The Road to Polisy, Part II


Though I believe that recognition of how a writer “tongue-tied by authority” could speak in ways that eluded the censors may have crystallized when Oxford was gazing at Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors just outside of Troyes, France, the road to Polisy began in Mantua.

In Part I we looked at how the ruling family of Mantua and associated artists were linked to a surprising number of visual arts aided transitions in Shakespeare’s works – plays stuck within and without other plays, the ekphrasis or explication of paintings, a painted statue. We also saw how one artist, Primatticio, held long term professional associations with the Mantuan and French royal courts as well as with the Dintevilles at the Polisy estate where the famous anamorphic painting The Ambassadors remained on display in Oxford’s day. Primatticio and two artists who accompanied him on a visit to Polisy demonstrably had to have seen this painting which was hung in a public area of the chateau. Though this project manager of Fontainebleau died 6 years before the Earl would have arrived on the continent, the two Ghisi brothers, a painter and an engraver who had worked closely with Romano, Primaticcio and many others in that network of artists, were still employed at the Mantuan Court when Oxford toured Italy.

In this section we will look at the Duke of Mantua, some of his close relations and accompanying Shakespearean mentions which, like that circle of artists, spill right over the Alps and into France. We will also get a sense of why they held such a unique position in the pantheon of those immortalized by Shakespeare.

Research by Professor Michael Delahoyde has offered the first hard evidence that the Earl of Oxford was interested in perspective art during his tour of Europe in 1575-76, a fact that we know was true of Shakespeare from the numerous references to Italian art and artistic perspective in his writings. Oxford applied for and obtained permission to view the restricted chamber of the Venetian Council of Ten with its precious artworks and a glorious trompe l’oeil painting blazoned on the ceiling which puts him right about where we would hope to find a spear-shaker whose first publications were epic poems based on the ekphrasis or explication of paintings in Mantua and nearby Venice where Oxford maintained a house during his grand tour.

John Hamill and Professor Noemi Magri also stressed the importance of Mantua and its artwork which was covered in Part I. As Delahoyde explained:

The Earl of Oxford saw numerous examples of Optical Illusion Art in his Italian travels, especially in Mantua, much of it crafted by the only living artist Shakespeare mentions by name in the canon, Giulio Romano (The Winter’s Tale 5.2.95-100). For example, the ceiling of the Sala di Psyche (1526-28) in the Gonzagas’ Palazzo Te in Mantua features a trompe l’oeil effect, whereby from the perspective of viewers below it seems as if we’re peering into the sky, up and beyond the legs of the gods and the clouds on which they stand…

1palazzo...del sole

Delahoyde cites a trompe l’oeil on the ceiling of the ducal Camera degli Sposi or bridal chamber that was painted by Romano’s predecessor Andrea Mantegna, noting “from the appropriate perspective of viewers below, we see the illusion of a dome, opening to the sky beyond the playing cherubs.”


…The ceiling of Sant Ignazio is from the 1600s, past Shakespeare’s time, but perspective art was obviously heading in this direction and, except when Vasari mentions examples that have since been destroyed, we don’t know what we’ve lost. The Sant Ignazio ceiling offers a breathtaking faux 3-D effect…Realize that if you were standing on scaffolding near the actual ceiling, the figures would be distorted—in some places elongated, in some places squashed; but from the perspective below they seem to be levitating.[1]


It may be beside the point to note that this rapturous vision dazzles the eye when one leaves the side chapel dedicated to Saint Aloyzius (Luigi) Gonzaga (1568-1591) who was one of the few so honored in the above mentioned church of Sant Ignazio in Rome but it does make the point that all of these examples involved proximity to the Gonzaga family who were as taken with the art of “curious perspective” as their court artist Giulio Romano (d. 1546) and his fan, the author William Shakespeare.

Saint Aloyzius was a son of Ferdinando Gonzaga, Marquis of Castiglione who was appointed Governor of Casale Monferrato, the central city in Montferrat, by his kinsman Guglielmo Gonzaga, who was the double Duke of Mantua and Montferrat that Shakespeare would have met. Oxford could have met the young saint (who was sent to study in Florence that year) and his father, the chief administrator of Montferrat, but it was the grandfather who was memorialized (sort of) in a play within a play in Hamlet. The governor’s father was “Gonzago”, you know, that guy.  Luigi Gonzaga, the noble ruler of Castiglione, was suspected of having the 3rd Duke of Mantua’s uncle the Duke of Urbino murdered by means of poison smeared in the ear.

