The 500-room palace that dominates the Mantua skyline was built for the Gonzaga family, though much of the art within the castle was sold or stolen as the dynasty waned in power and prestige. A glimpse of past grandeur can still be spotted in the Camera Degli Sposi (literally, the "Chamber of the Wedded Couple") where Duke Ludovico and his wife held court. Mantegna painted the hall over a nine-year period at the height of his power, finishing at age 44. He made a startling advance in painting by organizing the picture plane in a way that systematically mimics the experience of human vision. The circular trompe-l'oeil around the vaulted ceiling is famous for the many details that attest to Mantegna's greatness: the three-dimensional quality of the seven Caesars (the Gonzagas saw themselves as successors to the Roman emperors and paid homage to classical culture throughout the palazzo); the self-portrait of Mantegna (in purple, on the right side of the western fresco); and the dwarf peering
out from behind the dress of Ludovico's wife (on the northern fresco). Only 20 people at a time are allowed in the Camera degli Sposi, and for only 10 minutes at a time. Reservations are recommended for Camera degli Sposi, either by phone or online (www.ducalemantova.org).