The war over the Mantuan succession

In December 1627, Duke Vincent III of Mantua died without children. Charles Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers, a French aristocrat related to the Mantuan dukes, arrived in Mantua in January 1628 and proclaimed himself ruler. The Spanish refused to accept this and sent an army from Milan into Montferrat. This became bogged down in a long siege at Casale, and Spain was forced to ask help from the Emperor. In February 1629, Louis XIII sent his own army into Italy.


Mantua. The Ducal Palace in Mantua.

The death in 1627 of Duke Vincenzo II without immediate heirs plunged the Gonzaga duchies of Mantua and Monferrato into crisis. Vincenzo’s closest relative was Charles, duke of Nevers, from a branch of the Gonzaga who had established themselves at the French court. Despite his earlier involvement in revolt against the crown, contemporaries assumed that Nevers’s succession would increase French influence in northern Italy. However Nevers’s title was challenged by Charles Emmanuel I, duke of Savoy, whose family had long sought the second Gonzaga duchy of Monferrato. In Mantua itself, Nevers was opposed by another Gonzaga cadet, Ferrante, duke of Guastalla. Charles Emmanuel appealed to Spain and agreed to a partition treaty with the Spanish governor of Milan for the occupation of Monferrato, which would place the key fortress of Casale in Spanish hands. In Vienna, Guastalla raised doubts about the legitimacy of Nevers’s inheritance, and in March 1628 the Gonzaga territories, as imperial fiefs, were sequestrated pending the emperor’s adjudication. Although committed to suppressing Protestant revolt at home, France provided military support for Nevers, and in early 1629 French forces broke a Spanish siege of Casale. In 1630 the war swung in favor of Spain and the emperor, with the siege and sack of the city of Mantua, but the Swedish invasion of Germany weakened imperial commitment to Italy, and in late 1630 the Spanish were obliged to concede terms. The Treaty of Cherasco (April 1631) ratified Nevers’s inheritance, though providing territorial compensation for both Savoy and Guastalla. French success, and Spanish resentment at the outcome, paved the way for the resumption of open war between the two powers in 1635.





Surrounded on three sides by lakes formed by the Mincio River, the city of Mantua was almost impregnable militarily. The duchy of Mantua spread across the fertile Lombard plain. The prosperity of the city came from textile manufacturing, that of the countryside from agriculture. The city, which had a vibrant Jewish community, had about 40,000 people in 1550, which declined to 31,000 in 1600. Plague and siege between 1627 and 1630 devastated the city, whose population only recovered to 14,000 in 1650, then rose to between 21,000 and 24,000 in the eighteenth century. The duchy as a whole had some 300,000 people in 1600, but fewer after 1630.

The Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantua from 1328 to 1707, intermarried with other princely families of Italy. They also produced several cardinals and one saint, the Jesuit Aloysius Gonzaga (1568–1591). In the 1530s the Gonzaga acquired through marriage the marquisate of Montferrat in Piedmont, not contiguous with the duchy of Mantua. This included the town and fortress of Casale Monferrato, a coveted military position some 120 miles west of the city of Mantua. The Gonzaga family supported the Habsburgs in the dynastic struggles of sixteenth-century Europe, and individual Gonzagas served them as military commanders and administrators.

Mantua had one of the most splendid courts of Italy and Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and early seventeenth centuries. As many as eight hundred persons—writers, artists, musicians, and even a troop of commedia dell’arte actors—enjoyed Gonzaga patronage in the early seventeenth century. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) came to paint. Mantua also played a key role in the development of opera; Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) lived there from about 1590 to 1612, and his Orfeo (1607) and other works were first presented there. In 1625 Duke Ferdinando (1589–1626; ruled 1613–1626) founded the University of Mantua, where Jesuits taught humanities and philosophy, while laymen taught law and medicine. In order to pay for their splendid court, Gonzaga dukes sold assets. In 1627 Duke Vincenzo II (1594–1627; ruled 1626–1627) sold the family collection of Renaissance paintings (works of Titian, Andrea Mantegna, Correggio, Raphael, and others) to Charles I of England.

Gonzaga dukes seldom lived long, and they produced few heirs. On the death of Vincenzo II on 26 December 1627 without an heir, rival claimants to the duchy appeared. Carlo I Gonzaga-Nevers (1580–1637; ruled 1628–1637) of the French branch, with strong support from the French crown, slipped into Mantua to claim the title ahead of the leader of a branch of Italian Gonzagas, who accepted the traditional alliance with the Habsburgs. The French held the fortress towns of Mantua and Casale Monferrato, key military positions threatening Habsburg control of northern Italy. The Habsburgs sent an army to take back Mantua, and the War of the Mantuan and Montferrat Succession (1628–1631), an episode of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), began.

Unfortunately, the foreigners—most likely the imperial army—brought the bubonic plague with them. Because bad harvests had already weakened the duchy’s population, the plague of 1629–1631 killed one quarter to one third. The historical novel I promessi sposi (1825–1827; The betrothed) of Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873) described the devastation and social dislocation in northern Italy as well as any historian could. The Habsburg army overwhelmed the duchy in October 1629 and blockaded the city of Mantua. After a long siege, the army sacked and looted the city on 18–20 July 1630. At least two-thirds of the city’s inhabitants died as a result of plague, lack of food, and violence. The university closed, and the city and duchy never recovered their former glory. Carlo I and his heirs retained the duchy, now shorn of Casale Monferrato, as minor Habsburg clients.

In 1707 the Habsburgs exiled Ferdinando Carlo (1652–1708; ruled 1665–1708), the last Gonzaga duke, for helping the French in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) and incorporated duchy and city into the Austrian Empire. The Austrian government of Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780; ruled 1740–1780) instituted governmental reforms and supported Mantuan learning and the arts to some extent. After the Austrians were driven out of northern Italy, the duchy of Mantua joined the kingdom of Italy in 1866

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