The late duchy of Mantua evolved over an extended period of time linked, as we shall see, to the feudal system that ruled it. In the period between the 9th and 13th centuries Sabbioneta was located, as it already was in Roman times, in the territory of Cremona. In fact, G.L. Gregori stated that:
"In Roman times Sabbioneta belonged to the territory of Cremona and not to Mantua (as T. Mommsen supposed). Sporadic finds are attested only sporadically at Roman times such as rustic villas or necropolis (1).
Things changed radically with the conquest of the territory by the Gonzaga family during the15th century. These newly conquered lands were assigned to the cadet branches of the Gonzaga family. Sabbioneta, which in 1429 became subject to the high dominion of the Gonzaga. At this time it was just a small village with a few buildings along the “Via Postumia” and the “Via Vitelliana” (2).
The name of Sabbioneta was mentioned for the first time in a plaque of the sixth century AD, which is now lost, and we know of it only through references in later learned works.
The original plaque reported the Latin name of the ancient fortified village, that is "Oppidum Sabuloneta." The inscription referred to a Byzantine prefect, named Proclus, who, after being wounded in battle, took refuge in "Oppidum Sabuloneta", which at that time was strategically important to halt the advance of the Lombards.
Proclus lived there for several years (and died 591 AD, aged 69), thanks to the hospitality of Lucius Neva, who first welcomed him and then also gave him the above mentioned commemorative plaque inscribed with words of dedication.
Plaque and inscription of Proclus
The inscription has been transcribed and translated by a priest, Cristoforo Spalenza, and it was quoted by A. Racheli: "Proclus, prefect of the Roman cohorts, good and faithful soldier, followed the extreme fate of the undefeated Folcari and he took refuge in Sabbioneta ..." (3). Racheli said that Proclus died at age 78. However, the epigraph clearly shows "LXIX" (= 69): " LXIX depositus in hoc sacello" ([Proclus] was buried in this tomb aged 69 years]. It was an oversight. The full text:
"Proclus, prefect of the Roman cohorts, good and faithful soldier, followed the extreme fate of the undefeated Folcari . Devoted to the wishes and the person of the emperor, sided with Droctulfo. Injured at Brescello, during the skedaddle of his soldiers, he took refuge in the castle of Sabbioneta where he will live a long time. He died at the age of 78 [but really 69] in 591 and was buried at the expense of his host. "
Moreover, this interesting inscription reminds us that “Sabuloneta”, at the end of the sixth AD, was at the border between Lombard and Byzantine territories, that is between the Oglio and Po rivers.
According to historical sources Sabbioneta was finally conquered by the Lombards, and in the 9th century AD it was given by Charlemagne to the Abbey of Leno (Racheli, p. 103). The Latin name "Sabuloneta" was remembered by all scholars. Cellarius wrote: "'Sabbioneta or "Sabuloneta", situated between the Po and Oglio rivers, manned by the Spaniards , has its own Prince" (4).
Etymology of Sabbionetta - Sabuloneta
Regarding the etymology, all historians, starting with A. Racheli, agree that "Sabuloneta" comes from the Latin "Sabula," neutral plural of "sabulum" [= sand], precisely because it was located on the sandy and gravelly soil typical of the river Po and other rivers of the Po Valley. Racheli, and with good reason, with other etymologies rejected as unbelievable.
Early history of Sabbionetta
The early history of Sabbioneta was determined fairly accurately by local historians, despite the paucity of documentary sources. According to A. Grandi, "In 759 AD Desiderius, the last king of the Lombards, donated Cicognara to the nuns of Santa Giulia in Brescia and also he founded the monastery of Benedictine monks of Leno. To these donations Emperor Charlemagne added Sabbioneta.
This donation is attested by the diplomas of some kings who succeeded him in the lordship of Italy, even if the year of the donation is uncertain. Perhaps it was made between 770 and 800 AD, when, after the capture of Pavia, Charlemagne obtained the kingdom of the Lombards” (5).
