in tow in impressive 3D. Painted naturalistically and with great attention to perspective, the arched walls appear like windows on the courtly world – looking up at the duke’s wife, Barbara, you can even see the underside of her dress as if she’s seated above you. Most playful of all though is the trompe l'œil oculus featuring bare-bottomed putti (cherubs) – the point of view is quite distastefully realistic in places – balancing precariously on a painted balcony, while smirking courtly pranksters appear ready to drop a large potted plant on gawping tourists below.
Other palace highlights are the Sala di Troia, Frederico II's council chamber entirely done out in Trojan War scenes and Rubens' Adoration of the Holy Trinity in the Sala degli Arcieri (Room of Archers), which Napoleonic troops brutally dismembered in 1797. In room 8, the Sala del Pisanello, fragments and preliminary sketches of Pisanello’s frescoes of Arthurian knights remain, while room 24, the Sala dello Zodiaco, sports a ceiling representing the heavens studded with starry constellations.
The palace's finest remaining features are its frescoed and gilt ceilings including, in room 2, a labyrinth, prophetically predicting the capricious nature of good fortune. Below it, as if in illustration, are two portraits of Eleanor Gonzaga (1630–86), who rose to marry a Habsburg emperor, and Vicenzo II (1594–1627), who lost the entire family fortune and one of Europe's most enviable art collections.
Rooms 34 to 36 house the Stanze degli Arazzi, some of the only original artworks commissioned by the family: nine 16th-century Flemish tapestries reproduced from Raphael’s original designs for the Sistine Chapel. Woven in Brussels using the finest English wool, Indian silk and Cypriot gold and silver thread, they represent the cosmopolitan sophistication of the Gonzaga court at the height of its power.