Two hours from Milan, Mantua is perfect for a day trip out of town. Despite being a tiny city, it is truly a concentration of cultural wonders, so much so that in 2016, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism awarded Mantua the title of Italian Capital of Culture.
City of the Gonzagas, one of the most famous princely families in Europe, protagonists of Italian and European history from the 14th to the 18th century. The Gonzagas governed Mantua from 1328 to 1707. Their great fame is also linked to the fact that they promoted, for several generations, the artistic and cultural life at the highest level, also with their collection called the “Celeste Galeria”. It is also the city of Andrea Mantegna, painter who realized the decoration of the Bridal Chamber, frescoed in the Castle of San Giorgio in the Ducal Palace complex.
What to see in Mantua
Let’s start our route from the Castle of San Giorgio and the Museum of Palazzo Ducale – in Piazza Sordello, which you can visit by purchasing the combined ticket. Both are the most distinctive monuments of the city. The castle has a square plan with four corner towers and was built by Francesco I Gonzaga in 1395. Inside you will find one of Andrea Mantegna’s most famous frescoes in the Bridal Chamber, a masterpiece of Renaissance painting. Palazzo Ducale is the oldest of the residences where the Gonzagas lived, built between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, isconsidered the largest architectural museum complex in Italy that contains large rooms, frescoes, churches, arcades, towers, courtyards and gardens.
Reach then Piazza delle Erbe, the main square of the city and one of the most characteristic, so called because for a long time there is the traditional market of fruits and vegetables. The square is dominated by the Palazzo della Ragione and the Clock Tower, which was built in the second half of the fifteenth century by mathematician and astrologer Bartolomeo Manfredi. The clock not only marks the hours, it also indicates the signs of the zodiac, the planetary hours, the days of the moon and the position of the stars. And think that it has been in operation since 1473!
In the square you will also find the Rotonda di San Lorenzo, the oldest round church in the city. There are no documents to testify to this, but its peculiar architecture suggests that it was founded between the end of the eleventh century and the beginning of the twelfth at the behest of Countess Matilda of Canossa.
Another very particular building is the Merchant’s House, with its wonderful Renaissance facade. Built in 1455 by the merchant of fabrics Giovan Boniforte da Concorezzo as a house-workshop, the facade is decorated with late Gothic and oriental motifs, in memory of his travels in the East.
Adjacent to Piazza Erbe, you can visit the Basilica di Sant’Andrea, designed by Leon Battista Alberti. The Basilica has a cross-shaped plan, the interior is finely decorated with coffered ceilings and houses works of art by famous artists such as Correggio and Mantegna, the latter buried inside the basilica. In the crypt of the basilica are kept the Sacred Vases that contain the earth of Golgotha soaked with the blood of Jesus, brought to Mantua by Longino, the Roman soldier who had pierced Jesus with his spear.
Wandering through the streets of the center, and heading towards Palazzo Te, walk along Via Roma so as to reach the Farmer’s Market and the Giulio Romano Fishing Lodge, a historic building in Mantua dedicated to the fish trade.
Walking straight ahead you will easily reach Palazzo Te, one of the Gonzaga’s residences, with its splendid and gigantic garden. The complex was built in 1500 by the architect Giulio Romano at the behest of Federico II of Gonzaga, who wanted a refuge from the obligations of court and a secluded place where he could devote himself solely to leisure and entertainment. Here, besides several illustrious guests, also lived his lover Isabella Boschetto, to whom rooms and frescoes are dedicated. The palace no longer contains the furniture of the time but the emptiness of the rooms is perfectly counterbalanced by wonderful frescoes that will leave you speechless. The Chamber of Cupid and Psyche and the Chamber of the Giants alone are worth the visit.
Palazzo Te is so called because it was built on a small island called Tejeto since the Middle Ages, perhaps from the Latin tilietum, place of lime trees, and then shortened to te. This small island, surrounded by the Mincio River, housed, during the ‘400, the stables of the Gonzaga family, who dominated the duchy.
Where to eat in Mantua
My choice fell on the Antica Hosteria Leoncino Rosso, which has been named a “Store of Historical Activity” since 2016. The setting is rustic but well-kept, the service courteous, and the dishes are traditional: ranging from tortelli di zucca to risotto alla mantovana.