A little town on the banks of the River Mincio was already in existence in the third century B.C. When the Gauls conquered most of northern Italy, they seem to have left Mantua alone. In 1115 the town, athough nominally under the sovereignty of the Holy Roman Emperor, began to form itself as a free city, reaching its zenith under the Dukes of Gonzaga. They reigned from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and their court was one of the most glittering and powerful of the time, especially under Isabella d'Este (1474-1539). She was the sister of Alfonso I of Ferrara and the wife of the Gonzaga Duke, Franceso II (1484-1519). Most of the Gonzagas were patrons of the arts. Their ducal palace is one of Europe's finest, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries, and containing more than 500 rooms. Some of these rooms are tiny, built to scale for the dwarves the dukes kept for amusement. Unmindful of the fact that he never existed, tourists in Mantua can see the "Rigoletto House" at 23 Via San Giorgio. (The house actually lodged priests from the cathedral.) There is also a youth hostel named for the assassin Sparafucile.
But who was the model for Verdi's Duke? In 1851, Piave wrote to Verdi: "It proved necessary to omit the name Gonzaga and say in the cast list simply the Duke of Mantua. It doesn't matter: everyone knows who the ruler was at the time". Unfortunately 'everyone' doesn't know. There are at least five possible candidates, three of whom are the most likely.
Francesco II was the brother-in-law of Lucrezia Borgia and was rumored to have had an affair with her.
His son, Federico (b. May 1500) is another candidate. His godfather was Cesare Borgia, and he spent his boyhood in the Papal court of Julius II. He appears in Raphael's painting, The School of Athens, the boy on the left between the men in the yellow and the green robes. At age 15 he met Francis I in Milan and was invited to the French court. There he had the first of his many mistresses. He was a great collector of art and his lavish court included about 600 people.
Vincenzo I, the fourth Duke (1562-1612) is the most promising candidate. He had a passion for theatre and music, especially women singers. Claudio Monteverdi, who was his court violinist, received a generous annual wage, and Vincenzo granted Mantuan citizenship to him and his children. Monteverdi's La favola d'Orfeo premiered in Mantua in 1607. While Vincenzo's father had a humpback and was very puritanical, the son was just the opposite, a libertine who loved costly pleasures, wine and spirited horses, and who had a dwarf as a trusted friend. At night he and his cronies prowled the streets looking for adventure, and he had no compunction about murdering those who offended him. He was crowned Duke at the age of twenty-five and proceeded to spend all the money his frugal father had left. When the Emperor Rudolph called for help against the Turks, Vincenzo answered, envisioning himself as another Orlando beating back the Saracens. He travelled slowly to Budapest, taking Monteverdi as the head of his martial band but, after one victory, he left and returned to Mantua. His household had one thousand servants, and he loved to wallow among the strong boxes of gold coins amassed by, and previously hidden from him by, his father. Although married, he continued with his amours, protected by his obliging wife who would warn him if one of the husbands seemed to be jealous enough to take revenge.