In the Middle Ages, Volta Mantovana was a fortified town. On top of the hill, the castle dominated the surrounding area and had two main walls, one delimiting a more highly defended area, with just a few buildings and a keep, which, today, forms the town bell tower, and one enclosing a wider area with numerous houses and buildings and incorporating two main gates, Porta Leonis, facing north-west but no longer in existence, and Porta Mantovana, of which some traces survive, such as the Gothic arch in the street of Via Chiesa. A moat ran around the walls, the whole south-western part of which survives today, and is bordered by the street of Via Fosse.
In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Gonzagas owned numerous countryside estates and houses in the Volta area, including within the perimeter of the town walls. In 1465, with this nucleus of house within the fortified town, the construction of Palazzo Gonzaga began under the commission of Barbara of Brandeburg, wife of the Mantuan Lord Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga, as a country residence away from the stress and fatigue of the court, and as a refuge from the heat and epidemics of the City of Mantua.
The palace was also an excellent base for controlling the territory, as it was located on the border with the Veronese dominions of the time.
Barbara and Ludovico often went there with their family until the Marquis’ death in 1478, the year in which, according to letters that have survived until today, their grandchildren, the children of Marquis Federico, came to Volta, accompanied by court doctors and their entourage, in order to escape the plague that was raging in Mantua and restore their health.
In 1515, the palace was donated by the sons of Rodolfo Gonzaga to the Guerrieri family as a sign of gratitude for their military aid. From this moment on, the Guerrieri Gonzaga inhabited the palace for centuries, embellishing and renovating it when necessary, and adding new environments, such as the stables, the real tennis court and the gardens.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the palace passed back to the Gonzaga family, more precisely to Achille Gonzaga di Vescovato. Then, during the movement for Italian Unification, it was used, in turn, as operational headquarters by the Piedmontese and the Austrians. Here, in 1848, Charles Albert of Sardinia assigned the tricolour flag to the navy, as the epigraph on the façade of the palace recalls. In 1859, Franz Joseph I of Austria based his headquarters in the palace during the Battle of Solferino, and from here fled to Verona. Then, on occasion of the Battle of Custoza, in 1866, the palace served as an observation station for the Piedmontese generals.
In 1929, the property passed to the Cavriani Marquises, and, finally, in 1981, it was purchased by the Municipality of Volta and began to be used as its municipal seat.
The visit itinerary winds through the palace and its gardens, passing through three main sections: the noble area, the kitchen area and the gardens. The noble area and the gardens can be visited in the week, during the Town Hall opening hours, while the kitchen area is open only on weekends (for precise opening days and times, please consult the Contact page).
The noble area is largely occupied by the municipal offices, and can, therefore, only be partially visited.
It can be accessed from the main entrance hall, known as the Fireplace Hall due to its large, red, marble fireplace, whose hood was decorated in the nineteenth century with the noble coat of arms of the Gonzaga family.
Going up the large staircase takes you to the magnificent Feast Hall, used as a reception room, and, in times of war, for important military meetings. Its current decoration was realised at the end of the 18th century by painter Paolo Zandalocca, of the Mantuan neoclassical school. The hall has some fine examples of the fascinating, eye-deceiving technique of trompe l’oeil, typical of this period.
Crossing the threshold of one of the two doors at the back of the hall takes you into the Hall of the Labours of Hercules, recently restored to its sixteenth-century splendour and distinguished by imposing female figures, soft colours and a beautiful, original coffered ceiling.
Next to it, the King’s Chamber, prepared for Victor Emmanuel III’s stay in 1909 during the Great Manoeuvres, clearly testifies to the succession of transformations that the palace underwent over the centuries, as is evident in the adjoining bathroom carved out of the old palace chapel built in the second half of the sixteenth century.
