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 glmpse of past grandeur is still in evidence in the Camera Degli Sposi—literally, the "Chamber of the Wedded Couple"—where Duke Ludovico and his wife held court. (At the time of this writing, the wedding chamber is undergoing renovations and is completely closed to the public, so check before you go.) 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 only for 10 minutes at a time. Read about the room before you enter so that you can spend your time looking up. Reservations are mandatory for Camera degli Sposi, though visitors may take a fast-paced guided tour of the rest of the castle conducted in Italian; signs in each room provide explanations in English.