About now you are saying, “where have I heard of Mantua? It sounds familiar.” In Act III of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is banned from Verona for slaying Tybalt. He flees to Mantua. Ah, a city of romance. Locals call the Mantua, La Bella Addormentata, a sleeping beauty. That is because the city hasn’t changed since the middle ages. Surrounded on three sides by artificial lakes created almost 1,000 years ago, the city was effectively cut off from the outside world.
The approach to Mantua is striking as you cross the narrow bridge heading straight to the castle. There is an outer road with parking, although with our early arrival we took a chance that there was parking closer in. Vehicular traffic within the city walls is very limited. We were fortunate to find a spot just past the cobble-stoned Piazzo Sordello.
The Ducal Palace and the Cathedral form two sides of the huge Piazzo Sordello. Always a sucker for churches, I wandered inside the Cathedral, the Duomo San Pietro, and found a beautiful painted ceiling. Amazing ceilings would be the theme of the day. (Never did I see so many fabulous ceilings as I did on my morning touring in Mantua.)
Just as beautiful as the interior was the exterior facades, both the entrance facing the Plaza and the side wall facing the Palace.
We got our tickets for the Palace and Castle just off the Piazza and the agent directed us to the Castle for our first stop. We also purchased the audio guides in English. If you want more background on the art in these two locations, the audio guide might be a wise addition at 5 euros. There was signage in both Italian and English throughout the castle and palace, so you can also get by without the audio guide. Boris got more information from his guidebook and tended to not use his audio guide.
Crossing over the moat, you enter the Castle San Giorgio and are directed to the rooms open on exhibit. The castle was built between 1390 and 1406. When we visited there was also a special art collection, on loan until 2025, so the exhibit area is enclosed with glass doors. The most celebrated frescos are found in the bride’s room or wedding chamber know as the Camera degli Sposi (Painted Room). This small square chamber was originally a bedroom. You are limited as to the amount of time you can spend in this room for purposes of crowd control.
The Renaissance painting of the room was done between 1465 and 1474 by Andrea Mantegna for Ludovico and his wife Barbara of Brandenburg depicting events in the history of the Gonzaga family. It is the only work of its kind by Mantegna still in place.
We toured more rooms full of paintings and ceramics on loan, each featuring wonderful painted ceilings. These spaces were originally the apartments for Ludovico II and his wife Barbara of Brandenburg. After a major renovation of the castle beginning in 1459, the apartments were used by Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco II.
After finishing our tour of the castle interior, we stopped to look at the very green moat. Not the most attractive sight, but a lot of castle moats have been filled in or are dry, so it was nice to have one still sporting questionable water. The idea was to keep people from going in/crossing it. This green water works for me.
Passing through the Piazzo Castello (currently under major construction), we returned to Piazza Sordello to tour the Ducal Palace. The Palazzo Ducale is a complex of buildings with more than 500 rooms. Not all are on the tour, but there are more than enough to have your head spinning. Even if you are not up for buying a ticket to view the Palace itself (a shame), you can walk into the lovely gardens free of charge.
This is “the largest residence in Italy after the Vatican”and was home to the Gonzaga family for over 300 years. The Gonzagas held the duchy of Mantua until 1708 and ruled much like the Medicis did in Florence.
We spent much of the morning touring the series of rooms which make up this complex of a “city within a city”. The buildings and the decoration were added and joined over time between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The buildings were almost abandoned during the early 1900s. Today, there are still areas under restoration. The art on the buildings was most impressive, although I admit to a preference for the ceilings rather than the walls. Below I give you a sampling of what you can see. It is incredible.
After completing the Palazzo, we walked through the archway at the end of Piazza Sordello coming to the shopping area with its famous eateries under the porticos. We got our first view of the clock tower, Torre dell’Orologio, built in 1473. The adjacent Palazzo (to the left of the tower) was under renovation. To the right of the tower was the Rotonda of San Lorenzo, a circular Romanesque church; it is also the oldest church in Mantua (1082). Guglielmo Gonzaga closed and partially demolished it in 1579. Between 1908 and 1926 the missing parts were rebuilt. Inside there is a two-story ring aisle. It was beautiful in its simplicity.
Just across the piazza from the Rotonda is the Basilica of Saint Andrea. While I had the opportunity to admire the facade, the residents were taking their midday break and many things were closed to visitors at that time. If you can’t beat them, join them. Boris and I took our lunch break at Antica Osteria Broletto. Boris had eaten there before and enjoyed their refreshing chilled house red wine.
One of the regional specialities is donkey, but I just couldn’t go there. So instead I ordered the pumpkin ravioli popular in this area. Boris ordered our starter, an antipasti platter of sliced meats with a freshly-made warm orange jelly. He had a regional favorite, risotto with sausage. My ravioli was fabulous, but it was a little strange having something so sweet as a main course. We also had a carafe of the chilled Lambrusco (which I would never order at home, but the Mantua version was wonderful) and downed three large bottles of sparking water (acqua frizzante).
It was an extremely hot day with midday temperature in the mid 90s (35 C). The porch offered a little breeze and it was actually cooler outside than inside. Afterwards, things were still closed but we walked over to see the exterior of the Accademia Virgiliana which was built for Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa. Afterwards, Boris was on the hunt for bottle of Mantua Lambrosco to take with us. (He found some; we bought two.)
I had hopes of seeing the Teatro Scientifico where a young Mozart performed and the Palazzo Te, a lovely villa built by Fredorico Gonzaga II as a countryside residence to house his mistress. It is one of Mantua “not to be missed sites” that I missed. A boat ride on the lake would have been fun too. Boris was hot, tired, and not excited about waiting to see when things would open up again. Having been to Palazzo Te, he said I was not missing much. When we got back to the house, our hosts told it differently. He confessed he was just ready to come back. Go see it for me; our hosts said the frescos are amazing.
We walked back through the covered opening into Piazza Sordello and to the car. It was a little tricky finding a way out of the walled city, but we made it and headed back to Comcamarise. I am doing the driving these days. There is so much more to see and do in Mantua, I’ll need a return trip.