Gwendolyn Toth

Gwendolyn Toth is the director of the New York City-based early music ensemble, ARTEK, and a soloist on early keyboards (organ, harpsichord, fortepiano). She is married to harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, and they have three children.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

R & R in the City of the Gonzaga Princes

July 29-August 1, 2010

The next morning, I confess a certain amount of – shall I say? – EXHAUSTION had definitely set in. Every time I go to Europe, I feel like there’s so much to see that I can’t stop. Now, at the two-week mark, we found that we needed to slow down a bit.

We spent Thursday visiting the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua. To walk where Monteverdi walked, to see what he saw, through the halls where he and his singers entertained the nobility – ah! However, it is a huge disappointment that hardly a mention can be found of our favorite composer, much less music. No Monteverdi music on the audio guides, no Monteverdi tea towels in the giftshop – nada. Some internet searching & queries to our friend Grantn Herreid via e-mail clear up the confusion over which Sala degli Specchi was the one where he performed frequently (not the one with the teeny mention on the sign, for sure; that was the 18th century Sala degli Specchi). In fact, we had to miss a big chunk of the palace because the man guarding the entryway (Dongsok & I nicknamed him “the troll” for reasons evident if you saw him) would not allow access. When we asked him directly, he considered it, then said, “no.” Downstairs at the reception desk, the polite lady sighed and made mention of cutbacks, not enough staffing, so wouldn’t have been so hard to take except that every once in a while the troll would let someone into the forbidden part. Grrrr. However, it’s true, there’s hardly anyone in Mantua; where are all the tourists?

Friday, we visited the Palazzo Te on the other side of Mantua. This would best be described as “the pleasure palace” – clearly the place where the Duke had all the good parties with his mistress & decorated it in quite, um, erotic fashion. I kept thinking, “but surely THIS is where Monteverdi would have been summoned to entertain the guests with all those delicious madrigals about love?” Let’s hope there’s more documents to be found.

At 7 pm, we drove to the far side of the bridge. Mantua is located on a large lake; all of our Italian friends were horrified to hear that we were actually going to stay there, crying “but the mosquitoes!” Well Mantua didn’t have any more mosquitoes than the rest of Italy, but I must say the view across the lake as you enter the city on the principal bridge is just stunning. So part of our stay was devoted to finding the perfect picture of Mantua from the bridge to use for the cover of our next ARTEK CD of Monteverdi madrigals. We thought sunset would be particularly spectacular. Ah no! The buildings were in shadow, the reflection in the water non-existent. It was evident that we must bite the bullet and rise for a sunrise photo shoot. Sigh....

In the evening, we searched the internet for some info on Mantua restaurants. There didn’t seem to be many that we could find by just walking around, apart from a few touristy ones right near the main square. But, we found a real gem: on a tiny back street, a little restaurant with a beautiful garden in the back with space for about 8 tables, run by a man (the waiter), his wife (the cook, who we could see preparing everything through her kitchen window), and their daughter (assistant to Mom & Dad). They served seafood, and it was simply the best Italian food we have had anywhere.

Saturday, Dongsok with some difficulty roused me at 5:30 am & we made it to the far side of the bridge by 6:15, just 10 minutes after the beginning of sunrise. (This lateness is my fault, I fully admit it! If only he could drive a sick shift!) The lighting is perfect, he took about a hundred pictures, and we also admired the slugs and other fauna of the river shore. (Why is it so many members of my family are fascinated by slugs??? Ugh.)

Later on Saturday, we drove to Sabbioneta, where we see the 16th century theater that is preserved there. The theater was not used for opera, but still gives a great idea of what theater was like in the early 17th century. It seats only about 150, in semi-circular risers; there’s a gallery above the seating, for the use of the Duke and his special guests, and perhaps a few musicians also. The stage was highly raked, with a permanent set of a street of buildings (not the original set which was destroyed, but a reconstruction of it).

In the late afternoon, on the way back from Sabbioneta, I cannot tell a lie, we visited the Mantua Outlet Mall! What woman could pass up an opportunity to shop Italian clothing at outlets! Ha. So, after visiting a few stores, most of which had clothing to fit my size 0 daughters, I finally find a store in which there were plenty of size L. Even XL. I tried on a few things, realizing with amazement that size L seemed huge! What was going on here? Surely I had not moved down to a size M or even S after eating giant dishes of pasta for days and days? The cashier unfortunately burst my bubble by telling me that this was a store for large women. Yes, and the store for large women started at size 8 American (I’m not kidding!!!) which was small, so 12-14 was size M. Oh. No wonder those M’s fit so well. I purchased a few lovely tops, one a T-shirt with the typical Mantuan salamander – the insignia of the Gonzagas – a great memento of our trip. We capped off the evening with more fabulous Italian seafood at our favorite restaurant.

Sunday, inertia set in, and we couldn’t quite decide what to do. Eventually, we realized maybe we didn’t actually want to do ANYTHING involving churches, museums, palaces, or other sights. So we rented bikes & tooled around the Mantua lake, having a picnic lunch. Sounds idyllic, right? It was, up until I got a flat tire...then we walked 45 minutes with our bikes back to the hotel. (This was the only day we actually got hot the entire trip; the weather was perfectly nice on a bike with a good breeze but walking in direct sun, not so much.) We spent the rest of the day recovering.

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