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Mantua, unfairly unloved

The Piazza delle Erbe with the Palazzo della Ragione and its 15th century portico on the left
The Piazza delle Erbe with the Palazzo della Ragione and its 15th century portico on the left

At Mantua, high above the Piazza Sordello, swings an iron cage; throughout the 14th and 15th centuries it was usually occupied by a dead or dying man. The Lords of Mantua had their quota of fratricide, or treasonable sons and murderous uncles, of wives caught in adultery and killed for their crime. Its citizens, as well as its princes, had their times of horror, their years of tribulation. Like all city-states, it was born in feudal anarchy and nurtured by interurban strife”.

The eminent English historian J.H. Plumb (who was also a Second World War Bletchley Park codebreaker as well as the author of my history textbooks 50 years ago) wrote these lines in 1961 in his excellent book 'The Italian Renaissance'. He describes exactly the sort of bloodthirsty Renaissance town in Italy with a long history of intrigue and treachery that I love to visit because it’s guaranteed to be an interesting place and full of cultural heritage paid for centuries ago by warmongering and conquest.

And yet I’d be willing to bet that almost nobody reading this article has ever been to Mantua, doesn’t know anyone else who has been there and probably, if they’re being honest, doesn’t actually know where Mantua is. I say that because Elena doesn’t even know any Italians who have been there and that’s despite our corner of Tuscany being less than a 3 hour drive away. We did however meet a nice couple from Mantua on a visit to La Torre alle Tolfe last year who gave us the restaurant recommendation that we write about below.

Palazzo Te in Mantova
Palazzo Te, designed by Giulio Romano and built in 1534

So why is Mantua so neglected? Perhaps because it’s surrounded by many other places within 50 miles or so that are all more famous, including Lago di Garda, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Verona, Vicenza, Ferrara and there are other towns nearby of similar stature competing for attention like Piacenza, Cremona, Brescia and Padua.

But whatever the reason, there’s real upside to Mantua’s low profile for anyone that can make a little room in their Italian itinerary to fit in a day or two here because not only is it a very attractive town but it’s classically Italian, and what a pleasure it is to enjoy a place in Italy that’s full of locals with nary a foreigner in sight. And for those people who have read all the way to the end of our article ‘Lago di Garda Highlights Part 2’, Mantua passes the ‘fridge magnet’ and ‘trenino’ tests with flying colors; no sign of tacky souvenir shops here and that fact alone should put it on your list to visit.

Eating outside restaurants in the summer in Mantua

Furthermore, unlike many other cities where we often suggest visiting out of season, with Mantua we can unequivocally recommend going there in the summer and preferably at the weekend because the Mantuans love to gather outside and the spacious streets and squares of their city are perfectly arranged for spending leisurely hours sightseeing or having a cocktail and dinner in the open air without traffic, crowds and noise.

Some medieval Italian towns can be hard work with throngs of tourists all trying to squeeze through the same narrow arch at the same time and then blocking it entirely as their loud tour guide tries to corral them like wandering sheep. Lucca can suffer from this at times when cruise ships disembark in Livorno, but not Mantua. There are three main squares here, all connected and mostly pedestrianized so it's an easy walking town and the accommodating layout of the center of Mantua is due to the fact that it is more accurately described as a Renaissance town rather than a medieval town.

Piazza delle Erbe, facing the Basilica di Sant'Andrea
Piazza delle Erbe, facing the Basilica di Sant'Andrea

And nor is Mantua short of historical personages, admirers and accolades. As the birthplace of Virgil it comfortably trumps nearby Verona’s Catullus and before you dismiss the flat Lombard plain around the city as uninteresting, be aware that Vivaldi was inspired by the countryside here to compose his most famous work, ’Four Seasons’.

Mantua was important enough for a 13 year old Mozart to give a concert here in 1769 and a hundred years ago Mantua was called ‘the most romantic city in the world” by Aldous Huxley after he moved to Italy in 1921. Like most people probably, my only familiarity with Huxley is ‘Brave New World’ so I would not have guessed that the word romantic was even in his lexicon. More recently, in 2017, the Italian environmentalist movement Legambiente ranked Mantua as the best Italian city for quality of life and environment. Well deserved I would say, even if I base that on a single visit.

