Mantua (aka Mantova) is an important town to the south-east of the Lombardy region, within easy reach of three important lakes (Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo, Lago Inferiore).
The town has a fascinating and impressive centre with many renaissance style builings and palaces, along with many examples from other historical periods such the neoclassic style, well represented in Mantua both in the Reggia and in the other palaces and churches.
The heart of Mantua contains three plazas - from north to south these are the Piazza Sordello, Piazza del Broletto and Piazza dellErbe - it is around these three squares that you fill find most of the important monuments and buildings.
An artistic tour: the Reggia of the Gonzaga
You can begin your tour of Mantova at the rectangular 'Square Sordello' (Sordello was a 13th century Italian troubadour). This was the political and cultural centre of the city from the Middle Ages onwards.
Around this square you can see several Medieval Palaces created by the Bonacolsi in the 13th-14th centuries of which the most important is the Bonacolsi Palace, founded by Pinamonte Bonacolsi, the 'Captain of the people' who ruled the city from 1273.
After the rise of the Gonzaga family (1328) these palaces underwent considerable restructuring, and over the course of the centuries they formed the Ducal Palace [Palazzo Ducale] (or under the the Gonzagas, the Reggia [Royal Palace]) and the so-called "Old Court"[Corte Vecchia].
This was abandoned by the Dukes of Mantua after the construction of the Castle of San Giorgio (the second phase of the Gonzagas Royal Palace), which, from Duke Ludovico II onwards, (1334-1382) became the residence of the Dukes from Mantua. The architect Luca Fancelli (1430-1494), created the third element of the Royal Palace, the so-called "Domus Nova" (1489).
The Royal Palace continued to expand over the years. In 1529 Duchess Isabella dEste (1474-1539) raised between the "Old Court" and "Domus Nova" a new large building, the so-called Palace of the "Grotta" [Grotto], with work by Battista Covo and Lorenzo Leombruno.
Further important additions were made by Giulio Romano (1499-1546), with some beautiful palaces: the 'Paleologue', 'New Court', and 'Rustica' ('Rural') Palace.
Over the centuries the construction of the Gonzagas Royal Palace involved many of the top artists, painters and sculptors of the Renaissance, starting from Giulio Romano, who made Mantua one of the jewels of the art world.
We can see the mark left by these artists throughout the city, but above all it is to the artist Mantegna to whom the city owes a debt - unfortunately his greatest work, the dome of the Ducal Palace, is now lost and many of his paintings are now dispersed in various museums of the world (in London, Florence, Vienna, Milan).
Mantua Cathedral and area
The tour to the Reggia would be sufficient to give the idea of the quality of the Renaissance art in Mantua. But just a few steps from the Reggia there is the Cathedral, of which the outside reflects many different styles (mainly Romanesque and Baroque), while the inside is by Giulio Romano, who copies the style of the primitive Christian churches.
Moving on from Piazza Sordello follow the route towards Piazza Broletto and Piazza delle Erbe. Along the route we can admire the Podestà Palace, and the beautiful 13th century Palace of the Broletto, with the figure of the poet Virgil. In Piazza delle Erbe admire the entrance of the Palazzo della Ragione and the Clock Tower.
At Piazza Mantegna, we find the beautiful church of San Andrea by Leon Battista Alberti, who arrived at Mantua around 1450. The Church was designed by the great humanist around 1470, and in the design of the powerful façade you can see the references to ancient Roman times, especially in the great Triumphal Arches.
Giulio Romano and Te Palace
And now, following a route that passes through numerous squares (Piazza Marconi, Corso Umberto I, Piazza della Libertà) we come to the masterpiece of Giulio Romano, the so-called "Te Palace, which, at the time of its construction, was outside the city walls (these walls have now disappeared).
Giulio Romano worked on the Palace for ten years (1525-1535) helped by an impressive array of artists (Gian Francesco Penni, Francesco Primaticcio, Benedetto Pagni, Rinaldo Mantovano and others), and arrived at the extraordinary result we see today.
You can see the Loggia towards the garden, where the Roman art echoes are clearly visible.
Even more impressive is the interior, especially the so-called "Sala degli Stucchi", with the frieze of the Primaticcio; or the "Psyche Hall" and "Hall of the horses", with frescoes by Rinaldo Mantovano; then also see the frescoes by the same Giulio Romano in the Hall of the Giant and the Honour Lodge.
After following the long tour around the art and architecture, no visit to Mantua would be complete without sampling the typical dishes of the city, which are based on local farming traditions. There are many restaurants in Mantua and surrounding region that serve the traditional cuisine.
Some of the best known local dishes include 'agnolini and tortelli of pumpkin', risotto, the so-called 'salamelle mantovane' (local salami) and the 'cotechino' (a kind of big boiled pork sausage). There are also some excellent-traditional sweets such as 'torta sbrisolona' [a sort of crumble tart).
Related article: the poet Virgil was born at Mantua, and both Shakespeare and Verdi set scenes in the town - an impressive artistic background. To learn something of the long history of Mantua, dating back to its foundation by the Etruscans, see History of Mantua.