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The Manta Castle



The castle owes its present structure to extensive demolition and restoration works carried out in the 1800's and involving the gardens as well. However, the castle largely retains the structure it acquired in the 14th century, when the existing construction, a bare stronghold, was turned into a lordly mansion. This transformation was carried out by two extraordinary figures: Marquis Tommaso III and his illegittimate but deeply-loved son Valerano. The magnificent gardens of the castle may have inspired the author(s) of the frescoes in the main hall of the castle that illustrate a poem written by Tommaso himself, Le Chevalier Errant, a mixture of autobiographical elements and fictionalised historical events. These frescoes were probably commissioned by Valeran, who inherited the castle in 1416, and were completed by the 1420's. The hall houses two cycles of frescoes, one portraying Nine Heroes and Nine Heroines, the other the legendary Fountain of Youth. The former occupies the wall to the right of a large fireplace surmounted by the puzzling motto Leit Leit, thought to mean "Lead, guide". The eighteen life-size figures are painted within regular spaces framed by images of trees in bloom. All figures stand upon a soft carpet of grass and flowers accurately reproduced, and include Hector of Troy (this might be Valeran's portrait) and Alexander the Great (Tommaso himself, thus honoured by his son). Its size, the accurate rendering of faces, the delicate brushwork, the elegant evocativeness, the faithful reproduction of costumes (of great documentary value), make these frescoes truly extraordinary. Originally, they were embellished by precious gold-leaf decorations, which were later plundered. The other cycle, which occupies the left-hand side of the hall, depicts the legend of the Fountain of Youth. This legend, vastly popular in 14th-century French courts, was frequently illustrated in paintings, tapestries, and illuminated codes. This particular representation is outstanding for the vividness of colours and the immediacy and expressiveness of independent but perfectly harmonised scenes. From left to right, an authentic catalogue of elderly men and women is ironically presented: everyone is anxious to undress and dive into the miraculous waters. Their rejuvenation is immediate, and the results hilarious. As in the other cycle, characters walk on a delicately painted carpet of grass and flowers. These frescoes reveal many things. Firstly, that their author possessed a masterful technique and a perfect knowledge of his materials, which favoured the perfect conservation of the frescoes. Besides, if we observe the painted surface closely, we can detect the painter's giornate, i.e. the portions of wall painted each day: forty-five altogether. What these frescoes do not reveal is their author's name, and no clues can be found anywhere else. A number of conjectures has been made since the 1800's, but what really matters is that today, over 500 years later, this masterpiece can still be admired and studied. The frescoes in the main hall of Manta castle are the oldest and best preserved of their kind. And they must remain so.


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The Manta Castle

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