Regarding the early Middle Ages, it is a bit difficult to establish reliable data about Sabbioneta. However, the information provided by the "Codice Diplomatico Cremonese" confirm the hypothesis of local historians: "The County of Brescia is crossed by the Oglio river and it reached Cremona, extending up to Sabbioneta [...] Here there was the Royal Court of Sabbioneta, which was sold in 924 AD by King Rudolf to the Bishop of Parma, and later it passed to the Monastery of Leno and, starting from the eleventh century until the thirteenth century, it was ruled by a line of counts of Germanic law settled in Brescia.”
The "Codice Diplomatico Cremonese" adds that "A. F. Zaccaria (6) spoke of the possessions of the Abbey, stating that in 958 AD King Berengar II and Adalbert confirmed Sabbioneta to the Monastery. In the 11th century we find Bosone as Count of Sabbioneta , and his son Ugo in 1034” (7).
The data of the "Codice Diplomatico Cremonese" are confirmed by modern historiography. We observe that the Abbey of Leno, suppressed in the Napoleonic period, with irreparable damage to its manuscripts, the jurisdiction of which was strengthened by Charlemagne, was a very powerful monastery, which controlled all trade along the Po river to Comacchio. Its foundation dates back to 758 AD: “In the year 758 of the Incarnation of our Lord, indiction XI, the monastery of the Saviour in the place called "Leones" was begun by the aforementioned glorious King Desiderius" (8).
It was an Abbey "suis juris", meaning that the imperial investiture was granted to it. In fact, the abbots of the Monastero di Leno were called "Comites-Abbates of Sabbioneta" [Counts-Abbots of Sabbioneta]. The issue of the Monastery of Leno, "ad leones," is interesting because it confirms, even in contemporary historiography, what some local historians wrote about Sabbioneta:
"Thanks to the founder Desiderius, the last king of the Lombards, but also to other Carolingian emperors was gradually increased the consistency of the properties of the Monastery of Leno and jurisdictional prerogatives exercised over them by its abbots. Charlemagne in particular, whose attitude of benevolence towards the monastic institutions is well-known, considered the great abbeys as essential points of reference to govern his empire. On this side of the Alps especially after the defeat of Desiderius in 774, and the occupation of the territories of central and northern Italy, he used the monasteries as a means of consolidating his conquest and control of the kingdom […]
The donation of Charlemagne is mentioned explicitly by the king Berengar and Adalbert II in their diploma granted in 958 to the Abbot Domninus. In the long list of goods confirmed to the monastery Sabbioneta was also specify mentioned, “Sabloneta that Charlemagne had been bestowed in right of his dignity" (9).
Following the donation of Charlemagne, the county had been "usurped" by the Bishop of Parma, but Berengar and Adalbert II returned it to the Benedictine Monastery of Sabbioneta Leno (Baronio, p. 37 and footnote 44).
The medieval history of Sabbioneta appeared, especially to historians of the past, rather difficult to trace. The main reason for so many uncertainties derived, ultimately, not so much from an absolute lack of documents as from the fact that, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire, there was the rise of the power of Bishops and especially of many feudal lords called “capitanei” linked to the bishops of the Italian cities who, under the protection of the bishops, divided the country among themselves and governed a myriad number of personal property, which are extremely difficult to define.
However, among the various feudal lords who ruled over Sabbioneta, the family of the Da Dovara, linked to the bishop of Cremona, played an extremely important role. According to studies by F. Menant, the family of the Da Dovara became very powerful with Buoso Da Dovara, and it was one of the "most powerful noble families of Cremona, where they arrived at the beginning of the eleventh century, obtaining episcopal estates.
The rise of the Da Dovara was especially due to their prestigious position in the Episcopal curia. Their influence has been recognized with the long and laborious episcopate of Obertus (1117-1162) and it reached its zenith with the domain of Buoso over Cremona.
After the fall of Buoso (1267), the Da Dovara were banished from the city, and they lost all political influence, whilst retaining much of their feudal possessions ... augmented by numerous purchases (that we know especially since the 13th century), which extended mainly in the eastern part of the diocese, along the Po and Oglio rivers.
The rural lordships of the Da Dovara in this region, far from the city, allowed a significant degree of autonomy. The inventories of the goods of Buoso, of Gandione and of Isaccus Da Dovara [...], preserved on the Gonzaga Archive of Mantua, reveal that the region of Rivarolo, Dentro, Viadana and Sabbioneta, on the Po river, was another very important power base.