Eating outside in summer in Mantua

Mantua was certainly better appreciated during the Age of Enlightenment and was often one of the stops on the Grand Tour undertaken by aristocratic young Englishmen from the 17th to 19th centuries who primarily sought out Renaissance Italy and Roman antiquity. The very fact that the word Mantua exists as the exonym for the Italian name Mantova is proof of Mantua's historical importance and its old diplomatic and commercial connections with Britain. Furthermore, the word Mantua is in fact the Latin word for the city and closer to the local dialect than the Italian language version Mantova.

Piazza Castello in Mantova
Piazza Castello, part of the Palazzo Ducale complex

Mantua is also the place that provides the most fuel for the ‘Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship” that for many years now has made the case that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of many of Shakespeare’s plays and he used the name William Shakespeare simply as his nom de plume. While there is no evidence of Shakespeare ever visiting Italy, despite setting one third of his plays in this country, de Vere toured Italy for almost a full year in 1575-76 and was known to be fine writer who always wrote in secret, refusing ever to publish under his own name. The Mantua connection to this historical controversy is a very detailed reference to Giulio Romano in the Shakespeare play 'A Winter’s Tale' (a play that I didn’t much care for but was part of my curriculum 50 years ago).

Giulio Romano (1492-1546) was considered the most brilliantly gifted of Raphael's many pupils, and succeeded him as the Vatican's court painter after Raphael’s death but his fame during Shakespeare's time was based solely on his paintings.

In the Winter’s Tale (Act 5 Scene 2) Shakespeare has his characters praise Romano at some length as a sculptor and also in some detail and yet even today Romano’s reputation as a sculptor is not well known.

The implication being that Shakespeare was not only aware of the existence of Romano’s obscure sculptures but convinced also of their quality, despite almost all of them being in Mantua. Perhaps Shakespeare did in fact visit Italy or perhaps de Vere wrote the plays with a detailed first hand knowledge of this part of Italy. And though there were many Shakespeare plays published after de Vere’s death in 1604 there is no direct evidence that any of them were in fact written after that date.

Castel San Giorgio, built in 1400 and part of the Palazzo Ducale
Castel San Giorgio, built in 1400 and part of the Palazzo Ducale

Mantua is surrounded on three sides by man-made lakes formed using a tributary of the Po River, the Mincio. They were created in 1198 for defensive purposes at a time when Mantua was an independent city-state, despite the fact that 15 years earlier Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor, had granted Mantua and the Lombard League a substantial degree of independence. Obviously the death of Frederick’s heir in 1198 and the turmoil that was predicted to follow his succession by a minor prompted Mantua to provide itself with more tangible defense.

After the House of Gonzaga overthrew and expelled the ruling Bonacolsi family in 1328, Mantua came to dominate the surrounding countryside. Being too big and too far away for Venice to be able to conquer and subdue, Mantua instead engaged with the Venetians and got well paid for providing them with a land buffer to protect Venice from the west. But the Gonzaga family grew even richer by also playing Venice off against Milan, and Mantua prospered with its population growing to 40,000 by the mid 15th century.

The Arts in Mantua flourished under the patronage of the Gonzaga dynasty who ruled the city for four centuries from 1328 to 1707 in much the same way as the Medici ruled Florence but with fewer problems and far fewer wars with neighboring territories. The Gonzaga court in its heyday rivaled those of Venice, Florence, Milan and Rome and in certain areas it had greater successes even than the Medici with one saint, 12 cardinals and two empresses of the Holy Roman Empire emerging from the Gonzaga family.

And after years of watching the always overachieving Gonzaga University basketball team during March Madness in the US and never knowing why a University in remote Spokane had such a strange name, I now know that it was all because of the canonization of the 16th century Aloysius Gonzaga of Mantua.

Cento Rampini restaurant Mantova
A great restaurant in the perfect spot in Mantua

Much like the defensive walls in Lucca, this giant moat around Mantua has produced an unexpected benefit for visitors all these centuries later. In Mantua’s case they impeded the growth of the city allowing the central area to remain much as it looked during the Renaissance and in fact the population of Mantua today is not much higher at 48,000 people than it was almost 600 years ago.

