Mantua is on a roll. Not only was it named the Cultural Capital of Italy for 2016—a new prize established by the national Ministry of Culture that brings with it 1€ million for the city—but next year also marks the 150th anniversary of Mantua joining the kingdom of Italy. To keep the momentum going, the city is part of the region, together with Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona, named the European Capital of Gastronomy for 2017.
But you may be thinking, “Mantua? Is that one of those Shakespeare towns?” Well, yes—Mantua (Mantova in Italian) is where Romeo goes when he’s banished in Romeo & Juliet. And it’s the setting for Verdi’s iconic opera, Rigoletto. The poet Virgil was born nearby.
Mantua sits in Lombardy’s Po Valley, east of Milan and southwest of Verona. In 2007 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. But as a tourist destination, this jewel of a town surrounded on three sides by manmade lakes, hasn’t been on the route of what Sebastiano Sali, Strategic Projects Officer for the Mantua Mayor’s office, calls the American’s “Grand Tour.”
“Mantua is off-radar, for Europeans too,” Sali admits. So he and the city’s 38-year-old mayor, Mattia Palazzi, are ecstatic about the Italian Cultural Capital prize, for which the city beat out towns like Pisa, Como and Parma. “It puts Mantua on the center stage of national and international interest,” says Palazzi.
Thanks to the cash infusion, as well as an additional 18€ million they’ve received from the local government for a three-year plan to refurbish public buildings, Palazzi says, “We’re doubling down on restoration and new construction.”
As a city founded by the Etruscans over 2,000 years ago, Mantua is one of the most historic towns in Italy.
At its height, it thrived under the rule of the Gonzaga family, horse breeders and merchants who held power from 1328 to 1714 and were such great supporters of the arts that the city is described by Irma Pagliari, Mantua’s Director of Culture and Tourism, as “the other cradle of the Renaissance,” second only to Florence.
The recent recognition is infusing Mantua with new energy and catapulting this ancient center of music, art and literature into the future. One of the plans is to make it a “Smart City,” in terms of mobility, environmental protection, social welfare, education and digital development. “If we are able to do that, it will be the first example of this kind of city in Italy,” Sali says.
But how to approach a place offering so many sights, sounds and delicious cuisine? Visitors can tailor their trip based on their own interests: Mantua’s tourist office —based in Casa di Rigoletto, a medieval dwelling that was used as a setting for Verdi’s opera—offers ideas for various itineraries related to the city’s food, Renaissance history, 17th-century rulers (the Austrians), music and more. There’s too much to include here, so I’ll stick to the greatest hits.
Arriving in Mantua from the East across the San Giorgio Bridge, you’re immediately met with a photo op. In winter, the city rises out of the fog in all its historical glory giving you a glimpse of Palazzo Ducale, the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio, and the dome of the Cathedral of Sant’Andrea behind.
After checking in to one of the city’s quaint B&Bs or hotels, such as the Hotel dei Gonzaga where I stayed with a view over the city’s grand Piazza Sordello, you may want to begin with a visit to the Palazzo Ducale across the square.
The enormous palace was home to many of Mantua’s rulers but primarily the Gonzagas, starting in the 14th century. I’d advise a hearty breakfast because the palace has more than 500 rooms and covers over 34,000 square meters. There’s even a separate cathedral, Santa Barbara.
As patrons of the arts, Mantua’s rulers brought in some of Italy’s most revered artists and architects—including Pisanello, Andrea Mantegna, Peter Paul Rubens and Raphael—to decorate and expand it. Leonardo da Vinci slept here, a guest of Isabella d’Este, the ultra-fashionable noblewoman who married Francesco II Gonzaga in 1490 (the queen of France requested dolls dressed like Isabella be sent to her so that she could copy her style).
By 1627, the Gonzagas had amassed one of the most impressive art collections in Europe when a financial crash forced them to sell off 95 percent of the works. But the Palazzo Ducale remains an awesome spectacle.
Ruling this city within a city is Peter Assmann, an accomplished Austrian art historian appointed as the museum’s director last August. A towering, genial man, he says he revels in walking the halls at night, “I’m the ghost of this place,” he jokes.
On his strolls he admires the same sights that mesmerize visitors, like Pisanello’s frescoes of the tales of King Arthur, and the Camera degli Sposi, or Bridal Chamber, painted between 1465-74. With recently restored frescoes by Mantegna, the Camera degli Sposi is so called because it depicts Ludovico II Gonzaga and his wife Barbara of Brandenburg and their courtly family.
The frescoes were damaged in a 2012 earthquake, but after a three-year restoration the room reopened last year, but to protect the artwork only 25 people are allowed entry every 15 minutes, so in high season it’s advisable to make a reservation.
As my guide Lorenzo Bonoldi told me, “The Italian Renaissance was a real Game of Thrones,” with families battling for power—and the Camera degli Sposi includes a portrait of a little person. The Gonzagas invited dwarfs, considered “wonders of nature” says Assmann, to live in the castle, and for next year’s celebration, the palace’s Apartment of Dwarfs will be turned into a children’s museum. Additionally, Assmann plans to open a contemporary gallery within the castle to add a touch of modernity.
There’s so much to see—the apartments of Isabella d’Este and her secret garden, Rubens’ gigantic “The Gonzaga Family in Adoration of the Trinity,” the gorgeous tapestries by Raphael—the best way to take it in may be just to wander.
“We are here in a palace of miracles,” Assmann says. “If you come to the room where Rubens is, you just turn around into the marvelous room of mirrors, which is perfect for dancing, and then you turn and you have the bedroom of a 19th-century empress, so it’s really marvelous to always experience something new.”
Piazza Sordello, 40
(39) 0376 352100
Open daily except Monday, 8:15 a.m. to 7:15 p.m.
