1.1 Family Background
On the seventh of September of 1459, according to the contemporary chronicler Andrea Schivenoglia, the Duke of ‘Clenij’ or ‘Clunii’—in fact Johann i, Duke of Cleves—arrived in Mantua representing Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, at the Mantuan Council presided over by Pope Pius ii. During his visit he was lodged in the house belonging to the massaro of Mantua, an important financial officer of this small but powerful North-Italian state.1 The Duke’s host, Vivaldo della Strata, belonged to a family whose common ancestor, Lorenzo, had in 1228 been called from Brescia to serve as podestà of Mantua. In this he followed a tradition of his family, many members of which fulfilled similar functions in Lombardy and Piedmont.2 Until their extinction in an outbreak
The massaro Vivaldo and his descendants inhabited a house in the Contrada della Pusterla, located at nr. 25 of the present Via Mazzini, which was probably the largest house belonging to any of the various branches of the family, and possibly its cradle. The house has been altered many times, but some of its parts seem to date back to the thirteenth century, and it is clear that it was partially reconstructed and extended sometime after the middle of the fifteenth century. The beautiful columns of red Veronese marble whose capitals are decorated with the Strada arms [Figs. 1.1–1.2] must date from this time, and it is tempting to connect this conversion with the expected visit of the Burgundian delegation. This holds in particular for the large reception hall constructed about this time, which was provided with a quite festive decoration in fresco, consisting of a frieze hung with garlands and painted shields with the arms of several Mantuan families [Fig. 1.3].
The frieze itself is composed of panels decorated with a rich, classicizing candelabre motif, alternated with portrait-medallions representing Roman
Yet this may have been not very frequent visits, since in fact his relationship to Vivaldo and his progeny was rather distant. Vivaldo had been only a second cousin of Jacopo’s great-great-grandfather Giovanni, who in 1452 was appointed vicario marchionale of Castelluchio by Ludovico Gonzaga, second Marchese of Mantua.6 Giovanni’s son Giacomo, of whom nothing further is known, had three children, Simone, Elisabetta and Clementina. From Simone’s testament, drafted in September 1513, we know that he was living in Curtatone, a suburb of Mantua situated on the lake near the famous sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Simone left his house in Curtatone with some of its land in usufruct to his widow, Andreola, and a modest legacy to his niece Antonia de’ Botti, daughter of his sister Clementina; he appointed his only son Clemente as residuary legatee. But since Don Clemente was a cleric, and Simone did not wish his estate to pass to the Church, he instituted an entail in favour of
Giovanni Rinaldo—or Rinaldo—took his mother’s name, and also his father appears to have used the name of De Strata. Though it was not unusual that—in default of male heirs—the name and arms of a given family were assumed by a daughter and her progeny, this still suggests that Gian Donato was of a lesser rank than his wife; it is, for instance, not impossible that Gian Donato was a converted Jew, related to the Bulgarini from Verona who later in the sixteenth century would likewise settle in Mantua.8 By 1514, when Simone della Strata made his testament, Gian Donato had died, and his son Rinaldo must already have married his first wife, who would become the mother of his eldest surviving son, Giacomo—or Jacopo, as he would consistently style himself—Strada.9
The date of Strada’s birth is not known with certainty; the only roughly contemporary source is the cartouche in Titian’s 1567–1568 portrait of Strada. This cartouche was added at a later date, probably by Strada’s son or grandson (both called Ottavio), and gives the (mistaken) date of 1566 and Strada’s age as 51, which would establish the year of his birth as 1515.10 In view of the fact that Strada’s half-brothers were still minors after his father’s death in 1564, and that he himself was still begetting children in the late 1570s, this date is more likely than the year 1507 given by some secondary sources.11 From the acts in which Rinaldo’s widow, Antonia, in the name of her children, renewed the enfiteusi or lease of several plots of land held by her late husband (and by his cousin
About Rinaldo himself little is known either, except that he is probably identical with the Messer Rinaldo Strata, the Gonzaga bailiff at Portarolo, who in 1556 received his ‘provisione et sallario’ from the Ducal administration.14 While he originally lived in the Contrada della Bue, in 1564 his widow inhabited a house in the Contrada della Serpa, though she still held the leases of both the house in the Contrada della Bue and the farm at Curtatone which her husband had inherited from his cousin Don Clemente.15 The question of the wealth of the Stradas is of some importance in view of Strada’s later career: doubtless his—for an artist—exceptional prosperity in the 1560s was partly due to the generosity of his patron, Hans Jakob Fugger, and to his marriage to a noble German heiress. Yet even this marriage itself would certainly not have been possible, had he not on his own account been able to maintain his status as a gentleman.
