Coming into Mantua from the north, the first thing you notice is the three artificial lakes that surround the city. Today they are a pleasure ground, with boat trips, lakeside walks and picnic areas. But they were originally constructed for a quite different purpose: defence. As was common in medieval Italy, Mantua was controlled by one powerful family for centuries. And although the Gonzaga dynasty no longer rules the city, their influence remains.
Mantua a World Heritage Site
The whole of the historic centre of Mantua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is because of its connection with the Gonzaga family. They were important patrons of the arts who commissioned many of the palazzi and other important buildings in the city. These were built in classic Renaissance style and filled with artworks by famous artists of the time.
This is a perfectly formed Renaissance city, with archways, piazzas and arcades giving welcome shelter from the sun. We walked over the the cobbled streets to Piazza Sordello where crowds were shopping at the weekly market. As we went we stopped to look at the elegant buildings. These range from churches to palazzi, to the Torre dell’Orologio, a 14th century tower with an astrological clock.
The Art of the Palazzo Ducale
The one building you have to see in Mantua is the Palazzo Ducale, the main residence of the Gonzaga family. The palace was changed and added to over the centuries, and filled with specially commissioned artworks from painters including Raphael and Pisanello. Today it is a complex of buildings with hundreds of rooms, interconnecting corridors, courtyards and gardens. It is full of frescoes, paintings and decorated ceilings, some original and some recovered from buildings elsewhere in the city.
The palace itself is like walking through a sumptuous art gallery. Look out for the magnificent Gallery of the Mirrors, the tapestries based on designs by Raphael, and the Corridor of the Moors overlooking the Garden of Honour. Then there are old mosaic floors and Pisanello’s frescoes based on Arthurian legends. Every so often you get a reminder that this was not a museum, but a place where people lived. Like Isabella d’Este, who arrived at the castle as a 15 year old bride and later moved into the separate wing of Santa Croce. Here she lived out her lonely widowhood in a few rooms and a small, secluded garden.
Adjoining the Palace is the 14th century Castle of St George. This is home to one of Mantua’s most famous sights, the Camera degli Sposi (Grooms’ Chamber). It was decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna to celebrate the wedding of Ludovico Il Gonzaga. Look carefully and you can see Mantegna’s own self portrait hidden by the doorway.
Mostarda di Mantova
Outside the palace we wandered around the neighbouring Piazza Lega Lombarda. This is a large public garden, set out in formal Renaissance style. Looking up at the palace from here, it felt as if the city had hardly changed since the Gonzagas ruled Mantua.
And later I sat in a café on the Piazza Sordello with a plate of cheese and mostarda di Mantova, a local speciality. The recipe dates back to the 14th century and consists of fruit (often quinces) candied in mustard oil. It complemented the cheese perfectly, but as I took a mouthful of the spicy fruit I thought that it reflected the era of the Gonzagas. Rich, exotic and colourful.
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