The Ducal Palace in Mantua is commonly described as "a city within the city": a labyrinth of more than five hundred rooms, corridors and courtyards, which, together with the gardens, covers an area of over 35.000 meters squared.
A truly monumental complex, consisting of buildings constructed at different times and for different purposes, then connected by stairs, corridors and hallways.
The palace, which has been the home and headquarters of the Gonzaga family for almost four centuries (1328 to 1707), is an extraordinary composite of the history of European art and architecture.
Examples of the Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods are here joined together, in wonderful harmony, and - above all - the Ducal Palace is today the home of extraordinary priceless works of art: frescoes by Pisanello, Mantegna and Giulio Romano, paintings by Rubens and Domenico Fetti, and tapestries designed by Raphael. These masterpieces make the Palace a museum attracting visitors from all over the world: more than 220 thousand tourists visited it during the year 2011.
But this extraordinary monument is now in difficulty: the repeated earthquakes which struck Mantua since May 21st, inflicted a great deal of damage to the Palace. More than fifty rooms were affected.
The bell tower of the Palatine Basilica of St. Barbara, the private church of the Gonzagas, built within the Ducal Palace between 1562 and 1572, was beheaded on May 29th: the lantern of the tower collapsed and falling on the Ducal Palace, shattered its roof and broke the marble balustrade of an attic.
The late-Gothic Castle of St. George (born at first as a military structure, and then converted to a residence for the Gonzaga family) is in an alarming situation: an old crack on the frescoes by Mantegna in the Bridal Chamber, has reopened and enlarged, with loss of colour.
In other areas of the Castle the damage is even more evident: the conspicuous fall of plaster and the opening of cracks crossing the walls from one side to the other are clear signs of structural problems, which can undermine the stability and security of the entire building.
In the New Court a big crack has opened, crossing - from the floor up to the ceiling - the wall which separates the Room of Manto and the Room the Captains, with significant falls of plaster and stucco.
In the same area of the Ducal Palace, a visible difference in the level of the floor between two adjoining rooms is the clear symptom of the movement of the underlying structures. Other lesions can be seen in the Loggia del Tasso.
The scientific surveys, carried out on the entire Ducal Palace, has revealed a situation of weakness and fragility of the complex.
In the weeks immediately following the earthquakes, a first small portion of the Ducal Palace was reopened to visitors.
In September, the number of rooms made safe and reopened was increased, reaching to cover almost a third of the extension of the Ducal Palace, corresponding to the Old Court, the area less affected. Unfortunately the Castle of St. George (where the Manegna frescoes are) and the New Court are still closed.
The first approximate estimate of the funds needed for the restoration of the Ducal Palace was about 5 millions of Euros (i.e. 6.600.000 US Dollars / 4.000.000 British Pounds). A similar amount would be needed for the seismic retrofitting of the entire complex.
Although this amount should now to be recalculated on the real data collected during the early stages of the surveys, it is clear that, even in the most optimistic forecasts, the cost of the restoration of the Ducal Palace in Mantua is going to be huge.
The Italian Government has already allocated some funds for the Restoration, and more than 150.000 Euros (i.e. 197.000 US Dollars / 122.000 British Pounds) have been raised thanks to the generosity of private donors.
The donations collected so far represent a trill of hope, mostly in the way of general uncertainty which characterizes this historical moment. Anyway the situation of the Ducal Palace still remains a cause for concern. The real risk is that the needs of this monument, which has guaranteed Mantua the inclusion of the UNSECO list of the World Heritage Sites, may be put in the background by the financial crisis.
The plea is therefore spread to all men and women of good will: Save the Ducal Palace of Mantua!