Simone della Strata’s testament of 1514 gives only a partial account of the wealth of the family at that date: though we know that he owned the modest farm and its appendages at Curtatone where he was living at the time, and of which he left the usufruct to his wife, as well as the house in the Contrada della Bue in Mantua in which his sister and her son were living, we do not know what was included in the residue of his estate. Since the residue was left to
1.2 Mantua and the Gonzaga
It is very unfortunate that almost nothing is known of Strada’s youth and his education: the earliest direct reference to his existence we have dates only from 1546, when he had already been settled in Southern Germany for some years, and of course had had ample time both to finish any formal education he may have received, to complete his training as an artist and possibly to absolve an apprenticeship as a goldsmith. The following sketch of Strada’s formative years is therefore largely hypothetical: it is based in part on data culled from sources dating from later years—in particular Strada’s own correspondence and writings—and in part on the indications provided by the facts of his later career. In attempting to fill in the blank spots I will propose some explanations that appear the most probable in view of the few data available, and of custom and practice of Strada’s milieu and epoch.
Doubtless the chief formative influence of Strada’s life was the fact of his having been born in Mantua, in those years arguably the major Italian court after the Roman Curia. Strada grew up in the Mantua of Federico ii Gonzaga, fifth Marquis and first Duke of Mantua, and of his forceful and cultured mother, Isabella d’Este, ‘summi ingenii ac rarae virtutis heroina’ according to Ulisse Aldrovandi.18 Of equal importance, this was the Mantua of Federico’s principal artist and prefetto delle fabbriche, Giulio Romano, who gave shape to the Mantuan splendour dreamt of by his patrons; a splendour which was, much later, so loyally publicized by Strada himself.19
Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Mantua as an independent state was that its head—the dynasty, the court—was much too big for its body: though situated in the fertile valley of the Po, it was a state of middling size and of modest economic and strategic importance. Neither the notorious ‘splendour’ of the Gonzaga dukes, nor their close relationship with the Emperor himself would suffice to arrest the relative ascendency of their Florentine cousins, which culminated in the Pope conferring the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany on Cosimo i in 1569: a cause célèbre which would haunt international diplomacy for almost a decade. Yet this splendour was truly exceptional, and is best illustrated by the sheer size of Federico ii’s court. His household comprised close to thousand members, as many as were enrolled in the households of the Emperors Ferdinand i and Maximilian ii themselves. Not surprisingly, it was greatly reduced at his death. The presence of such a disproportionate courtly environment in a relatively modest country town like Mantua implies that the culture at court was more easily diffused among a relatively large proportion of the population than it was in larger towns such as Rome, Milan or Florence. It is doubtless no pure coincidence that Strada’s principal interests closely corresponded to some of this culture’s major preoccupations, preoccupations which had been ruling passions for several generations of Gonzaga.
Central among these was their profound interest in classical Antiquity, both in an historical and in a more strictly archaeological sense, a humanist interest not surprising in the town which boasted Virgil as its most illustrious son.