The north wing of the palace is occupied by servants rooms centred around a large kitchen, probably built towards the end of the 16th century to replace an older kitchen. The kitchen houses the palace’s Permanent Exhibition of Conviviality and Wine in the Renaissance, which allows visitors to immerse themselves in the fascinating and magical atmosphere of the time through the splendour of banquets, the workings of the kitchen, the pantries, the icebox and the cellars.
One of the small cellars hosts an evocative exhibition of archaeological finds discovered in the kitchen drainage pit and datable to between the mid-16th and the 17th century. Exhibited alongside plates, mugs, blown glass goblets and bottles, cutlery and other kitchen and table items are various other objects related to the daily life of the inhabitants of the building. The results of the related archaeological research have been collected in a book called ‘Rinascimento Quotidiano’, meaning ‘Day-to-day Renaissance’, on sale at the palace’s Info Point.
The kitchen, used until the nineteen seventies, retains many traces of transformations and adaptations over its various periods of use. In particular, the fireplace has been adapted several times, leading up to the installation of a monumental wood-burning stove that dominates the middle of the room.
The visit ends in the gardens, created on different levels between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The upper garden was established in the first half of the sixteenth century in the unused moat surrounding the medieval castle. In the following century, it was enlarged, with the construction of a second terrace. The first garden had three loggias similar to those of today, but made of oak columns on which rose and jasmine climbers rose. In the terracotta pots were jasmine, oleander and carnations, and, along the avenues, boxwood hedges. The setting was completed by 24 large cypresses, and 150 small ones.
Created during the seventeenth century in the lower garden was a large, central golden domed structure, under which a large octagonal table was placed, and, a little further south, a fountain was placed and surmounted by a statue of Neptune with a golden trident in hand riding a dolphin. Numerous jasmine pergolas also ran along the sides of the garden and up to the central domed structure, forming a flowery, shaded walkway.
Similar to the second, a third garden was added in the following century as a pleasure garden, with vases and flower beds. To the north, this was bordered by a large, two-storey lemon-house, no longer in existence, in the style of those still visible along the shores of Lake Garda. This structure fell into disuse when, in 1826, Tullio Guerrieri, the then owner of the palace, acquired the Church of San Carlo, outside of the palace grounds, and converted the ground floor of the old church within the grounds into a lemon-house that is still existing today.
The fourth garden, located on an even lower level, dates from the nineteenth century. To the north, it was bordered by the ‘Morara’, a mulberry grove, which, in turn, backed onto the vegetable gardens, located in the area to the north of the first garden, adjacent to the servant kitchen area.
Currently housing the Info Point and the Gonzaga Wine Cellar, in the south wing, is what has been known since the seventeenth century as the Gardener’s House, under which, from the Middle Ages on, there were the cellars producing various types of wine, such as Vernazza di Volta, probably a passito wine, once famous throughout Europe but of which all traces have been lost.
This room is called the Projection Room for its use in the early 1900s for the screening of films. The room is distinguished by a coffered wooden ceiling, repainted in the 1800s. In the floral frieze running around the room you can see decorative coats of arms with Latin mottos taken from the Gonzaga family and evidently adopted by the Guerrieri family. These mottos include: “Fides”, or “Faith”; “Domine probasti”, or “Lord, you have tested me”; “Nec spe nec metu”, or “Neither with hope, nor with fear”.
The Lemon-house was built after 1826 from the old Oratory of the palace, which had been abandoned for the Church of San Carlo located on the opposite side of the road. The original chapel, built at the end of the sixteenth century, had an entrance door to the street, still visible from the outside, which allowed the ordinary inhabitants of the town to participate in religious services on certain occasions. A raised area or balcony was reserved for the noble owners to watch over the Mass.
In the middle of the nave, there was a walnut balustrade, and, at the end, towards the gardens, there was an apse with an altar and a canvas depicting the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. In 1826, the Oratory fell into disuse, and then was converted, in subsequent years, into a lemon-house. A mid-height floor was built to create an additional room on the first floor, while the lemon-house space was equipped with terraced coverings to shelter the garden’s lemon and orange pots from the cold during the winter. Of the three wood-burning stoves installed on the sides and in the centre, only the one on the left was really functional and used to heat the space.
