The museum and its history
The venue

The Diocesan Museum of Mantua is located in the main cloister of the former Augustinian monastery of Sant'Agnese, a building steeped in history. It originates from the Mantuan blessed Giovanni Bono (1168-1249), founder of a religious order that later merged into the Augustinian order. In the 14th century, his followers founded the monastery of Sant'Agnese in Mantua, between the civitas vetus and an inlet of Lago di Mezzo, with a church rich in works of art, a large cloister and outbuildings. The monastery enjoyed such prestige that on both of his visits to Mantua (1530 and 1532) Emperor Charles V hosted the abbot, who conferred on him the title of Count, transmissible to his successors, along with various faculties, including that of conferring degrees: in a sense, the first seed of the future university was born here.

After the 18th-century suppressions of all monasteries and convents, that of Sant'Agnese, having demolished the church, was destined for civil use, progressively deteriorating; redeemed by the diocese in the mid-20th century, after restoration it was used for school services, under the name of "Casa dello studente Beato Contardo Ferrini"; later it became the seat of diocesan bodies and the first nucleus of the museum. The entire building is now destined for the museum.

In the urban context, it is located a few dozen metres from the Cathedral and the Ducal Palace: walking down Via Cairoli, one soon reaches Piazza Virgiliana, created at the end of the 18th century by burying the ancient inlet. The square, kept as a garden, hosts a solemn monument to the Mantuan poet who was the greatest of Latinity, and is surrounded by valuable neoclassical buildings; the façade of the museum, designed by Paolo Pozzo in 1795, is also in this style.


In 1974, an exhibition entitled 'Art Treasures in the Land of the Gonzagas' was held in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, presenting a series of hitherto almost unknown masterpieces, mostly from the churches of the diocese. The success of the exhibition prompted its creator, Monsignor Luigi Bosio, to plan a permanent exhibition of these works, brought together in a special museum. The 'Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art', as it was then called, was inaugurated in 1983, collecting artefacts of various kinds - paintings, sculptures, goldsmithery, textiles, illuminated books, ceramics, ivories and even war instruments - no longer in use after the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council, or placed in sites that could not ensure their proper preservation. Since its opening, the initial nucleus of exhibits has grown rapidly, also thanks to substantial donations from private individuals, and in parallel the space allocated to them has expanded to become one of the largest museums not only in the city: according to numerous experts, the beauty and preciousness of its treasures, some of which are unparalleled in the world, give it international significance. After receiving recognition from the Lombardy Region, the museum inaugurated its new layout and the restoration of the neoclassical front on 7 June 2008.

The holder

The museum is named after one of the most notable members of the noble family that ruled over the Mantuan territory from 1328 to 1707, the venerable bishop, Friar Francesco Gonzaga. He was born in 1546 in Gazzuolo, of which his father Carlo held the seigniory; orphaned at an early age, he was in Madrid, in the retinue of King Philip II of Spain, when he matured the decision to become a monk, entering the Franciscan order where he changed his original name of Hannibal to Francesco. Highly esteemed by his brothers, at only 32 years of age he was elected Minister General of the entire order, to which he imprinted a profound renewal according to the letter and spirit of the Council of Trent.

He brought the same renewal to the diocese of Cefalù, of which he became bishop, and later to that of Mantua, which he ruled from 1593 until his death in 1620. Here, among other things, he founded the seminary for the training of priests, reorganised charity institutions, founded churches and convents, and completed the decoration of the cathedral with a grandiose cycle of frescoes, new altars, tapestries and refined furnishings. Others he obtained in Paris, where he was sent as papal nuncio for two years and where he succeeded in reconciling France and Spain (Peace of Vervins, 1598).

His tireless activity, his personal poverty (even as a bishop he continued to wear the humble Franciscan habit) and the other virtues of which he gave constant proof have led to the start of the process for his beatification, which has now reached the stage that recognises him as Venerable. The cathedral's tapestries and valuable works of goldsmithing that he commissioned can now be admired in the museum, which is named after him because of this, and generally because of his love for sacred art.

Spesa oggetto del contributo nell'ambito del bando PNRR, Missione 1 – Digitalizzazione, innovazione, competitività e cultura, Componente 3 – Cultura 4.0 (M1C3), Misura 1 “Patrimonio culturale per la prossima generazione”, Investimento 1.2: “Rimozione delle barriere fisiche e cognitive in musei, biblioteche e archivi per consentire un più ampio accesso e partecipazione alla cultura” finanziato dall’Unione europea – NextGenerationEU“ – CUP: C64H22001410004.