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Sabbioneta is a very interesting town and perhaps unique in northern Italy. The town was designed in the 16th century by Vespasiano I Gonzaga to be a perfect example of how a renaissance period fortified town should be laid out, and retains many of the palazzos and buildings, and also the town layout from that time.
Brief history of Sabbioneta
The town did exist prior to its 16th century restructuring, and Sabbioneta originally had Roman origins when it was founded here because of the quality of the agricultural land and because of its position on the "Via Vitelliana" trade route.
By the Middle Ages it was a fortified town with a castle which, according to tradition, was renovated in the early years of the sixteenth century by the Marquis Ludovico, grandfather of Vespasiano.
The 16th century Sabbioneta you see today consists of a planned grid of streets within a star-shaped hexagon of fortified walls, with the town buildings and design based on an idealised vision of Roman and Greek cities of antiquity. Because of this unusual history it is now protected as a UNESCO heritage site. See further details of the town history and layout further down and also history of Sabbionetta.
Explore Sabbioneta : a very small 'Renaissance Capital' in Italy
This interesting history can still be followed in the streets of Sabbioneta with many notable buildings from the 16th-17th centuries to be seen. Start your visit in the Piazza Ducale, with one end dominated by the Ducal Palace which is currently used as the town hall.
One very noteworthy idea in Sabbioneta was the theatre - the Teatro Olimpico. As you admire the interior, including a balcony of statues, recall that this theatre, built at the end of the 16th century, is not just a rare example of a Renaissance theatre but was also the first free-standing theatre to be built anywhere in the world!
Other notable sights include the Gallery of the Ancients, which is a large gallery with painted walls that was once a display areas for hunting trophies, the Palazzo Grande and the Palazzo Giardino, the small baroque style Church of San Rocco and the Porta Imperiale that once provided access to the fortified town.
Also worth a visit is the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta that once stood in the ancient castle. In 1562 the Prince Vespasiano Gonzaga decided to demolish it as soon as possible to implement his urban projects that would radically change the original structure of the medieval town. The new parish church was erected on the “Piazza Nuova” using the stones from the previous church.
This second church was rebuilt in 1581 and fits well in the context of the square, where the Duke's Palace remains the main architectural monument. The interior of the church has a single nave, with a lowered ceiling to accent lighting.
It is not at all apparent that the village of Sabbioneta was initially a great success, despite the ambitions of its founder, Duke Vespasiano. It is hard to imagine the reactions of the bemused peasants being told they must relocate from their smallholdings into the town, which was never really needed at the time, and even less necessary after the demise of Vespasiano.
Be that as it may, Vespasiano has left a fascinating legacy and Sabbioneta makes an interesting stopover in this part of Lombardy.
Who was Vespasiano Gonzaga
Vespasiano Gonzaga was a very learned man, and a true lover of antiquity. He spared no expense and employed the best artists of his time. He founded magnificent palaces, a stunning arcaded Art-Gallery, an unbelievable Library, beautiful gardens, a mint, and one of the most attractive theatres of the Renaissance, designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616) ; and also churches, and classic structures of every kind. Overall Vespasiano Gonzaga “rebuilt” the whole town, creating a very “small Renaissance capital” in Italy.
As early as November 1590 Vespasiano was poor in health, and on February 25, 1591, dictated his will. He died on February 27, 1591, and was buried in the church of “Incoronata.” In 2012 the family tomb of Vespasiano Gonzaga was discovered in Sabbioneta. The discovery of the body of the great "conditor" of Sabbioneta was an exceptional event, followed by a meeting of experts who have even recreated the "real face" of Vespasiano.
Sabbionetta layout and design: town planning
Sabbioneta, according to tradition, was conceived by Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga as "his town," so much so that the public inscriptions named him always as "conditor" [= founder] of Sabbioneta. The town presents a network of orthogonal streets that sub-divide the small fortified town into blocks of equal sizes, with the walls in the shape of an irregular polygon, reinforced with bastions and a castle, today lost.
The internal network of streets is organized around a main axis, which connects the two town gates. Important monuments include the Duchy Palace, the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, the library, the long art-gallery, where the Duke kept his art collection, and the “Teatro Olimpico”, erected by Vincenzo Scamozzi.
Vespasiano, to realize his idea of his city, took advantage of the long experience of military architects in the service of the King of Spain (whom he knew having spent some years at the court of Charles V) and, in designing Sabbioneta, he held on behalf of the "Treatise on Architecture" by Pietro Cattaneo (died 1569), published in 1554.
The two squares are placed in an asymmetric position and are the two most important centers of the town, around which are located the most representative palaces. The so-called “Piazza Ducale” was the center of public life with the market, surrounded by the major buildings, the administrative headquarter, the magnificent library, in which were conserved works of classical authors, military engineering projects and urban defense plans.
Local Sabbionetta gourmet experience
After appreciating the art be sure to take a break with the cuisine of Sabbioneta. The typical product of the area is the pumpkin, the basic ingredient for the preparation of ravioli, risotto and gnocchi. For gourmets there are the noodles with a duck sauce and polenta. Among the sweets of Sabbioneta, try the so-called "sbrisolona" with hazelnuts, washed down with the red wine of Sabbioneta.
Where is Sabbioneta?
You can find more local travel ideas in the Lombardy guide.