Mantua Ducal Palace brings 1528 Gonzaga tapestry home

A large “espalier” (horizontal) tapestry commissioned by a Gonzaga cardinal in 1528 has been acquired by the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Manufactured in Mantua by a Flemish master, the tapestry was offered at auction at Roseberys in London, and the Ducal Palace made the winning bid to bring the work home again. The final price including buyers premium was ¬£15,744 ($20,000), a bargain considering the historical and artistic significance of the tapestry to Mantua.

An espalier tapestry is much wider than it is high. This one is almost 20 feet wide and 5’9″ high. It was created by Flemish emigr√© weaver Nicolas Karcher who moved to Mantua around the time this tapestry was made and took many commissions from the ruling Gonzaga family. It is one of the oldest examples of tapestries of Italian design made in Italy.

Art historians have found that it was sold in 1879 by an unknown Mantuan. It left Italy in 1969 and moved to the Isle of Jersey. It hasn’t been back to its homeland since, not even as a loan, which is particularly notable because the tapestry is an important piece and has been published both as part of a compendium of Gonzaga art in 1985 and as the subject of an in-depth study in 2010.

The tapestry is centered around the allegory of Justice. She stands in the middle of the wide field, holding the fasces, the bundle of rods that symbolized magistral power in ancient Rome. On the left side, Saint Peter stands between the kneeling pope and Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga. His identity is signaled by the Gonzaga coat of arms hanging on a tree. The pope is probably Clement VII as he had made Ercole Gonzaga a cardinal the year before the tapestry was woven. On the right side is Moses with horns (a depiction common the Renaissance based on a mistranslation of “rays” as “horns” in Exodus 34) presenting the tablets of the Ten Commandments to two figures, thought to be the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, kneeling at his side. The figures are set against a lush country landscape of hills, lakes and trees.

The newly-acquired tapestry will be going on display at the Castle of San Giorgio.