“Mantua me genuit, calabri rapuere, tenet nunc parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.”
“Mantua begot me, Salento stole me away, and now Naples holds me. I sang of the pastures, the countrysides, the leaders.”
This is the funerary inscription of the oldest and, perhaps, most famous son of Mantua: Virgil.
Aside from this scholarly quote, Mantua is the second city of art, in order of importance, near Borgogelsi. The first, of course, is Verona.
Coming from the lower Po Valley road, the one arriving from Padua, and therefore from Borgogelsi, you enter Mantua over a bridge between two lakes. It is beautiful, on nice summer days, to see the city skyline, with its impressive Palazzo Ducale, reflected in the peaceful waters of the lakes.
The city is therefore surrounded by lakes. Actually, these are created by artificial extension of the Mincio river, originally used to provide military protection for the city.
These lakes, in addition to being a pleasant place where the citizens of Mantua can practise water sports, are also home to the typical lotus plant.
In late spring and summer, organised tours on small boats allow you to see the spectacular lotus in flower.
What to see
There are so many monuments in the city. The most important ones are:
It is not a simple “palazzo”, it would be more appropriate to define it a “Reggia” [a royal palace]. It has more than 1000 rooms and studies, princely halls, Renaissance gardens, courtyards and cloisters.
It is not a single palazzo, but a group of parts from the Middle Ages and from the Renaissance. Maria Teresa of Austria made the final changes and called it “Palazzo Reale” due to its imperial magnificence.
From 1308 it was the residence of the Bonacolsi, the Lords of Mantua, and then the main residence of the Gonzaga, first Lords, then Marquises, and finally Dukes. Gonzaga, the prince at that time, lived in the palace with his wife, all their children, and a great number of important guests. For example, the Viceroy of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, Eugenio de Beauharnais.
Inside the palace, the Sala del Pisanello depicts a few scenes of the Breton cycle of King Arthur. Isabella’s study, with refined frescoes. Duke Vincenzo’s apartment, with gorgeous ceilings.
It was Federico Gonzaga, the first Duke of Mantua and son of Marquise Isabella d’Este, who wanted Palazzo Te, as a place dedicated to leisure. He made it a gift to his lover, Isabella Boschetti, and in this place, with her, he had an intense and much disputed love story. It was built between 1525 and 1534 to a design by Giulio Romano. The famous painter and architect curated the frescoes and interior decoration. The most famous room is the Sala dei Giganti, in which the artist depicts the episode of the Titans’ and Giants’ attempt to chase the gods off Mount Olympus.
And then there is the room of Amor and Psyche. Here, the love between Duke Vincenzo and the beautiful Isabella Boschetti is depicted metaphorically. Finally, let’s not forget to visit the apartment of the secret garden.
A snug and intimate space, here the Duke used to meet Isabella, away from the court. Another interesting space is the Grotta, which Duke Vincenzo had built around 1595. The dark and mystery that pervades the room evokes rocks and caves, the idea is to represent seaside locales, where the water, making its way among the rocks and sand, moves the static space. Many marine elements are built into the plaster on the walls: mother-of-pearl, pearls, and coral. All of this helps you to feel surrounded by a mysterious and fascinating space.
Palazzo della Ragione and Torre dell’Orologio
The palazzo, built in 1250, was the location of the Court of Justice. Here, the cruel justice of those times was served. Public assemblies were also held there. The Palatium Novum, therefore, had a well-defined purpose. Here the people were called regularly to participate in decisions of interest to the community and concerning important issues. There was also an indoor space where they could seek shelter on rainy days. On the walls of the large hall, inside the palace, there are traces of Medieval frescoes.
The outer perimeter of the structure, with its Fifteenth century porticoes, was home to the market. The crenellation is in the Ghibelline style, so we know that, at that time, the city backed the Emperor.
Marquise Ludovico gave the order to build the clock tower which was, in fact, built in 1472. The clock was made by craftsman Bartolomeo Manfredi. It is an astrological clock. It contains lunar phases, zodiac signs, and suggestions linked with everyday life. It also marks sunrise and sunset, and describes how the heavenly bodies influence the various times of the day.
The legend describes it as a magical object, inside which science, astrology and magic are blended to become one.
Today, it is possible to climb the tower up to the clock room, and to see the complexity of the intricate mechanism, which has been restored several times. From here, you can enjoy a spectacular view over the city of Mantua.
Piazza Sordello is the central place – to this day possibly one of the most typical spots of the city of Mantua.
It was dedicated to poet Sordello da Goito. At first it was named Piazza San Pietro. It was built by knocking down some old houses that were located between parallel streets. The city had a Roman type layout, so it developed in blocks. It was in the Middle Ages that the most significant architectural operations were carried out, changing the appearance of the piazza, and then again in the Eighteenth century, when the façades of the Duomo and Palazzo Vescovile were refurbished. Piazza Sordello was, for centuries, the centre of all political and religious activities in the city. The most important buildings in the city overlook the piazza, and namely: Palazzo Vescovile, the Duomo, Palazzo Ducale, Palazzo del Capitano, Palazzo Castiglioni and the Torre della Gabbia. Castello di San Giorgio is also near to the piazza. Here, you can see important frescoes by Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna. In the south-eastern corner of the piazza, with the help of special raised structures, you can see Roman period mosaic flooring.
The literature festival
Festivaletteratura is a cultural event not to be missed in Mantua. It is the most important appointment with cultural leisure in town.
Five days of workshops, concerts, themed itineraries, and shows with national and international authors.
But also events with artists, writers, poets and essayists from all over the world.
At this time, the whole city is involved in a cultural event that permeates everything.
It is held every year in Mantua at the end of summer, since 1997.
Just a few km from Mantua, and absolutely worth visiting, is the town of Sabbioneta.
It was Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna who founded this town around 1554. The chosen place lay where there was a stronghold belonging to his grandfather Ludovico and an ancient Roman settlement.
The location was in a strategic position at the centre of the Po valley and along the ancient consular Via Vitelliana. Vespasiano Gonzaga intended Sabbioneta to be, above all, a stronghold, and for this reason he built it surrounded by impressive walls. This defensive system made it one of the most important defensive systems in Lombardy at that time. To this day, the walls are well preserved, and this makes Sabbioneta one of the most interesting walled cities in the area.
But Sabbioneta is known, above all, as the capital of the tiny State of Sabbioneta.
At that time, it was surrounded by more menacing larger regional states:
- The Dukedom of Milan, governed by the Spanish governor, to the west.
- The Dukedom of Mantua, ruled by the first-born blood line of the Gonzaga, Vespasiano’s cousins, east of the Oglio river.
- The Dukedom of Parma and Piacenza, under the Farnese house, which supported and was friend with Gonzaga himself, south of the Po river.
The area of the small State of Sabbioneta was in this eastern end by the Diocese of Cremona, and therefore formed a mandatory crossroads, for trade with the middle Po area, and as a communication line between the lower Brescia area and the Emilia region.
When Sabbioneta became the residence of Prince Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna, the city experienced its most prosperous historical period.