There were a gazillion Gonzagas and their names can be confusing. The Italian Ferrante may be listed in Latin as Ferdinando. The Italian Luigi could become the French Louis or the Latin Aloysius. Yet they have one of most researched and documented family trees, and cadet branches maintained close allegiances to the noble house. The great grandfathers of Saint Aloyzius and the 3rd Duke of Mantua were brothers yet the lines of Rodolfo, Signeur of Castiglione and Federico I, Marquis of Mantua remained close, despite the “Murder of Gonzago”. When Aloyzius left the Duke’s court to study for the priesthood, he was confirmed in Castiglione by future saint Charles Boromeo, brother-in-law of the Duke of Mantua’s 1st cousin Cesar as well as author of the testament of Catholic faith that William Shakspere’s father got a hold of and hid in the rafters in Stratford-on-Avon. Aloyzius then spent time studying with the monks at Casale Monferrato. I mention Aloyzius because he demonstrates what was important: the strength and interconnectivity of this kinship based social network that helped the Gonzaga ruled cities to survive while squeezed between powerful predatory states. 

The following chart marks just seven of the dozen plays where Shakespeare hit this family tree (as well as noting two Gonzagas who had contacts with the Dinteville family which will be looked at in another post in the series). These Shakespeare references were all covered in Part I except for Love’s Labours’ Lost which we will look at next. Some of the noteworthy references to Mantua are grouped near the 3rd Duke of Mantua. To be clear there are more Shakespeare-Gonzaga and Dinteville-Gonzaga connections (not to mention 20 overt mentions of Mantua in the canon)  but this pruned down family tree may help the reader to track family lines and visualize how systematically Shakespeare referenced this family.


That Guglielmo Gonzaga, 3rd Duke of Mantua and 1st Duke of Montferrat reigned over a city state where Oxford could view Romano’s painted statues or “throw his eyes round” a panorama depicting the Fall of Troy with Shakespeare’s Lucrece (not to mention the spear-shaking goddess herself) staring over his shoulder, was in large part due to the Duke’s father and grandmother.

The daughter and sister of Dukes of Ferrara, a descendent of royal lines that included Naples, Castille, Aragon and Portugal, Isabella D’Este was the “First Lady of the World” as the diplomat Niccolo Correggio marveled of his friend. Friendly with Popes, Kings and Emperors, she hosted the Holy Roman Emperor and Italy’s creative elite in her salon which became a who’s who of famous names including, of those who remained popular in Shakespeare’s day, Baldassare Castiglione, Matteo Bandello and Ludovico Ariosto, who penned Orlando Furioso under her sponsorship. She not only influenced continental fashion and was as competitive an art collector as any Borgia or Medici, but some believe that she was an inspiration for the Mona Lisa, based on similarities to the preparatory sketch for a portrait that Leonardo Davinci made while visiting her studiolo.


Leonardo Davinci’s sketch of Isabella D’Este, Marchessa of Mantua

Comparison of D’Este sketch and the Mona Lisa:


However since a painting made from DaVinci’s sketch of D’Este turned up in 2010 the theory seems less convincing.


Filling their palazzos with the works of great Renaissance artists, the Marchessa also commissioned for her studio allegorical paintings of a kind that have been called “sermons in oil”, teaching “moral lessons, using Roman or Greek mythology as their text.” Not just the poets but Isabella herself at times penned “fantasie” scripts for artists to interpret symbolically. Besides using the word “fantasie” Isobella called such “painted charades” by the name “istorie” (stories) and “poesia”.[2] One “fantasie” painted by their court artist Andrea Mantegna was his famous Parnassus. His Triumph of the Virtues featured Minerva (aka Pallas Athene) chasing personified vices from virtue’s garden and looking quite a bit like Isabella D’Este.[3]


Isabella’s fame only increased after she sweetly withstood pressure from her imprisoned husband and several world leaders to exchange their son Federico II (1500-1540) as surety for the release of the Marquis after a defeat in battle. Yet she could not say no to the Pope and the boy was later held by Julius II to ensure control over the Marquis and his army.