From palace inventories we know that at least since the 1600s this hall was used as the main entrance, but it is likely that it was already in use as such during the period of Barbara and Ludovico Gonzaga. Today, it is known as the ‘Fireplace Hall’, due to its large, red, marble fireplace, with lion’s paw decorations. It is also distinguished by two large, arched French windows giving access to the upper garden. The Gonzaga coat of arms painted on the fireplace hood dates from the nineteenth century, and features four imperial eagles and two Bohemian lions. The coat of arms is again reproduced on the opposite wall.
Above the fireplace, in the frieze adorning the room, you can see depicted a muzzle and the word “cautius”, testifying to the confidentiality and loyalty awarded to the prince. This was the heraldic insignia of Francesco II Gonzaga, husband of Isabella d’Este and Marquis of Mantua, who, in 1506, granted Ludovico Guerrieri the honour of bearing the surname Gonzaga, as well as the coat of arms and the insignia of Francesco, for his many merits and loyal devotion as an officer of the court and personal adviser to the Marquis. The palace was then gifted to Ludovico in 1515, and the symbol of the muzzle has been handed down to this day, in this frieze dating from to the early twentieth century, by the subsequent owners of the palace.
This room is called the Billiard Room, due to its use as such during the more recent periods of the palace’s life. The ceiling is covered with monochromatic canvases. In the upper part of the walls are floral and geometric motifs with frames enclosing neoclassical cherubs. Above the marble fireplace is a scene depicting the Judgement of Paris, whereby he hands the golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides to Aphrodite, or Venus to the Romans, offering him the love of the most beautiful woman, Helen, or Juno, who, in turn, offers him the world and Athena, or Minerva, thus promising him military glory.
This was a study where the owners of the Palazzo read and received intimate friends. The decorations assume the neoclassical style of Pompeian repertoire. The students of the Academy of Fine Arts of Mantua, founded in the mid-1700s, popularised classical taste throughout the Mantua area and in its palaces, taking inspiration from sixteenth-century villas and studies for the restoration of Palazzo Te.
The chromatism of the walls is harmonized with that of the ceiling, assuming shades of blue, pink and green everywhere. Similarly, green and pink colours alternate in the background. Centrally placed floral and faunal motifs then re-elaborate mannerist motifs from the sixteenth century. The geometric shapes of the circle and the square divide the walls symmetrically, framing medallions with warriors in Roman attire, which perhaps was intended to refer to the origins of the family name Guerrieri, which means ‘Warriors’ in Italian. The fans in the corners are decorative embellishments from the early nineteenth century. Above the two doors are heraldic coats of arms. The nineteenth-century flooring is made from terracotta, as in the previous rooms.
This was a study where the owners of the Palazzo read and received intimate friends. The decorations assume the neoclassical style of Pompeian repertoire. The students of the Academy of Fine Arts of Mantua, founded in the mid-1700s, popularised classical taste throughout the Mantua area and in its palaces, taking inspiration from sixteenth-century villas and studies for the restoration of Palazzo Te. The chromatism of the walls is harmonized with that of the ceiling, assuming shades of blue, pink and green everywhere. Similarly, green and pink colours alternate in the background. Centrally placed floral and faunal motifs then re-elaborate mannerist motifs from the sixteenth century. The geometric shapes of the circle and the square divide the walls symmetrically, framing medallions with warriors in Roman attire, which perhaps was intended to refer to the origins of the family name Guerrieri, which means ‘Warriors’ in Italian. The fans in the corners are decorative embellishments from the early nineteenth century. Above the two doors are heraldic coats of arms. The 19th century floor is in terracotta, as in the previous rooms.
The palace’s Dining Hall is illuminated by large windows opening onto the garden, softened by a splayed structure with a low arch. The coffered ceiling has print decorations, with the surrounding frieze typical of nineteenth-century villas.