Across town stands the pleasure palace of Federico II Gonzaga, the son of Ludovico and Isabella. He commissioned Giulio Romano to build Palazzo Te in 1525 as an escape from his powerful mother, with whom he shared power after his father’s death in 1519. The Te—situated on land that used to be an island named Tejeto before the Gonzagas drained the marshy area—can be seen in an afternoon.
The palace is a good example of how tastes were changing at the time. Its Mannerist architectural details form a bridge between the classicism of the Renaissance and the ornate showmanship of the Baroque. My guide, Daniele Lucchini, pointed out that the Te is “decorated in a rustic way,” since it was outside the city.
And there’s no doubt about the earthy pleasures that went on inside. “Federico was a passionate guy,” Lucchini says, “he spent time here with his lovers.” Nowhere are his carnal tastes more evident than in the sumptuous room of Eros and Psyche, depicting scenes from that mythic love story. Other rooms that stand out include the Sala del Sole, or Sun Room with its ceiling painting of the setting sun and rising moon, and the Salone dei Cavalli, or Horse Salon, which features portraits of six Berber horses, including Federico’s favorite, Blacky.
But the pièce de résistance is the Hall of Giants, conceived by Romano. The painted walls feature giants attempting to scale Mt. Olympus and the gods’ revenge as they toss the assailants down.
Viale Te, 13
(39) 0376 323266
Open Monday, 1 to 6:30 p.m. and all other days, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
There are several cathedrals worth visiting as you stroll through Mantua. The most impressive is the Basilica of Sant’Andrea, designed by Leon Battista Alberti in 1472 but not completed until the 18th century. It’s what Palazzo Ducale’s Assmann calls, “The church that shows the development from late medieval architecture to future centuries because the architecture of the late Renaissance and Baroque all depends on this church.”
With its colorful interior and grand dome, the church contains the grave of the artist Mantegna and also a hallowed relic: the Veneration of the Blood of Christ, carried to Mantua by St. Longinus. The vessels containing the blood are brought out every year on Good Friday. (Basilica of Sant’Andrea, Piazza Andrea Mantegna; www.santandreainmantova.it; Open daily, 8 a.m. to noon and 3 to 7 p.m.)
Around the corner from Sant’Andrea, you’ll enter the Piazza delle Erbe, with its 1473 astrological clock tower. You can climb the tower for a 360-degree view of the city. And beside the tower stands Mantua’s oldest church, Rotonda di San Lorenzo. Built in 1082, the quaint round building contains fresco fragments from the 11th century. (Rotonda di San Lorenzo, Torre dell’Orologio; Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., except Monday, open 1 to 6 p.m.)
“Mantua is a city with a grand musical past,” says Carlo Fabbiano, artistic director of the Mantua Orchestra that performs in the city’s glittering Teatro Scientifico. In 2016, Mantua will show off it’s great musical present with at least 45 concerts (a full schedule is available at www.mantovamusica.com). Separately, the annual Mantua Chamber Music Festival will be held the first week of June.
Many of these events will take place at the Scientifico, also known as the Bibiena after its architect Antonio Galli Bibiena. If there is a concert happening here when you are in town, by all means go! The Baroque auditorium with its box seats has a breathtaking interior. “I can’t come into this theater without getting emotional,” Fabbiano says. “I think of the genius of Mozart who played here.”
Indeed, on Jan. 16, 1770, the 13-year-old prodigy helped inaugurate the space with a memorable concert, and his father Leopold described it as “the most beautiful theater in the world.” (Teatro Scientifico, Via Accademia, 47; Open weekdays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
If you prefer reading to listening, every September Mantua hosts the Festival Letteratura, which has hosted such authors as Zadie Smith, Seamus Heaney, Jumpa Lahiri, as well as many Italian scribes. Two of the organizers, Laura Baccaglioni and Francesco Caprini, explained that in 2016 for the first time, “we’re doing events all through the year.”
The official lineup will likely be announced in June, and they expect attendance—which in 2015 approached 125,000—to grow. In fact, the festival usually hosts about 400 authors who are organized by 600 volunteers. All events take place at 60 of Mantua’s stunning locations. It’s truly a communal event, says Caprini: “We started the festival in Mantua, for Mantua, with Mantua.” (www.festivalletteratura.it)
Not to be outdone by the sights, Mantua’s famed regional cuisine is a delight. At Fragoletta, I enjoyed a lunch of Risotto alla Pilota, a dish of dry risotto with local pork topped with Grana Padano cheese.
For coffee or aperitivo, you can stop by the famed Bar Caravatti, where locals gather to enjoy their special 19th-century concoction of aromatic bitters and wine. For dinner, Cento Rampini, on Piazza Erbe, “is one of the most traditional and best restaurants,” for local dishes, says Sebastiano Sali.
Nearby, Tiratappi is run by husband and wife Orazio and Liliana Scicolone and is said to be a place where Charles Dickens once ate. They serve their own rendition of the local specialty Tortelli di Zucca, a pumpkin ravioli usually flavored with only butter and sage, but Orazio adds cheese and chestnuts in season. The Mantuans wash down their meals with the local wine, Lambrusco, which is a slightly fizzy red wine. Cin-cin!
Mantua is truly a feast for the eyes, ears and palate, and it deserves its chance to burn through the fog of history and to shine bright in the sun. The city offers a bike-share program, cooking classes, and a fresh-food market every Saturday. You can even sail to Venice in the summer. Perhaps Palazzo Ducale’s Assmann says it best: “I would say come to Mantua and experience another Italy. It’s a good place to stay.”
Find out where to stay and eat in The Details for Exploring Mantua.
Lisa Chambers is a freelance writer living in Rome. She previously wrote about historic tombs in Rome for the October issue of Dream of Italy.