The numerous purchases and inventories of Buoso and some of his relatives suggest that the Da Dovara earned an impressive private income from this territory" (10). Also some historians of the 18th century were fully aware of the importance of Buoso Da Dovara, who had Sabbioneta in fief by the great Frederick II of Swabia. G. A. Zanetti wrote that, coming to Cremona, the Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) knew especially Buoso Da Dovara as the most loyal of his party, and he invested him with Sabbioneta, with a diploma given January 2nd, 1246, already preserved in the Royal Archive (11).
Recent history of Sabbionetta
The history of Sabbioneta, as it is today, began with the cadet branch of the Gonzaga of Mantua, and, above all, with Vespasiano Gonzaga (1531 - 1591), a Renaissance Prince, a learned man and a true lover of ancient Greek and Roman art and antiquity. Vespasiano Gonzaga was the son of Luigi Gonzaga called “Rodomonte” (1500-1532, killed in battle), a man at arms belonging to a cadet branch of the Gonzaga family, and of Isabella Colonna (1513-1570). In 1540 Vespasiano inherited Sabbioneta from his grandfather Ludovico Gonzaga (1481-1540).
During the years 1554 and 1556 Vespasiano began to transform the old medieval village, with the fortress, the circuit of the walls and providing various residences, decorated with antique pieces and frescoed with images evoking myths and history of Rome. The construction continued throughout the second half of the 16th century with “Palazzo Ducale”, “Galleria degli Antichi”, “Palazzo del Giardino”, and “Teatro all’Antica” (12).
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1) G.L. Gregori, “Da ‘Minturnae’ a Sabbioneta?...”, in “ Est enim ille flos Italiae... Vita economica e sociale nella Cisalpina romana” in “Atti delle Giornate di studio in onore di Ezio Buchi”, Verona 2008, pp. 191 ff.
2) “Paesaggio, immagine e realtà”, Electa, 1981, p. 227.
3) A. Racheli, “Delle memorie storiche di Sabbioneta”, Casalmaggiore, Bizzarri, 1849, p. 106.
4) Christophori Cellarii Smalcandiendis," Geographia Antiqua ", Ieanae, MDCCVI [= 1706], p. 358.
5) A. Grandi, “Descrizione dello stato fisico, politico, statistico, storico-biografico della provincia di Cremona”, Cremona, 1858, pp. 156 ff.
6) A. F. Zaccaria, “Dell’Antichissima Badia di Leno”, 1797.
7) L. Astegiano, “Codice Diplomatico Cremonese”, in “Historiae Patriae Monumenta”, Augustae Taurinorum [=Torino], Tomus XXII, 1898, pp. 248-249 and footnote 1.
8) G. Waitz, "Scriptores rerum langobardicarum et italicarum" Hannoverae 1878, p. 503.
9) A. Baronio, “ Il ‘Dominatus’ dell’Abbazia di San Benedetto di Leno”, Brescia, 2002, p. 34 and footnote 14.
10) F. Menant, "Podestà e capitani del Popolo di origine cremonese. Schede prosopografiche", in “Amatus Guilielmus”, Département d'Histoire de l'ENS, 1997, pp. 27 ff.
11) G. A. Zanetti, ” Signori e Conti di Sabbioneta prima dei Gonzaga”, in “Nuova raccolta delle monete e zecche d’Italia”, Bologna, 1783, Tomo III, pp. 110 ff.
12) AA.VV., “Vespasiano Gonzaga e il ducato di Sabbioneta”, in “Atti del Convegno, Sabbioneta-Mantova, 12-13 ottobre 1991”, Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana di Scienze Lettere ed Arti, 1993, passim.
13) P. Artoni, “Riscoperto il vero volto di Vespasiano Gonzaga”, in “La Lanterna”, 2012, n. 100, pp. 18-19.
14) E. Agosta del Fiore, “Sabbioneta e il suo comune dalle origini al 1980”, Tipografia La Sabbionetana, 1981, p. 180.
15) E. Agosta del Fiore, “Sabbioneta e il suo comune …”, p. 10.