Sent to Rome with tutors and attendants, the cossetted hostage sat in on Lateran council meetings as a boy and showed up in Raphael’s School of Athens next to the Mantuan Ambassador Baldassare Castiglione and the artist himself. The boy was able to persuade the sharp tempered Warrior Pope to take sustenance when he was believed to be near death. Saving the life of the Pope ensured that he would be as famous as his mother. In fact that may be the “First Lady of the World” demonstrating the principle ‘As above, so below’ by holding the globe up to Castiglione’s celestial sphere.


Federico II then spent age 15 to 19 as a courtier in the court of Francis I, where his Great Aunt Clara’s son Charles III, Duke of Bourbon was Constable of France. In his last year in France an equally handsome and likeable 14 year old named Jean de Dinteville (the noble who would later commission and star in Holbein’s The Ambassadors) was accepted into Francis I’s court so the two possibly met. Federico II succeeded his father as Marquis in 1519 with jousts of celebration that saw knights from throughout Italy and France participating.[4]


Federico II Gonzaga, 1st Duke of Mantua

Created a Duke by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1530, Federico would employ Giulio Romano whose frescos of breathtaking perspective art were added to the lofty experiments that Andrea Mantegna had executed for his parents. Though their styles were distinctive, the two artists shared a playful sense of the absurd. Mantuan palazzos became galleries of free ranging invenzione or invention as they categorized work of ingenious originality.






As we saw in Part I there was a group of artists who trained under Raphael and/or his top acolyte Giulio Romano. It was Romano’s top student Primaticcio who demonstrably had to have seen The Ambassadors during a visit to Polisy. The elderly Ghisi brothers still worked in the court of Mantua while Oxford was touring Italy. Here is a Venus and Adonis engraving that Giorgio Ghisi executed from an original by his brother Teodosio.


If Oxford was inspired by Gonzaga art, drama was also important to the Mantuans. While Venetians developed the Commedia del Arte, much of what we know  today about that improvisational style of theater comes from the Mantuan records. The popular “comedians of il Signor de Mantua”, the troupe who actually developed the harlequin mask, enjoyed command performances in France.

These may have been the actors that Thomas, Lord Buckhurst described in a letter sent from France to Elizabeth I, explaining that “the king procured the Duke de Nevers to invite me to dinner, where we found a sumptuous feste and of great honour, adorned with music of a most excellent and strange concert, and with a comedy of Italians that for the good mirth and handling thereof deserve singular commendation.”[5]

The Duke of Nevers was Louis Gonzaga, the 3rd son of Federico II, Duke of Mantua. He was a year younger than his brother Guglielmo, the 3rd duke of Mantua. The Lord Buckhurst was an influential poet and the cowriter of Gorboduc, the first English blank verse drama. More recently he was named as a candidate for the Shakespearean authorship by Sabrina Feldman. So there’s one for Buckhurst, actually.

Many famous artists and writers found creative freedom in courts of northern Italy, yet all was not frivolity in these small and therefore constantly imperiled states. Maintaining its strategic neutrality despite being squeezed between the Papal States, Venetian States and those city states under the control of the Florentine Medicis, balancing ties between the Pope, the French king and the Holy Roman Emperor, tiny Mantua required ambassadors, spies, coded writing and a good measure of craftiness to survive.  The Mantuans watched surrounding city states, many run by relatives, engulfed. Milan, once presided over by Isabella’s sister Beatrice D’Este, saw successive waves of invasion, her heirs deposed and imprisoned. Isabella’s daughter Eleonora Gonzaga became the Duchess of Urbino by marriage, succeeding her aunt Elisabetta Gonzaga who was married to the previous Duke. Urbino was also periodically occupied by aggressors, seized by Pope Alexander VI’s son Cesar Borgia in 1502 and by Lorenzo de Medici, a nephew of Pope Leo X, between 1513 and 1519.

