MANTUA was fortunate: throughout the Renaissance it had but one ruling family, and was spared the turmoil of revolutions, court murders, and coups d’état. When Luigi Gonzaga became capitano del popolo (1328) the ascendancy of his house was so well established that he could occasionally leave his capital and hire himself out to other cities as general—a custom followed by his successors through several generations. His great-great-grandson Gianfrancesco I was raised to the dignity of marquis (1432) by their theoretical sovereign the Emperor Sigismund, and this title became hereditary in the Gonzaga family until it was exchanged for the still loftier title of duke (1530). Gian was a good ruler. He drained marshes, promoted agriculture and industry, supported art, and brought to Mantua, to tutor his children, one of the noblest figures in the history of education.
Vittorino took his surname from his native town of Feltre, in northeast Italy. Catching the itch for classical erudition that swept like an epidemic through the Italy of the fifteenth century, he went to Padua and studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, and rhetoric under divers masters; he paid one of them by serving as his domestic. After being graduated from the university he opened a school for boys. He chose his pupils by their talent and eagerness rather than by their pedigree or funds; he made the richer students pay according to their means, and charged the poor students nothing. He tolerated no idlers, exacted hard work, and maintained strict discipline. As this proved difficult in the roistering atmosphere of a university town, Vittorino transferred his school to Venice (1423). In 1425 he accepted the invitation of Gianfrancesco to come to Mantua and teach a selected group of boys and girls. These included four sons and a daughter of the Marquis, a daughter of Francesco Sforza, and some other scions of Italian ruling families.
The Marquis provided for the school a villa known as Casa Zojosa, or Joyous House. Vittorino turned it into a semimonastic establishment, in which he and his students lived simply, ate sensibly, and devoted themselves to the classic ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Vittorino himself was an athlete as well as a scholar, an expert fencer and horseman, so at home in weather that he wore similar clothing winter and summer, and walked in nothing but sandals in the severest cold. Inclined to sensuality and anger, he controlled his flesh by periodic fasting and by flogging himself every day; his contemporaries believed that he remained a virgin till his death.
To chasten the instincts and form sound character in his pupils, he first of all required of them a regularity of religious devotions, and instilled in them a strong religious feeling. He sternly rebuked all profanity, obscenity, or vulgarity of language, punished any lapse into angry dispute, and made lying almost a capital crime. However, he did not have to be told, as Lorenzo’s wife warned Politian, that he was educating princes who might some day face the tasks of administration or war. To make their bodies healthy and strong he trained them in gymnastics of many kinds, in running, riding, leaping, wrestling, fencing, and military exercises; he accustomed them to bear hardships without injury or complaint; though medieval in his ethics, he rejected the medieval scorn of the body, and recognized with the Greeks the role of physical health in the rounded excellence of man. And as he formed the bodies of his pupils with athletics and toil, and their characters with religion and discipline, so he trained their taste with instruction in painting and music, and their minds with mathematics, Latin, Greek, and the ancient classics; he hoped to unite in his pupils the virtues of Christian conduct with the sharp clarity of the pagan intellect and the esthetic sensitivity of Renaissance men. The Renaissance ideal of the complete man —l’uomo universale—health of body, strength of character, wealth of mind—reached its first formulation in Vittorino da Feltre.
The fame of his methods spread through Italy and beyond. Many visitors came to Mantua to see not its Marquis but its pedagogue. Fathers begged from Gianfrancesco the privilege of enrolling their sons in this “School of Princes.” He agreed, and such later notables as Federigo of Urbino, Francesco da Castiglione, and Taddeo Manfredi came under Vittorino’s formative hand. The most promising students enjoyed the master’s personal attention; they lodged with him under his own roof, and received the priceless instruction of daily contact with integrity and intelligence. Vittorino insisted that poor but qualified applicants should also be admitted; he persuaded the Marquis to provide funds, facilities, and assistant teachers for the education and maintenance of sixty poor scholars at a time; and when such funds did not suffice, Vittorino made up the difference out of his modest means. When he died (1446) it was found that he had not left enough to pay for his funeral.
Lodovico Gonzaga, who succeeded Gianfrancesco as marquis of Mantua (1444), was a credit to his teacher. When Vittorino took him in hand Lodovico was a lad of eleven years, fat and indolent. Vittorino taught him to control his appetite and to make himself fit for all the tasks of government. Lodovico performed these duties well, and left his state flourishing at his death. Like a true Renaissance prince, he used part of his wealth to nourish literature and art. He collected an excellent library, largely of Latin classics; he employed miniaturists to illuminate the Aeneid and The Divine Comedy; he established the first printing press in Mantua. Politian, Pico della Mirandola, Filelfo, Guarino da Verona, Platina were among the humanists who at one time or another accepted his bounty and lived at his court.1 At his invitation Leon Battista Alberti came from Florence and designed the Incoronata Chapel in the cathedral, and the churches of Sant’ Andrea and San Sebastiano. Donatello came too, and made a bronze bust of Lodovico. And in 1460 the Marquis brought into his service one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance.