Our day trip to the medieval city of Mantova was filled with churches, palazzos, museums and piazzas.
Spelled Mantua in English and Mantova in Italian, this city of approximately 50,000 people lies 30ish miles (46 km) south of Verona and Verona is midway between Milan and Venice. After spending 2 weeks in Verona surrounded by the romantic story of Romeo and Juliet, we wanted to step foot into historic Mantua as well. You may recall, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tragedy, after killing Tybalt Capulet in a swordfight, Romeo was banished to Mantua.
A Brief History
In the 6th century BCE, Mantua was an Etruscan village and it is thought to have been named after the Etruscan god Mantus. The Etruscan civilization, dating from 900 BCE-27 BCE, is another ancient culture we hope to learn more about during our travels through Italy.
For 600 years Mantova was an island settlement. In 1198, the city excavated four man-made lakes creating a defensive water ring around the city. In the 18th century one lake dried up and the land was reclaimed leaving the three lakes we see today.
The powerful Gonzaga family ruled Mantova from the early part of the 14th century until the start of the 18th century. Under the Gonzagas it is said that Mantova was one of the most splendid courts in all of Europe between the 15th to the early 17th century. It was a center where Renaissance art, music, architecture and the humanities flourished.
In 1627 the last direct-line member of the Gonzaga family died and a distant member from a minor French branch of the Gonzaga family, Ferdinand Carlo IV, stepped up. He was however, unfit to rule and by 1630 the War of the Mantovan Succession broke out. Ferdinand Carlo lost the city and escaped to Venice taking 1000 pieces of the Gonzaga’s art collection with him. When he died in Venice in 1708, the Duke of Mantova was declared deposed and the final chapter of the Gonzaga Dynasty closed.
The Habsburgs of Austria ruled the city and for the next 160 years Mantova ping-ponged between being controlled by the Austrians and by France’s Napoleonic leaders. In 1866, the Savoy Kingdom of Italy, together with a German coalition, defeated the Austrian Empire forcing the Austrians to withdraw from the Kingdom of Venetia (which included Mantova as well as Venice and other cities). Mantova quickly reconnected with the region of Lombardy and was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy.
Mantova’s grand Ducal Palace, once the home of the Renaissance Gonzaga family, is a must stop. The large palace has several hundred rooms, numerous buildings, courtyards, gardens, and its own church, the Church of Santa Barbara.
The Castello di San Giorgio, is also part of the Ducal Palace complex. There are rooms featuring ornate ceilings and walls covered in both beautifully painted works of art and woven tapestries. We were told especially not to miss the bridal chamber, the Camera degli Sposi (the famous frescoes painted by Andrea Mantegna). Can you imagine looking up from your bed at this scene watching you?
Isabella d’Este, the daughter of Duke Ercole the ruler of nearby Ferrara, married Francesco II Gonzaga in 1490 and became the Marchioness of Mantua. A ‘studiolo’ in Italian is a small room, often lavishly decorated, used for reading, studying or writing and in the 15th century it was unusual for a woman to have a studiolo. However Isabella was an avid art collector and she was able to commission paintings from the most prominent painters of her time. We thoroughly enjoyed the collection of paintings on display in the Palazzo.
Perhaps Mantova’s most famous citizen is the ancient Roman classical poet, Virgil, (70 BCE-19 BCE). The same Virgil whom Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) author of the Divine Comedy, used as his guide in the Inferno and in the ascent into Purgatory. In 1472 the Divine Comedy was printed for the first time in three different locations: (Foligno, Venice and Mantova). This 600 year old early Mantova manuscript pictured below, belonged to a local family.
Basilica di Sant’Andrea
Building began on the Basilica of Sant’Andrea in 1462 but it wasn’t finished until the 18th century.
The Basilica has been a long time unique pilgrim destination. It is home to a vessel that is said to contain earth that had been soaked by the blood of Jesus Christ collected during his crucifixion.
“It is said that Longino himself, the warrior who pierced the crucified Jesus through the ribs, picked up a piece of earth soaked in the Blood of Jesus and, after coming to Mantova, he hid it underground in this spot, where it was discovered years later.”
The interior of the Basilica is simply sensational and we especially liked the arched entrance and the striking domed ceiling.
Cattedrale di San Pietro
Dedicated to Saint Peter, the Cathedral of Mantua was built in the 11th century. In the 16th century, following a fire, Cardinal Gonzaga, Bishop of Mantua, hired Giulio Romano to reconstruct and paint the interior. The talented Romano had been a pupil of the famous Renaissance painter and architect Raphael or in Italian, Raffaello and following Raffaello’s death, had inherited his workshop and commissions. The exterior was very interesting as well but during our visit the front facade was completely hidden behind reconstruction scaffolding and fabric with only this side view visible.
We have written previously about campanology, the field of study of the large church bells. We learned the bell tower at this Cathedral has seven bells tuned to the scale of B-flat.
Museo di Palazzo d’Arco
It was near the end of our day trip to Mantova when we reached the former residence of the prestigious Arco family and the winter sun had set. We may not have been able to appreciate much of the exterior in the dark, but the guided tour (in Italian only) through the interior was worth the visit.
The neoclassical-style Palazzo D’Arco was bequeathed to the city of Mantova in 1973, following the death of the last family member, the Countess d’Arco. The beautifully restored palace showcases furnishings and artwork from the Arco’s collection. Within the museum we found a library, an old kitchen, rooms filled with original 18th and 19th century furnishings and decorations, a wonderful collection of period musical instruments and lovely ceramics. Who knew warming pans for beds would come in such a variety of shapes and sizes?
The paintings of more than 60 Italian artists’ are represented on the palace walls. Of particular interest to us was the masterpiece of the entirely frescoed room of Sala dello Zodiaco (Zodiac Room), painted in the early 16th century by Renaissance painter Giovanni Maria Falconetto.
Rotonda di San Lorenzo
In the Piazza delle Erbe we found Mantova’s oldest church, the shapely Rotonda di San Lorenzo.
In the 11th century, Mantova became a possession of a Marquis of Tuscany and the Countess Matilda of Canossa of the family is believed to have ordered the construction of the Rotonda in 1082.
The round church has a domed interior and two narrow staircases leading to the upper gallery, where women could pray. The few remaining frescoes date back to the 12th and 13th centuries.
The church closed in 1579 and was enclosed within a set of buildings, lodgings and warehouses for more than 300 years. In 1908 the surrounding buildings were mostly destroyed and the rotunda was rediscovered, restored and reopened for worship. The foggy photo used as our header photo, shows the exterior of the Rotunda and picture below is a sample of the simple interior.
Also in Piazza delle Erbe is Mantova’s gorgeous Torre dell’Orologio. The tower was built in 1472, and the astronomical clock was added the following year.
One of the earliest mechanical clocks made, although extremely faded today, it was designed to show the time of day, the phases of the moon, the positions of the planets and the passage of the sun through the signs of the zodiac.
We were chilled by the end of our long day and it was dark outside and the fog was thick, so we stopped in Piazza Sordello for a restorative cup of rich, dark, hot chocolate before heading back to the train station. Piazza Sordello is the oldest and largest square in Mantova, framed by Palazzo Ducale and the Cathedral and an ideal spot to people watch and enjoy the evening activities.
Two final compelling pieces of information we discovered and either ran out of time to see or we visited in the wrong season were:
1) Mantova’s local newspaper, La Gazzetta di Mantova, is the oldest newspaper in Italy. It would have been interesting to visit this museum and learn about the newspaper’s 350-year history. Apparently the oldest surviving copy of La Gazzetta di Mantova is from November 27, 1665.
2) Mantova is also known for its beautiful lotus flowers, which have earned the city the nickname, “città dei fiori di loto” or “city of the lotus flowers.” Outside of Japan, Mantova has the largest variety of lotus flowers in the world and in the summer months a boat tour is highly recommended to take in the countless pink, red, white and yellow lotus blossoms on Lago Superiore.
Regardless of how brief or how long we spend in each destination, there is always a good reason to return. We hope 2022 has begun well for you. Felice Anno Nuovo /// Happy New Year
Saluti from these Mantovani,
Edoardo + Guilia (Ted + Julia)