In 1520 Isabella and Castiglione negotiated her son’s position as Captain General for the Pope which would give some security from invasion. After insisting on a clause that released Federico II from participation in any wars between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, they were forced to secretly agree that he would serve the Pope over the Emperor. When Pope Leo X died, Castiglione bribed the Pope’s secretary to obtain the secret agreement and delivered it to Isabella who riskily burned the document. “Later, when Clement VII, who as Cardinal Giulio Medici had taken part in the contract negotiations, looked for it in order to use for his own purposes the theft was discovered. Leo’s secretary committed suicide, but nothing could be proved against the Mantuans.”[6]

The Gonzaga’s ties to upper French nobility would be strengthened when Federico II married Margaret Paleologos. Descended of Byzantine and Greek royalty, the bride would bring control of Montferrat to the line, but she was, like her husband, a cousin of the powerful Bourbon family in France. Margaret’s mother was Anne of Alencon whose brother Charles IV, Duke of Alencon had married Marguerite, the sister of Francis I of France. Their sister Francoise of Alencon had married firstly Francis, Duke of Longueville and secondly Charles de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome, who was himself the son of Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, the son of Clara Gonzaga. Perhaps it was the fond memory of Federico II’s time as a courtier in the French court or their family relations, but Henry II and his wife Catherine de Medici selected Margaret Paleologos as the godmother of the future Henri III. [7]

Strategic marriages and alliances were as key as a strong military in keeping Mantua and the D’Este’s native Ferrara from being overrun. Isabella D’Este passed away in 1539. The 1st Duke of Mantua died a year after his mother, passing the title to his sons Francesco III (1533-1550) and Guglielmo (1538-1587) who succeeded as the 2nd and 3rd Dukes. During the boys’ formative years the rule of the state would remain in the hands of their mother and uncle, the Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga. In 1549 Margaret sent the previously mentioned Louis Gonzaga, younger brother of the second and third Dukes of Mantua, to France at the age of 10 to claim the inheritance of her mother, Anne of Alencon.

A noble steward and scholar, Guglielmo Gonzaga did commission a famous series of paintings from Tintoretto celebrating his predecessors’ military victories, half of which were completed by the time Oxford would have visited. He also commissioned many religious engravings from Giorgio Ghisi. This able administrator quietly earned for himself a second Dukedom when the Marquisate of Monferrat was elevated by the Emperor to the level of a Duchy. It helped that he had married Eleanor of Austria whose brother was Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor until his death in October 1576.


The strong associations between this family and the French nobility were evident during Henri III’s visit in 1574. When Shakespeare gave directions to the Merchant of Venice’s Belmont it was ten miles from Venice, two from a monastery and required passage through two different canals via the connecting mechanism of the “tranect”. Noemi Magri concluded that this location coincided precisely  with the Villa Foscari in what is now Mira, Italy. In July of 1574, 10 months before Oxford passed through the area, Henri, Duke of Anjou and King of Poland stayed at this villa while on his way to claim the French crown as Henri III. One of the Italian lords who paid homage to the new French king was the Duke of Savoy. Limited by the Alps to the left, this Italian Duke looked covetously to the neighboring territory to his right, which was Montferrat.

Shakespeare slyly included a mention of the Marquis of Montferrat in the play, recalling that character’s visit to the estate of “Belmont”. During the King’s visit to the Villa Foscari Guglielmo Gonzaga, 3rd Duke of Mantua, was in attendance as was his brother Louis, Duke of Nevers, their relation Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and various others.[8] As Magri noted of Guglielmo Gonzaga (calling him, as Shakespeare did, a Marquis), “The Marquis arrived in Venice on Friday, 23rd July. On the 27th, he and the Royal train left from Ca’ Foscari in the direction of Fusina.” Magri describes the “King and the Doge, in the Ducal boat” while “the Marquis” Guglielmo Gonzaga, his brother Louis, Duke of Nevers and their cousin Alfonso II D’Este, Duke of Ferrara followed in a gondola.

