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The Riches of Mantua, Ferrara, Modena and Bologna with Sarah Dunant

Photo: Charlie Hopkinson


A unique opportunity to visit these beautiful, art-filled places with two lecturers: Sarah Dunant and Marie-Anne Mancio.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Mantua and Ferrarawere among the most sophisticated of small renaissance states. The ruling families (the Este in Ferrara and the Gonzaga in Mantua) were passionate about art and culture: painting, architecture, music, even theatre and the beginnings of opera. While many of the greatest treasures they collected were later sold off to avoid bankruptcy or pilfered by invaders, what remains are some extraordinary palaces, castles and churches with works by some of the finest painters of the time: Pisanello, Mantegna, Cosimo di Turo and Giulio Romano to name but a few.

They were also home to two of the period’s most colourful women co-rulers (and rival sisters-in-law), Isabella d’Este and the infamous, though much maligned, Lucrezia Borgia. Their parallel life stories would make for jaw dropping historical drama - except of course that any film or tv series would run roughshod over the historical truth.

Co lecturer, historian and novelist, Sarah Dunant, has researched and written about both women and will deliver illustrated lectures on them to enhance the experience of the tour.

See the 'Further Info' for a detailed itinerary.

Please note all bookings by email please. It is not yet 'out of stock'!


The Riches of Mantua, Ferrara, Modena and Bologna with Sarah Dunant

  • Tuesday 22nd October 2024 - Saturday 26th October incl (5 days)(Arrive on or by Monday 21st October 2024)

    You can fly direct to Bologna airport from London.

    Base yourself in Bologna or Modena for convenience. Travel between cities by train (not included).

  • Ferrara [1 day] This beautiful little walled town remains a renaissance wonder. Small enough to walk – or bicycle - around, it still boasts a medieval quarter as well as one of the earliest examples of town planning renaissance style, carried out in the 1490’s by Duke Ercole. Along with the Palazzo Diamante, now a rich art museum, there is also a 12th/ 13 th century cathedral, a 15 th century fortress which dominates the city centre, its nearby ducal palace, and the renowned Palazzo Schifanoia, with its precious 1460’s frescoed salon. Like many cities throughout the renaissance, it was also home to a great number of enclosed convents. Two of which still remain, and are open at times to the public; one containing some remarkable Giotto school 14 th century frescos in its chapel. The tour will include a visit to them, along with a chance to explore with Sarah, what life would have been like for close on half of well born women, who spent their lives as nuns. Much of what we now know has only come to light over the last forty or so years, as women historians have asked a different set of questions of the past. And in among the horror stories, there are some powerful veins of creativity.

    Mantua [2 days] Like Ferrara, this gem of a city was once entirely surrounded by water, and is still a stunning place to visit as you arrive, by train or car across the one connecting bridge. For centuries the home of the Gonzaga family, whose court painter for some forty plus years Andrea Mantegna. While many of his greatest works were sold off or looted by invaders (His ‘Triumphs of War’ are in Hampton Court and many others now in the Louvre) what remains is his astonishing Camera degli Sposi, with its early trompe l’oiel cupola and arresting images of court life, and the horses and hounds that were the Gonzaga passion. The castle and ducal palace were for forty years the home of Isabella Este, the first and greatest female art patron and collector of her time. Clever, determined – often downright bolshy, she amassed an extraordinary collection which she housed in her rooms (which can still be visited today) and her famous “studiolo” - the first woman to have such a room of her own. Sarah is currently writing a novel about her life, drawing on some thousands of letters now in the Mantua state archive (which you could visit, but it’s dull as dishwater). Though right by it there is a jewel of a small perfectly preserved 18 th century theatre, where Mozart played as a child prodigy.

    Finally, there is the Palazzo Te. Designed and built by the early mannerist architect and painter Giulio Romano. In his youth, he was one of art history’s bad boys, a prodigy of Raphael he got himself thrown out of Rome for a set of pornographic prints which he drew and then had engraved: sixteen images of men and women copulating in all manner of positions. (The story of it features in Sarah’s novel “In the company of the Courtesan” and she has dug out some fragments of the remaining woodcuts for those with an appetite to taste renaissance porn. Good preparation for the colourful interior of his palace, with the most bizarre room of the Giants.)

    Bologna [1 day] Home to Europe’s oldest university, this red-brick city of arcaded streets was historically and artistically important in the Italian renaissance. Noted historymakers were the Bentivoglio family and Pope Julius II (whose portrait by Raphael hangs in London’s National Gallery).

    At the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, we’ll see artwork from some of the leading Italian artists: Raphael, Perugino, Tintoretto, Titian, the Carracci, Guercino and Reni. Other highlights include the majestic Basilica di San Petronio with its Music Chapel which is Bologna’s oldest musical institution (1436), and Giovanni da Modena’s terrifying visions of Hell.

    Modena [1 day] Modena’s 12th century duomo, gothic bell tower and Piazza Grande are a UNESCO World Heritage site and museums here are a testimony to the Este family’s patronage. Highlights include works by Bernini, Velázquez [Portrait of Francesco I d’Este, pictured], Correggio, Guercino, El Greco, Guido Reni, Cosmè Tura, Dosso Dossi, Mantegna and Carpaccio.

    [Note: the exact order of the days will be decided nearer the time.]

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