The interest in the visual aspects of classical civilisation had been stimulated by the presence in Mantua—apart from that of a host of minor humanists—first of Leon Battista Alberti, and later of Giulio Romano, who had acquired his astonishing expertise and understanding of Classical art under the aegis of Raphael himself [Fig. 1.18].20 Both these eminent architects, however, had been called to Mantua in the first place to satisfy the passion for building and for architectural and interior decoration of the Gonzaga; a passion of extraordinary proportions even for an Italian princely family of the Renaissance, and of which the immense bulk of the sprawling and eclectic Ducal Palace,
1.3 Formal Education
In view of the institutional accessibility of a princely court in general and of the relative size of Federico’s court, which was largely recruited from Mantua itself, the courtly environment could not fail to impress an intelligent and curious youngster such as Jacopo must have been. In view of his father’s status as a Gonzaga ‘vasallo’ and his function in the Ducal administration, Jacopo must have had some immediate experience of it, possibly even as a page or in some other minor function within the household. If so, he would have had ample opportunity to get acquainted both with the intellectual preconceptions of this erudite milieu and with the material sediment in which these preconceptions found their expression: the collections brought together by the Gonzaga and the artistic creations they commissioned. In any case his later accomplishments indicate that he received both the formal education that was habitual for boys of his background and an artistic training.
Strada doubtless received grounding in the studia humanitatis in Mantua, perhaps even within the direct ambit of the court, following a curriculum rooted in the tradition of Vittorino da Feltre’s celebrated Cà Giocosa.22 The contention implied in a passage in Antonio Agustín’s Dialoghi intorno alle medaglie, that Strada, like Pirro Ligorio, Hubert Goltzius and Enea Vico, would have known hardly any Latin, should be critically interpreted for each of these celebrated artist-antiquaries.23
That Strada’s classical and linguistic studies bore fruit is clear from his later activities: neither his numismatic studies nor his polyglot lexicography is conceivable for someone who had not received a thorough training in the classical languages. It is true that Strada’s correspondence is largely in Italian, but in that he is no exception: even Agustín himself, who certainly was an important classical scholar, corresponded in Italian with his friend Onofrio Panvinio, one of the most brilliant scholarly antiquaries of the sixteenth century.24
Yet it remains open to doubt whether Strada, after having received his basic education in the liberal arts, further paved the way for his later antiquarian studies by attending a university, as would not have been unusual for a
Either at Bologna or Pavia he could have followed the courses of Andrea Alciati, the most celebrated specialist of Roman law of his time [Fig. 1.13]. Alciati’s profound interest in the purely antiquarian aspects of classical studies was at least partly responsible for the great advance in antiquarian studies in the 1540s and 1550s, to which several of his students—such as Agustín—notably contributed.27 Such training and such contacts would have contributed to the
1.4 Artistic Training
The earliest archival data that provide concrete information about Strada’s career are found in the minutes of the meetings of the Nuremberg Council in the mid-1540s. These make clear that at that time Strada was still active as an artist: he is indicated as ‘Jacob Strada from Mantua, painter (Maler)’, or ‘Jacob Strada, the Italian artist (Künstler or Künstner)’.29 The thousands of numismatic drawings which were produced in his workshop, part of which at least were produced by Strada himself, demonstrate that he was a quite capable, if not particularly gifted, draughtsman. That Strada was indicated as a ‘Maler’ suggests that he had also learnt at least the rudiments of painting; in fact in an inventory of the contents of the palace of the Duke of Bavaria at Schleißheim, dating from the second half of the eighteenth century, a series of pictures representing the Liberal Arts is attributed to him.30
Probably as part of his training as a draughtsman, Strada also learnt to execute measured architectural drawings, and this corresponds to an interest in architecture and monumental decoration which is a recurring theme in his career. In the preface to his edition of the Settimo Libro of Sebastiano Serlio’s treatise, he refers to ‘the knowledge I have of architecture, in which I have always taken great delight, and I still do’.31 Apart from the work he would do in his function as Imperial architect, about which little concrete is known, he