1-4kinsmenBeFunky Collage1

Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and Montferrat; Louis Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers; Alfonso II D’Este, Duke of Ferrara; Henri III

“At Fusina everyone disembarked. The Doge returned to Venice and the others went as far as Villa Foscari.” After dinner, the King went south to be entertained in Ferrara. His host was a grandson of Isobella D’Este’s brother Alfonso I D’Este and Lucrezia Borgia. Alfonso II’s parents were Ercole II D’Este and Renee of France, a daughter of King Louis XII. Alfonso II’s royal grandfather was also Henri III’s great grandfather so the two were first cousins once removed, actually closer than Alfonso was to the Gonzaga Dukes.

However until 1572 the Duke of Ferrara’s wife was Barbara of Austria, a daughter of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor. Since the 3rd Duke of Mantua had married Eleanor of Austria he was also a brother-in-law of the Duke of Ferrara. In a few years a widowed Alfonso II would marry Guglielmo’s daughter Margherita Gonzaga, so the Duke of Mantua then became the Duke of Ferrara’s father-in-law. Yet Guglielmo definitely did not follow the King’s party to Ferrara. He had his own lavish reception of Henry III to prepare for, an event that kept the local artisans busy creating medallions, majolica china and engravings to commemorate the visit. [9]

When Shakespeare slipped mention of the visit of “the marquis of Montferrat” to Belmont into the Merchant of Venice he was referencing this glittering event at the Villa Foscari. As Hamill explained, “It is important to note that in July, 1574, Montferrat was still a marquessate, but six months later, on January 23, 1575, Emperor Maximilian I elevated Guglielmo to Duke of Montferrat.” [10] Shakespeare was correct then in calling him “Marquis of Montferrat” even if he was a double Duke by the time Oxford arrived. In the Midsummer Night’s Dream reference to the family the author was not dating a specific event and therefore what was perhaps jokingly referred to as the “Princippe’s Oak” when Oxford visited Sabbioneta was updated to Duke in accordance with Vespasiano Gonzaga’s title change in 1577.

A Duke of Mantua was also mentioned in Taming of the Shrew (IV:2) with the comment about “Your Duke” directed at the Mantuan Pedant, followed by reference to that Duke’s “private quarrel” with the Duke of Padua which made travelling dangerous. There was no Duke of Padua. Mostly ruled by Venice (which also did not have a Duke) Padua did in their day fall under the purview of Francesco I de Medici (d. 1587), Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Was there a private quarrel? Under the Medici Pope Leo X the duchy of Urbino was granted to Lorenzo Medici, who was not the revered Lorenzo the Magnificent, but his grandson, the Lord of Florence and a cousin of the Grand Duke. This Lorenzo Medici was the father of Henri III’s mother Catherine Medici who was in fact born while her father ruled Florence and Urbino. The courts of Urbino and Mantua were very close. Isabella D’Este was best friends with her sister-in-law Elisabetta Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino and then matched her daughter, Federico II’s sister Eleonora, to the succeeding Duke of Urbino. When poor doomed della Rovere seized back possession of the Duchy, Lorenzo was supplied with an army of 10,000 backed by the Pope in an attempt to force him out again. Lorenzo Medici wound up keeping possession of Urbino until his death. The Duke and his wife stayed in Mantua until the Medici insisted that they be turned out at which time they took up residence in Venice.

Whether a Duke of Mantua had a “private quarrel” with the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany (who was actually a brother-in-law of Guglielmo due to marriage to Joanna of Austria), they certainly had reason to be wary of the treachery of the Medici clan. However the 3rd Duke of Mantua would later marry his heir to a Medici, ending what might seem an avoidance of marriage between these lines in previous generations. That hint of a rivalry we saw between the Raphael/Romano trained artists and the Florentine painters in Part I certainly paralleled uneasy relations between the northern city states and the more powerful and aggressive Medicis  in the time of Guglielmo’s parents and grandparents. Shakespeare may have picked up on this, with his suggestion of the Duke of Mantua’s “private quarrel” with the nonexistent “Duke of Padua”. It has to be noted that the only figure Shakespeare mentioned as visiting “Belmont” was the Marquis of Montferrat. NO mention was made of the French king who was the honored guest during that visit (and whose mother was born during her Medici father’s occupation of Urbino), neither were the Dukes of Ferrara and Nevers for that matter.