On the wall in front of the windows are delicate polychromatic decorations, ranging from green to pink, forming only one part of the wider decorations occupying all walls. The vases were once placed on a marble balustrade, which went all around the room. Above this stood a pergola recalling that of the garden outside. Two maids, similar to caryatids, supported the vase on the right. Featured there is a painted medallion, also of neoclassical inspiration, which we can see again in the Hall of Honour. Two dolphin handles, present on the left vase, recall the friezes of the entrance.
This room was equipped, in recent times, as a library. The coffered ceiling features simple red and black decorations. On the walls are two frescoes representing ideal landscapes, not of the local Volta Mantovana area but typical of early 19th century decorations relating to neoclassical research.
The large kitchen of the palace dates from the end of the sixteenth century. Indeed, palace inventories refer to an older kitchen, located on the ground floor near to the entrance hall and overlooking the gardens, which was clearly replaced by this one when the house was expanded with new servant areas to the north.
The kitchen is the result of numerous transformations and adaptations carried out by various owners over the centuries, but it retains all the accumulated atmosphere and charm of its past. The large fireplace, which originally must have been larger, has, over time, been raised and transformed into a hob, subsequently flanked by the large wood stove.
We have to imagine the kitchen furnished with long tables, sideboards, plate racks and plenty of pots, cauldrons, and baskets of vegetables, fruit and game. Here we can also imagine an army of cooks, maids and servants busy preparing dinners, breakfasts, lunches and banquets. The large sink is made from one single piece of marble. Surrounding the kitchen are other service areas, including the servants’ dinette, the pantry, the cellars, two courtyards and, outside at the back, the vegetable gardens and the icebox.
On the first floor, in the corridor to the right of the grand staircase, there survives a part of the oldest structure of the palace, likely belonging to the period of the Gonzaga family, distinguished by a medieval-style rhombus motif decoration. The rest of the corridor dates from the nineteenth century, with one wall previously part of a large room, placed in succession with similar ones, probably intended as bedrooms.
The beautiful coffered ceiling dates from the sixteenth century. It is made up of tiles with a Pompeian red background, centred with dark ovals featuring alternating light figures of musicians and dancers. The ceiling continues into the adjacent room, evidence of the original absence of the corridor.
The doors are from the nineteenth century, with geometric inlays made from various types of wood.
In this room, on a vermilion red coffered ceiling reappears the motto “Domine probasti”, or “Lord, you have tested me”. The frame around the walls, at the top, does not respect classical symmetry. The central chestnut band is likely to be a covering or a correction to a previous solution that appeared unsatisfactory, and, therefore, was filled with a motif close to the upper edge, in order to hide the first faded band. The highlighting is done by pointillism in order to add relief.
This room preserves floral decorations from the 1800s. The shading of the walls testifies to the presence of more extensive frescoes in the past. You can see panels with tables on which still lifes were probably displayed. Hanging here is a canvas of a Madonna by a popular painter from the 1600s, which was originally located in a shrine outside the palace. Then there is a wooden sculpture depicting a Moor, which was probably coloured and served as a candle holder.
In this small study, with its intimate, cosy atmosphere, we can imagine the reading and writing of private correspondence, or the safeguarding of treasured memories. Here we find candelabra decorations on a black background, as already seen elsewhere in the palace, and the same depiction of the stylistic element of florid foliage arranged in a dome. Above each candelabra are human heads contained in a frieze that recalls the ceiling. The style is still that of the artists of the neoclassical school visible in various places in the palace.
The background of the walls is pink and without variation, owing to the small size of the room. Of note, however, are the floral baskets in the panels above the doors that add fresh and natural notes with their pastel colours. Even the varieties of flowers and their leaves are distinguishable in the compositions, including tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and roses. They are contained by baskets resting on a refined drapery. In the elongated framing beside the window, two symmetrical oval motifs with oak leaves and olive branches symbolically allude to immortal life and faith. In the retouched ultramarine blue rhombuses stand out figures of Greek and Roman divinities, such as Apollo, Thalia, the protector of idyllic poetry, Diana, the huntress, with dog, Minerva, the warrior divinity, and, finally, Venus and Bacchus.