It is reasonable to assume that Strada received his initial training chiefly in his hometown, therefore within an artistic milieu that was largely determined by the shining example afforded by Giulio Romano’s achievements [Figs. 1.9–1.10, 1.17; 1.19–1.21]. It is self-evident that his artistic development was strongly influenced by this erudite and versatile master, whose works Strada would always admire and propagate, and whose graphic remains he would later bring into his possession. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that the large-scale copying or reproducing of drawings by tracing them with the aid of blackened paper, a technique typical for Strada’s workshop, was first practiced, according to Armenini, in Giulio’s studio.32 It is also borne out by Strada’s own style, in as far at least as it is possible to judge this from the few independent drawings that can be securely attributed to him. Sometimes these seem in fact to come even closer to that of Giulio’s temporary collaborator, Francesco Primaticcio, whom the very young Strada probably had seen at work in the Palazzo del Te [Figs. 1.19–1.21], and whose more mature and independent creations he may have admired later in France.33
Though there is no concrete indication in the sources that Strada worked as an apprentice or assistant in Giulio’s studio, his style and technique as a draughtsman and his own architectural designs betray the influence of the master and strongly suggest that he received his artistic education in Giulio’s immediate orbit: a supposition strengthened by his later espousal of Giulio’s work. It was of course not really unusual for youngsters even of patrician families to begin their training by grinding colours and doing other basic and menial jobs for their masters: Michelangelo is merely the most illustrious example of this. But it remains the question whether the parents even of a talented youth willingly allowed him to engage in such a craft when no particular ill-fortune made this
Certainly this is what Strada would have us believe from the mid-1550’s onward: though a professional draughtsman working on a big and lucrative project for Hans Jakob Fugger, Strada was indicated by Giovanni Battista Armenini, whom he employed in this same project in Rome in 1553–1555, as a ‘mercante Mantovano’, a merchant from Mantua, rather than as an artist. And when Strada had entered the service of Emperor Ferdinand i he explicitly defended himself against an antiquarian rival, who had dismissed him as a mere—and therefore ignorant—goldsmith, by attributing his know-how in that craft solely to his interest also in the physical aspects of ancient coins.36
1.5 Giulio’s Collections
The assumption that Strada received his education in the visual arts in Giulio’s milieu is supported by his familiarity with Giulio Romano’s medagliere. This connection is documented in Strada’s eleven-volume numismatic Corpus, manuscript copies of which are preserved in Vienna and Prague, and which is complemented with thousands of pen-and-ink drawings commissioned by
It is likely that not only Strada’s drawing style, but also his antiquarian procedure reflects Giulio’s approach. In the absence of Giulio’s own studies after the Antique, hardly any of which have survived, an analysis of the numismatic drawings produced in Strada’s studio provides an instrument to evaluate Giulio’s own handling of antique precept. This is particularly so in those cases in which the architectural reverses of Roman coins were represented. The minute image of the coin (of a diameter of up to 5 cm at most and moreover often so worn as to be hardly legible), is blown up to five times its actual size, and the building depicted is in fact a complete and detailed reconstruction based possibly in part on literary sources, but certainly also on a Giuliesque variety of contemporary architecture. A good example is Strada’s drawing of the Pons Aelius, based on a coin of Hadrian, in which the rustica is strongly reminiscent of that of Giulio’s Cortile della Mostra and Pescheria. Its resemblance to Giulio’s
This familiarity with Giulio’s architectural work suggests that Strada would have been as welcome to study Giulio’s architectural drawings as he was to handle his coins and medals. These drawings were kept in a large cupboard in Giulio’s home, as is related by Vasari. For four days, during Vasari’s visit to Mantua, Giulio entertained his Tuscan colleague, showing him:
<…>all his works, and in particular all the plans of the ancient buildings of Rome, of Naples, of Pozzuoli, of the Campagna, and of all the best antique remains which are known, in part drawn by himself, in part by others. Afterwards he opened an immense cupboard and showed him the plans of all the buildings that had been constructed according to his own designs and order, not only in Mantua and in Rome, but all over Lombardy; that I for me do not believe one can see either newer or more beautiful fantasies for buildings, nor better arranged ones.41
This means that Strada even as a boy was confronted with both the latest developments in architectural design and the best known monuments of classical Antiquity; and it implies that he was also made familiar with the archaeological techniques that had been developed by Raphael and his circle in order to study the remains of such monuments and to restore them—at least in effigy—to their pristine splendour. Giulio had been closely involved in these projects—the fruits of which are evident in his Mantuan work—and he may well have continued his studies even after Raphael’s death. There is, for instance, some evidence that he planned to produce a set of drawings of the entire spiral frieze of the shaft of the Column of Trajan, just as Strada claimed to have done after him.42 Giulio’s studio and collection therefore provided