Shakespeare in any case spent some time imagining this part of Italy, including in Romeo and Juliet when he sent Romeo from Verona to hide in neighboring Mantua for instance.  It is interesting to note that there were a few plays featuring Mantuan characters that were produced for the English court in the late 70s, including A History of the Duke of Milayn and the Marquis of Mantua at Whitehall on December 26th, 1579, proposed by some to have been revised into Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the The Three Sisters of Mantua in 1578[11] Oxford was lauded for his poetry and comedy writing so it follows that he may have been writing comedies and possibly other kinds of plays for the royal court in those days.

It may be fruitful for Oxfordians to study this nexus of connections. For instance Love’s Labours’ Lost included an academy run by King Ferdinand of Navarre which was dedicated to the study of philosophy and the arts and particularly reminiscent of one that was founded by the Gonzaga. Ferrante Gonzaga, governor of Milan and Count of Guastalia, (brother of Federico II and the unfortunately widowed Eleonora, Duchess of Urbino) was father to Cesare Gonzaga who married a sister of Saint Charles Boromeo. Cesare formed a Mantuan association in the 1560s which was restarted in the 1570s by his son and successor Ferrante (whose name translated into Latin was actually Ferdinand). The Accademia degli Invaghiti can be translated as “the academy of the lovestruck, the fascinated, or those who have taken a fancy to something” and was dedicated to the arts, poetry, rhetoric, music, drama and other lofty pursuits.  Academies or clubs were not uncommon but what better way to describe that little courtly academy in LLL, whose members included LONGUEVILLE, a character inspired by Henri I d’Orleans, Duke of Longueville (1568-1595). Longueville was married to Catherine, a daughter of the Duke of Nevers. Longueville’s wife was therefore a niece of the Duke of Mantua. We are now entering what can be seen as another dense thicket of references in the plays, this time to members of the French nobility involved in the Wars of Religion, but this group was also closely related and absolutely contiguous with the family tree of Gonzagas presented above.


Also in LLL’s little academy, the character DUMAINE was inspired by Charles, Duke of Mayenne who was the son of Francis, the Duke of Guise and Anne Este, a granddaughter of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and Lucrezia Borgia, illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Both Longueville and “Dumaine” were close relations of the Dukes of Nevers and Mantua and their nephew Cesar and grandnephew Ferrante who were the founders of the Invaghiti.

The recursive connections among these lines means that you can shift perspective and find your view filled to a startling degree with Shakespeare connections.



The Duke of Mantua’s brother Louis married Henrietta of Cleves, from whom he obtained the titles of Nevers and Rethel. Louis and his wife were second cousins, both great grandchildren of Rene, Duke of Alencon. As we have seen Nevers was a father-in-law of Henry, the Duke of Longueville (who was the inspiration for LONGUEVILLE in LLL). Henriette’s sister Catherine of Cleves was married to the Gonzaga’s second cousin Henry I Duke of Guise, the organizer of the Catholic League who was succeeded in leadership by his brother Charles, the Duke of Mayenne (DUMAINE in LLL), whose son and daughter later married Never’s son and daughter. Another sister, Marie of Cleves, was married to yet another cousin, Henri de Bourbon, the Prince of Conde, a general in the Fifth War of Religion who was shadowed as CONRAD in Much Ado About Nothing. These sisters were descended from Francoise of Alencon and Charles de Bourbon Duke of Vendome, as was their cousin Henry, King of Navarre who became Henry IV of France and was shadowed in King Ferdinand of Navarre in LLL.

The Dukedom of Alencon would devolve to the royal line descended from Francis I by virtue of inheritance from his sister Marguerite via her former marriage to Charles IV of Alencon. Francis I’s grandson Hercules, Duke of Alencon, who inherited the title through his great aunt Marguerite and not by direct descent, would lead the forces arrayed against his brother Henri III in the Fifth War of Religion and he also was glimpsed in Shakespearean plays.

These Shakespeare connections give us a map of the author’s social network in Europe, a kinship based chain of associations that stretched from Henry of Navarre to the Gonzagas. Take those two family tree charts, add a line of descent from Francis I, fill in the writers and artists they patronized and you must have over a 100 authorship associations right there alone. For instance Matteo Bandello stories inspired Cymbeline, Much Ado about Nothing, Romeo & Juliet, 12th Night and the apochryphal Edward III.  He circulated within all the branches of Gonzagas included in the Italian side of the family tree.