The construction of the Oratory dates from 1594. We find a description of the chapel in a document dated 1732 with a bell tower, a marble altar, a walnut balustrade, pews for the locals and a loggia for the owners. The cross vaults feature frescoes by the painter Teodoro Ghisi, who in the second half of the 1500s worked for Dukes Guglielmo and Vincenzo Gonzaga. The artist was a disciple of the Mannerist artist and architect Giulio Romano. In the centre is a depiction of the Trinity crowning the Virgin and four Evangelists in a sky of clouds furrowed by angels, and, on the side walls, a Pope, a Bishop and a Cardinal. Above the altar is a triumphal arch with a fresco of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, now visible in the corridor.
The Oratory fell into disuse in 1826, when Tullio Guerrieri bought the nearby Church of San Carlo and halved the height of the chapel with a wooden ceiling to create an apartment room. In 1909, on occasion of the visit of King Victor Emanuel III, the room was transformed into a bathroom and furnished with sanitary fittings that are still partly visible today. The room was then completely repainted. However, thanks to the sensitivity of the decorator in charge of the work, who thoughtfully decided to treat the walls with milk before painting them, it was possible to restore the splendid frescoes back to life.
In 1909, on the occasion of the Great Manoeuvres, the room was prepared for the overnight stay of King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Elena of Montenegro. The stuccoes on the ceiling are in the Savoy style, realised by a plasterer specially brought in from Turin. Decorating the walls is yellow silk wallpaper. Under the wallpaper are traces of an earlier decoration with frames and squares. A balcony was inserted into the wall facing the Oratory so that the Lords could look out over the chapel below. A sumptuous four-poster bed was placed under the arch.
This room features decorations from the end of the 16th century recently brought to light by a restoration project that removed successive layers of covering decoration. The coffered ceiling, finely decorated in shades of blue and cream, also originates from that era.
The room was connected to the Hall of Honour by a centrally located doorway, now closed off and replaced by two side ones.
The female figures that distinguish the space perfectly embody the ideal of beauty of the time, with their depiction of strength, only partly visible under more recent plasters before the restoration, leading us to believe for a long time that the room was somehow dedicated to Hercules. Hence the name, ‘Hall of the Labours of Hercules’.
The technique used is tempera grassa, in which tempera is mixed with oil, differing from the fresco technique because it uses dry and not ‘fresh’, or ‘fresco’ plaster.
This is one of the largest rooms and most frequently used rooms in the palace, seeing the likes of numerous illustrious guests, formal receptions and, during the war, military meetings. Of note on the large, green tinted beam in the centre of the eighteenth-century ceiling is a small square with red, yellow and blue decorations, indicating a test by the restorers to bring to light, under the current decoration, the previous one, dating from the sixteenth century.
From a pictorial point of view, the room is of particular note for its typical Mantuan neoclassical decorations, realised in the mid-eighteenth century, following the influence of the Roman classical school within the Academy of Fine Arts of Mantua, which was founded in 1752 and known as the Virgilian Academy. The structuring of the decoration recalls panel divisions typical of the Pompeian style, even though the style is certainly sixteenth-century Mantuan. Indeed, the central trompe d’oeil clearly recalls the architectural structure of the courtyard of Palazzo Te. The representation of the corridor reflects the real corridor on the other side of the room. All the figurative elements recall classicism, through collections of faces, statues, instruments, objects and soldiers, while the illusory aspect of the decorations is more closely related to the sixteenth century.
All the decorations are the work of the painter Paolo Zandalocca, a pupil of Bassani, whose business remained closely connected with the Academy over a long time. In a notarial deed of the seventeenth century, the room is described as the ‘Dog Room‘, so it can be assumed that a sixteenth-century decoration exists under the current one.