1.6 Early Training as a Goldsmith?
Strada’s interest in Antiquity, and in particularly in the science of numismatics as expounded by Giulio, moved him—probably even before spending some time at university—to have himself taught the rudiments of the art of the goldsmith. That at least is what he claims in a letter of 1559 to Maximilian, titular King of Bohemia, in which he refers to the craft of the goldsmith as ‘the art which I have learned as a boy, to enable me in time better to learn what I have, thanks to God, learnt with great effort and expense, in the field of antique marbles and medals<…>’.43 In the next chapter his connection with one of the most celebrated representatives of the trade, Wenzel Jamnitzer, will be discussed, together with the question whether Strada ever professionally exercised the craft himself. But if he learned its rudiments ‘da putto’, as a boy, he learned it at Mantua, and the question remains who in the circle of Giulio Romano could have taught him. Giulio himself produced great quantities of designs for goldsmith’s work: part of these were working drawings for pieces that were actually executed for the table or credenza of Federico ii and Cardinal Ercole—the most splendid witness to this remains the credenza of the Olympian Gods as depicted in the Sala di Psiche [Fig. 1.10, 1.22]—but others should be regarded as light-hearted exercises in mannerist design stimulating a prospective patron’s appetite [Figs. 1.23–1.24].44
Strada would later show his interest in these designs not only by acquiring an ample quantity of them after Giulio’s death, but also by having them copied in his workshop on behalf of his own patrons.45 Yet Giulio himself was no practising goldsmith, and therefore Strada cannot have learned the craft under the master’s own supervision. It is more likely that he learned it in the workshop of one of the Gonzaga’s goldsmiths employed in the actual execution of
1.7 Significance of his Mantuan Background for Strada’s Development
Apart from the formal training Strada received there, the general knowledge and experience that Strada could acquire in such a lively, fecund and exciting artistic milieu as was the Mantua of Isabella d’Este and Giulio Romano, must have been invaluable for his later career. The erudite atmosphere at the Gonzaga court was fostered both by Isabella d’Este and her son, the Marquis Federico, whose patronage attached such scholars as Paride da Ceresara, Mario Equicola and—somewhat later—Benedetto Lampridio, and who employed such
The young Strada must, moreover, have been greatly impressed by the ample variety of artistic activities that were practised in Mantua, and in particular by Giulio’s organizing talent and his superb mastery and taste in combining these various arts to serve a common goal: that is a courtly environment of great visual elegance and refinement. It was an environment which, because of the ceremonial and theatrical sensitivity of the dynasty’s members and the contributions expected from their courtiers and from the humanists, poets, musicians and artists they employed, can almost be regarded as a Gesamtkunstwerk in itself. Strada’s taste for, and understanding of the role of such a Gesamtkunstwerk within the society of a dynastic state was schooled at Mantua, and it was this that would prepare him later to fulfil functions at the Imperial court that were—to some extent, and at a more modest level—similar to those of Giulio at the court of the Gonzaga.49