We will look at one more Mantua reference, this one employing what seems a meaningless bit of music. There was no truth to the Dossier Secrets claim that Louis Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers, was the 15th Grandmaster of the Prior of Sion or that their uncle Ferrante, Count of Guastalia, onetime governor of Milan and father of the Invaghiti founder, was the 14th. This was part of a spectacular hoax that would find its way into books from Holy Blood, Holy Grail on down through The DaVinci Code. Yet neither is it surprising to find Mantua included in LLL in a “Davinci Code” kind of puzzle that the Invaghiti and even Davinci himself would have loved.

Holofernes: …Ah, good old Mantuan! I may speak of thee as the traveler doth of Venice; —Venetia, Venetia, Chi non te vede, non ti pretia. Old Mantuan, old Mantuan! Who understandeth thee not, loves thee not –Ut, re, sol, la, mi, fa. – …

The joke lies in what was elided. Florio’s First Fruits adds  “ben gli costa” to the proverb, insinuating that it will “cost him well”. To paraphrase: Venice, Venice, Who understands you not loves you not, but he who does love/understand you will pay dearly. By implication the “good old Mantuan” was expensive company or in some way would cost someone dearly.

Someone who says that this clearly just alludes to money or sex ignores that spiritual writings were then being disguised as romances which is partly what LLL was having fun with. When Aloyzius rejected the voluptuous court that an increasingly religious, austere and perhaps just as mortified Duke of Mantua had inherited that young cousin went on to become a Jesuit and died in his early twenties tending plague victims. Oxford left the continent an Italianate Englishmen and a Catholic.

That Shakespeare was likening the good old Mantuan, like the city of Venice itself, to an alluring and expensive courtesan was the joke but was the cost sexual and financial or was the cost political, spiritual, emotional or social? Religious topics could be riskier than the risque in England. Like a public figure represented on the stage, such talk had to be somewhat disguised. A blackened Rosaline would make dark fair again in LLL. Eros the little love god becomes Southwell’s Burning Babe. The dear price that was paid could have been the loss of “soundness” or conformity in religion, political standing, contentment of mind, the bliss of ignorance: any or all of these might represent the high cost the author so ruefully and yet with good humor recalled.

The notes Holofernes sings at the end signal the old Mantuan’s identity. In The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra a musical “Davinci code” of “L’amo re mi fa sol la za re” by moving and deleting spaces became “L’amore mi fa sollazare” or “Love gives me pleasure.” [12] Yet I believe that Shakespeare was using a technique called soggetto cavato which was developed by Josquin de Prez whose first and most well-known usage was in a mass written to honor his patron Ercole I D’Este, Duke of Ferrara, the father of Isabella and Alfonso I D’Este.

In Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae the notes played on the vowels of the Duke’s Latin name. In those days instead of do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do they used a scale of ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. Hercules Dux Ferrariae was broken down in syllables as Her/cu/les/Dux/Fer/ra/ri/ae so when singing the mass to the tune of re, ut, re, ut, re, fa, mi, re the choir was literally singing out the vowels of his name.

I have not seen any scholar suggest it, yet it is evident to me that Shakespeare was using this same technique to hint at the name of the “good old Mantuan”. “Ut, re, sol, la, mi, fa” would indicate a name or phrase whose vowels were u_e_o_a_i_a.  On this basis it was apparently not the poet Giovanni Baptista Spagnuolo (1447-1516) as some have suggested (though Baptista does fit the a-i-a part).[13] It was not the ancient Mantuan Virgil or one of the Ghisi brothers, the old artists who Oxford might have met in the Mantuan court. What does fit is Duke Gonzagia. This may be coincidental and pairs the English word Duke with the Latin Gonzagia but Shakespeare had “a fancy” for dressing someone “in the shape of two countries at once” (Much Ado About Nothing). Guglielmo, Duke of Mantua and his brother Louis, Duke of Nevers, were both Gonzaga Dukes born in Mantua and of the same generation as Elizabeth I so either could have qualified as an “old Mantuan”. There is the added tie-in that Josquin de Prez most famously developed the Soggetto Cavato method in order to literally sing the notes of the name of their great grandfather.

