Mantua (aka Mantova) is an important town to the south-east of the Lombardy region surrounded by three lakes: Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo, Lago Inferiore. The town has a fascinating and impressive historic centre with many renaissance style builings and palaces, along with many examples from other historical periods.
Aldous Huxley famously described the city as 'the most romantic city in the world' and while that is perhaps open to debate (with Paris, Rome and Venice among those cities that might disagree!) it is true that Mantua is a very lovely city with a great deal to discover and enjoy among its attractive squares, its historic monuments, and its picturesque setting.
A very brief history of Mantua
Before starting to explore it is useful to have at least a brief knowledge of the history of Mantua, since that helps set the scene for the monuments and sights in the town.
The site was originally settled by the etruscans in the 10th century BC, and Virgil was born here in 70 BC. From the 14th century until the early 18th century first the Bonacolsi and then the important family of the Gonzaga Dukes helped establish the city as an important artistic centre, building many of the monuments and attracting artists such as Rubens and Pisanello.
Later, Shakespeare set part of Romeo and Juliet in Mantua and Verdi set Rigoletto here. This artistic flourishing continued until 1708 when the Austrians took control of the city - they were to retain control (apart from a short period under Napoleon) for more than 150 years. Learn more of the long history of Mantua, dating back to its foundation by the Etruscans, at History of Mantua.
The heart of Mantua is set around three important plazas. From north to south these are the Piazza Sordello, Piazza del Broletto and Piazza dell'Erbe and it is around these three squares that you fill find most of the important monuments and buildings, along with streets containing numerous shops, restaurants and buildings of 'lesser' interest. If you visit on a Thursday morning you will also find much of the town centre taken over by a large weekly market.
Although we focus on the important monuments below it is the pleasure of just strolling around Mantua that provides a large part of the enjoyment of a visit!
An artistic tour: the Reggia (Palazzo Ducale) of the Gonzaga
You can begin your tour of Mantova at the Piazza Sordello. Named after a 13th century Italian troubadour, this square was the political and cultural centre of the city from the Middle Ages onwards. Around the edges of the square you can see several medieval palaces built 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 from 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, known as 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, which was the second phase of the Gonzagas Royal Palace, and 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) built a new large building, the so-called Palace of the "Grotta" [Grotto], with work by Battista Covo and Lorenzo Leombruno, between the "Old Court" and "Domus Nova".
Further important additions were made by Giulio Romano (1499-1546) with some beautiful palaces such as 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,
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 of the Reggia is sufficient on its own to give you an idea of the quality of the Renaissance art in Mantua, but just a few steps from the Reggia is the Cathedral with an outside that reflects many different styles (mainly Romanesque and Baroque) and an interior 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 this route you 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 note in particular the entrance of the Palazzo della Ragione and the Clock Tower.
On reaching Piazza Mantegna you discover 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
By following a route from here that passes through numerous squares (Piazza Marconi, Corso Umberto I, Piazza della Libertà) you 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 of the town, 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).
The town is attractive to visit all year round but during the summer it can be very hot and humid and mosquitoes can be a problem because of the surrounding lakes so we suggest you visit outside high summer if possible.
Selected places to visit near Mantua
See the Lombardy guide for more travel ideas...