A visit to Mantua (Mantova in Italian), located in the south east of the region of Lombardy, is ideal for a weekend getaway or an overnight stop in an Italian trip. Whilst the city is studied by every student of renaissance art history, it is a destination that is largely overlooked by foreign travellers, as it often becomes overshadowed by its much larger, and more magnificent, competitors on the Italian peninsula. Mantova is a small city (circa 50,000 inhabitants) and so it doesn’t take very long to feel at home and have visited the major sites, but with artistic wonders and a scrumptious cuisine, it is worth the visit. It was entered in the list of Unesco world heritage sites in 2008.
Geographically it is unusual, surrounded by lakes, and was unattractive swampy marsh land until the Corradi family took over the area in the fourteenth century and created their Marquisate in the early fifteenth century. The ruling family became best known by their adopted name of Gonzaga, hailing from their eponymous town of origin close by. The Gonzaga family (dukes from 1530), ruled until 1707 when the duchy passed to the Hapsburgs.
During the renaissance period, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the Gonzaga family were some of the most important patrons of Renaissance art, and they long cultivated a court which included some of the most illustrious artists and intellectuals of the time. Andrea Mantegna, the court painter from 1460-1506 (he was the brother-in-law to Giovanni and Gentile Bellini – the most important painters of the Venetian Republic in the second half of the fifteenth century), succeeding from much acclaimed Pisanello, and Leon Battista Alberti (the great Renaissance theorist and architect from Florence), constructed the Basilica Sant’Andrea, a triumphant display of the new Renaissance humanist style. In the 1500’s, Giulio Romano, the most gifted of artists in Raphael’s workshop in Rome, who continued the workshop commissions after the great master’s death in 1520, was the court architect and painter in Mantua from the 1520’s. His most significant and most famous work was the architecture and decoration of Palazzo Te, the Gonzaga villa residence, once located outside the city, now a short walk from the Ducal palace.
|The medieval castle that became the ducal palace of the Gonzaga family|
|Ceiling from the 'camera picta' called 'camera degli sposi' by Andrea Mantegna finished in 1474|
The two decorated walls depict the ruling family, Ludovico and Barbara Gonzaga; on the east wall the family together with courtiers and dwarf...
|East wall of the camera picta|
|North wall of the camera picta|
|Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Titian|
The Gonzaga country structure and stables, located outside the old city’s walls, was renovated by Giulio Romano and transformed into what it is today by the Marquis Federico II (son of Isabella d’Este and Francesco II Gonzaga) who was also to become the first Duke of Mantua.
|Cupid and Psyche Bacchanalian feast by Giulio Romano in one of the rooms of the Palazzo Te|
A good starter is a plate of mixed salames. A must for the first course is the tortelli di zucca which is delightfully sweet, and/or the maccheroni con stracotto (meat cooked over a long period of time - often donkey or horse meat is used).
|tortelli di zucca and maccheroni con stracotto|
|cotecchino and stinco di maiale|
|Sbisolona - the almond butter biscuit|
|Torta di tagliatelle|
I stayed at the ‘B & B Casa del Teatro’, conveniently located a few minutes' walk from both the train station and the ducal palace. Cosy and comfy, completely renovated and elegant, it was perfect. The slow food restaurant where I ate is called Due Cavallini (Via Sainitro 5, Tel: +39 0376 322084)