If Guglielmo one upped Louis in this regard, being the actual Duke of Mantua, Nevers was a kind of invisible presence in LLL. A leader in the war against the terror tactics of Guise’s Catholic League, he was invested with the Honors du Roi which included being the first non-royal or non-ecclesiastical knighted in the Order of the Holy Spirit, the more exalted knighthood that Henri III added above and beyond the Order of St. Michael in 1578 so Nevers was certainly worthy of mention. Nevers was also one of the men instrumental in winning the peace in France and edged out Guglielmo in association with Longueville and Dumaine who were actually in the play LLL. I think the riff on “Duke Gonzagia” in LLL may have served double duty, honoring both Nevers and his brother.

What was true about the Gonzaga brothers and what Oxford with his own fantastical genealogy would have appreciated was that the 12th century rabbi and astronomer Maimonides claimed that the Gonzaga and Paleologina (Paleologos) lines were both descended from the biblical line of David. [14] That was pedigree. The family’s favorite story of Mantuan origins claimed that the converted centurion Longinus was the founder of the city state and the precious relic preserved in their cathedral the very blood of Christ. The sacred and the profane, pornography and holy blood, the Commedia del Arte and counter reformation existed side by side in Mantua.

There were more mentions of Venice in the works than any other Italian city, not surprising when Oxford maintained a house in Venice during his tour of Italy. Mantua was overtly referenced half as often but we should also not be surprised that they were frequently veiled in covert allusions. Some were simple like the mention of the Marquis of Montferrat, but as we explored in Part I others have a very distinct imprimature: Giulio Romano’s painted statue transformed into a long lost queen; “The Murder of Gonzago” used to identify the killer of Hamlet’s father after that Titian painted, Duke of Urbino inspired ghost has an anguished confrontation with his son; the Duke’s Oak in Vespasiano Gonzaga’s “Little Athens” and the transformation of Bottom; Mantuan linked pictures hung in a tinker’s chamber to trick him into thinking he’s a noble; Lucrece’s ekphrasis of paintings of the Trojan War giving her the resolve to defy her persecutor, her honor suicide ultimately leading to his downfall.

Most of these as I pointed out in Part I are “accompanied by a transformation via the visual arts or language that overtly refers to art or artistic perspective.” These visual arts fueled transformations, epiphanies or cathartic scenes always leave the subject and situation changed, sometimes profoundly. Why do they almost always seems happen in or around Mantua in the Shakespearean works? If we were looking at dots on a map representing the outbreak of a virus we would have no trouble recognizing the center of an infection. We might suspect that this was a place where the young Englishman was himself transformed and that all of this played a part in how he became Shakespeare.

In the next post we will follow Oxford to Polisy even as the Duke’s French relations begin moving the 5th War of Religion to its dramatic conclusion.


[1] Delahoyde, Michael. Shakespeare’s Perspective Art, Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer 2014.

[2] Marek, George Richard. The Bed and the Throne: The Life of Isabella D’Este, 1976, p. 116

[3] Marek, p. 123

[4] Marek, pp. 169-175, 194-96, 206

[5] Child, Theodore. At the Play in the Sixteenth Century, The American: A National Journal, Volumes 4-5 March 10th, 1883, The American Company, Philadelphia, 1882, p. 345

[6] Marek, p. 202-204

[7] Knecht, Robert J. Hero or Tyrant? Henry III, King of France, 1574-1589. p. 4

[8] Magri, Noemi. Places in Shakespeare: Belmont and Thereabouts, De Vere Society Newsletter, June 2003, online PDF, p. 4

[9] Magri, Places…, p. 5

[10] Hamill, p. 158, fn 58

[11] Magri, Noemi. “The Three Sisters of Mantua” – A Known History and an Unknown Play, De Vere Society Newsletter, December 2005;

[12] Sierra, Javier. The Secret Supper, transl. by Alberto Manguel, Atria Books, New York, 2006, p. 47

[13] Hamill, p. 160

[14] See Pedigree of Her Royal and most serene Highness the Duchess of Mantua, Montferrat and Ferrara



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