Getting out on the lake on a boat tour is a good way to view the city from a distance but otherwise the lakes themselves have not really been incorporated into city life and the ring road and open green spaces don't allow the cafes and restaurants to flow down to the water's edge; this is perhaps something of a missed opportunity for Mantua. However it leaves plenty of walking and cycling space on the northern and eastern sides of the city where the path is right next to the water and you're a reasonable distance away from the main road.

We started our walking tour of the city at Piazza Felice Cavallotti and took the porticoed street Corso Umberto I down to Piazza Guglielmo Marconi where the real beauty of Mantua begins. A little further on is the Piazza Andrea Mantegna and in the middle facing you is the Basilica di Sant'Andrea with its Alberti designed facade in the form of a classical triumphal arch based on the Trajan Arch in Ancona. The interior (below) is even more impressive, with work by Giulio Romano.

A few steps to the right brings you into the Piazza delle Erbe and Via Broletto running down the length of the piazza with all sorts of interesting shops and restaurants under the porticoes.

Through an arch at the end it opens up into the enormous Piazza Sordello with the famous Torre della Gabbia (the cage from the first paragraph) immediately on your left, the Duomo straight ahead and the oldest part of the Palazzo Ducale (Palazzo del Capitano) on your right, built by Bonacolsi at the end of the 13th century.

Continuing on past the Duomo and bearing right onto Via San Giorgio brings you out into the large open space by the lake and dominating everything is the slightly grim exterior of the Castel San Giorgio, part of the 500 room Palazzo Ducale where the Mantegna frescoes are to be found in the tiny Camera degli Sposi.

Our dinner was at Cento Rampini, which is housed in the Palazzo della Ragione in Piazza delle Erbe, the restaurant recommended by the couple from Mantua mentioned previously. We wanted something serving traditional Mantuan cuisine and that's exactly what we got when we took the advice of our waiter on everything.

The primo piatto was Ravioli di ortiche, made from nettles and ricotta cheese, followed by a two other classics for the secondo piatto; Coniglio al vino bianco (rabbit cooked with white wine) served with polenta, naturally, and Risotto alla Pilota. This is the Mantuan version of risotto named after the laborers who husk the rice, called piloti. It's very different to the typical northern Italian risotto because it's made dry and grainy instead of creamy so it can more easily be reheated for several days without become a sticky mess. The dish was served with an excellent beef short rib on top which fell off the bone.

Dining outside in Piazza delle Erbe

The wine selected for us was a local Lambrusco, one of the few red wines in Italy that I would normally have avoided without really having a good reason. Called Cavalcabó, it was from the local Cantina Sociale and was sparkling, red and completely dry. It paired surprisingly well with the food and was a pleasure to drink on a slightly humid summer evening that ended with a downpour, but not enough to scare the locals away from their outside tables, or at least those tables that came with umbrellas.

A total bill of 81 euros for two courses each and a bottle of wine, coffee etc in an excellent restaurant in the best location in town was a very fair price. Furthermore, sitting at our table after dinner you could tell that most of our fellow diners knew the owner very well and were all locals. In fact Elena was the only Italian there without a Mantuan accent and that's really all you could wish for these days as a traveler because being surrounded by other tourists changes everything, the menu, the advice, the ambience and the prices, and not for the better.

The next morning was reserved for Palazzo Te just outside the center and which together with the Palazzo Ducale are the two biggest highlights of Mantua for visitors. You should spend a few hours here because there are a lot of rooms with different themes and many of the paintings are by the ubiquitous and talented Giulio Romano. The whole building in fact was a Gonzaga family indulgence created for pure hedonism and the paintings fuse classical myths and Gods with eroticism. The final and most dramatic paintings are in the Sala dei Giganti (Room of the Giants) where everything is on a massive scale and there's chaos and violence brought on by Jupiter's rage.

Our accommodation in Mantua was a delightful bed & breakfast called Casa del Teatro that was very close to the center but with parking nearby, and was perfect for us as we spend very little time inside when we travel. It has a charming owner and was very clean so we have no hesitation recommending it.


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