Ferrante De Gonzaga
Sovereign Grand Commander 1527-1556
The Gonzaga`s were a ruling family from the city of Mantua known as Mantova in Lombardy Northern Italy from 1328 to 1708 and whose members included a saint, Aloysius Gonzaga, twelve cardinals, fourteen bishops of the Catholic faith, with Eleonora Gonzaga and Eleonora Gonzaga-Neves becoming Empresses of the Holy Roman Empire and Marie Louis Gonzaga becoming Queen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A cadet branch of this family became Dukes of Nevers. The house of Gonzaga is the inspiration for the play within a play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act 3, “The murder of Gonzaga.” It was also the city to which Romeo was banished in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and is near the birthplace of the poet Virgil.
Ferrante de Gonzaga born on 28th January 1507 in Mantua was the third son of Francesco Gonzaga \Marquis of Mantua and Isabelle d`Este* the family having taken its name from the village and castle of Gonzaga near Mantua. Sent to the court of Spain at the age of sixteen as a page to the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor** Ferrante remained faithful to that monarch all his life. He returned to Mantua in 1526 together with Marcantonio Collonna, and an irregular force which in May 1527, the same year
he became Sovereign Grand Commander of the Ordre du Lys, took part in the famous sack of Rome the details of which have been related previously in the article concerning Charles de Montpensier.
Following the initial attack on Rome, in which Ferrante`s cousin, Charles III the Duke of Bourbon and Count of Montpensier, Dauphin of Auvergne was killed, Ferrante who had led a company of cavalry in that battle was proclaimed the new Commander in Chief of the Imperial Army. It would appear this was also when he took over as SGC of the Fleur de Lys. Sometime later he is said to have been covertly in league with Francis of Lorraine, Duke of Guise who almost seized the French throne.
In 1530 Ferrante attended the coronation of Charles V of Spain at Bologna and later defended Naples from the attacks of French troops under the command of Odet of Foix, the Viscount of Lautrec and also in 1530 obtained the surrender of Florence for which Pope Clement VII who had been forced out of that city, made him Papal Governor of Benevento a town in Compania, north east of Naples. The Pope having by this time come to terms with the Holy Roman Emperor had sought Charles’s help in regaining Florence. It was in 1531 that Ferrante became a Knight of the Duke of Burgundy’s Order of the Golden Fleece.
He later fought for Charles V, commanding 3,000 cavalry against the Turks led by the corsair and general Barbarosa at Tunis in 1535 and in Algeria in 1543. In 1534 he married Isabelle di Capua, daughter of Prince Ferdinand of Molfetta through whom he inherited the fiefdoms of Molfetta a city in the province of Bari and Giovinaggo a city in southern Italy and in 1539 acquired the county of Guastalla at a cost of 22,280 golden scudi from Countess Ludovico Torelli, which remained with his direct descendents until they died out in 1746.
From 1535-1546 Ferrante served Charles as Viceroy of Sicily and organised the defence of Sicily from the attacks of the Turkish fleet by arranging the building of 137 towers along the southern and eastern coasts of the island and as a result a fort in Messina in Sicily was renamed Fort Gonzaga in his honour.
Whilst accompanying the Emperor in Germany in 1543 he fought a fearless and resolute campaign resulting in the Treaty of Crepy (in Picardy). From 1546 to 1554 he was Governor of the Duchy of Milan and whilst in control of that city was also recognised as the Prince of Molfetta and Duke of Ariano. It was rumoured that in 1547 Ferrante was the target of a Farnese family poisoning plot, the Farnese at that time included the Duke of Parma and Pope Paul III. Despite his many political and military Glories Ferrante eventually fell from grace as his harsh fiscal policy roused discontent within the populace and he was accused of misgovernment and corruption. As a result, Charles V pulled him out of Milan but remembering his many acts of loyalty, subsequently cleared him of all charges of impropriety and offered him a higher position at court, that of Count of Sanseverino. Deeply hurt however by the accusations, Ferrante chose to retire to Guastalla although he did later involve himself albeit spasmodically in military campaigns.
After the abdication of Charles in favour of his son Phillip II, Ferrante agreed to serve him; fighting alongside Filiberto of Savoy and with the Spanish International Force at the Battle of St. Quentin in Picardy Phillip’s forces won a significant victory over the French. Due to battle fatigue however, Ferrante fell from his horse, was badly injured and it was from these injuries that he subsequently died in Brussels on 15th November 1557. He was buried in the sacristy of the Cathedral of San Pietro in Mantua, built as a burial church for the Gonzaga family. His villa near Milan known as La Gualtiera still exists but these days is known as La Simonette. Ferrante was succeeded as Duke of Guastalla by his son Cesare who became an ambassador to the English King Henry VIII, Guastalla was annexed to the duchy of Parma in 1748.
Like all the Gonzagas, Ferrante was a patron of tapestry makers and the series, Fructus Belli (the fruit of war) was specially woven for him. His musical heritage was also never far beneath the surface and in 1525 when he became a Captain General of the Imperial Army in Naples, he employed the singers David Grandsyre, Joachim de Mons, and Michel de Duchi. The renowned Orlando di Lasso† also served as a musician in Ferrante`s retinue during the 1540`s.
In 2007 the city of Mantua held an exhibition devoted to the life of Ferrante de Gonzaga to celebrate the 500 years from his birth. This exhibition charted his life from being page in the Spanish Court through to his later years as a warrior, administrator, art lover, patron and ruler, and to mark this event the Italian Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp. A statue named the Triumph of Ferrante and symbol of Guastalla was created by the Mannerist Sculptor Leone Leoni and is in front of the palace entrance.
Ferrante `s brother Frederick II de Gonzaga and later Duke of Nevers and Rethel, married Marguerite de Montferrat who was a Paleologue (the Byzantine Imperial Family) one of the many families whose descendants are eligible to be chosen as Sovereign Grand Commander of the Order of the Fleur de Lys.
* Isabelle d `Este known as the first lady of the Renaissance was one of the leading women of that time. A patron of the arts and leader of fashion whose styles is said to have been copied by women throughout Italy and the French Court, she sponsored such poets, painters and musicians as Titian, Raphael, Belleni, Leonardo da Vinci. Baldessare Castiglione and Claudio Monteverdi.
Her sister in law was the infamous Lucrezia Borgia who was also the mistress of Isabelle’s husband. Throughout their history the Gonzaga`s were protectors and patrons of the arts and through them Mantua became one of the main artistic, cultural and musical hubs of Italy. The family also played a significant role in the origins of opera in employing Monteverdi who in 1607 produced for their court the opera L`Orfeo based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, the oldest opera still being performed.
** Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor was a Habsburg and the eldest son of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad. He abdicated as ruler of the Netherlands in favour of his son Phillip II in 1555 and the following year made Phillip King of Spain and its overseas possessions; Charles’s brother Ferdinand became Holy Roman Emperor. In 1554
Phillip the King of Spain married Mary Tudor of England, known to us more colloquially as Bloody Mary.
† Orlando di Lasso in his early life was a choirboy in Mons who because of his angelic voice was kidnapped on three occasions to sing in other choirs. He was eventually taken into the service of Ferante Gonzaga and travelled with the Imperial Army in the French campaign of 1544. In this same year he accompanied Gonzaga to Rome where he stayed for ten years becoming chapel master of the papal church of St John Laberon. In 1540 he was raised to the nobility by Emperor Maximilian and later received the knighthood of the Golden Spur. During his lifetime he became famous as a composer, writing over two thousand pieces of music for a number of different genres.