Mantua has always been a priceless destination for weekends. But this year it has taken a step further: the city has been named Italy’s Cultural Capital 2016. The Renaissance beauty that the Gonzaga family gave to the city had it listed between the Unesco treasures already in 2008. Together with Sabbioneta. It is worth to take advantage of the many cultural events happening during the year. To explore this marvelous city in Lombardy. Emanuela Cerutti, visual artist, gives us a complete guide to Mantua, her city and muse.
The artistic and cultural blooming of Mantua starts in 1328, when Luigi Gonzaga becomes Lord of the city. He, as his descendants who reigned until 1707, was a great appreciator of arts and literature, so much to support and host some of the best artists of the Italian Renaissance. Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Mantegna, Pisanello and Giulio Romano left their sign in the streets and courts of the Lombard city, creating masterpieces that can be admired and explored extraordinarily during all this year, thanks the ample program of events prepared for the nominee to Italy’s Cultural Capital.
While still being a few kilometers far from the city, its Renaissance shadow floating between the sky and the Mincio river surrounding it on three sides will leave you breathless. Enter, and the palaces, the courts, the streets, but above all the banks of the river will tell you a story that starts even before the arrival of Gonzaga family in 1328. When Canossa governed the city, in XI century, a woman from Mantua fought for her condition in a political world dominated by men, standing out for her courage and being able to become viceroy. To the Lady of the territories north of the Church State has been named a square of Mantua, where even now stands the Canossa Palace.
“Matilde from Canossa lived in the area around the river Po, the same which I grew up in and care a lot about since childhood. The Po Valley has always been a source of inspiration for me: the woods, the poplars and the wide vegetation that hides parts of riverbank where the big River flows, powerful and dangerous, are places that evoke a strong emotional feeling, because that for me is the “Middle Land”, where reality and fantasy can coexist and where all the possibilities may open.”
Emanuela Cerutti is our guide across the streets of the Lombard city, unfolding for us all the secrets of Mantua and pointing out its romantic and timeless fascination. After artistic studies, Emanuela continued to improve her skills by spending time both exploring photography and working as graphic in communication agencies. Now visual art is her passion. Going out from Piazza Matilde di Canossa along via Verdi, you can reach a narrow street called via Galana. Here there is one of the artistic hubs of the city, ArteArte Gallery, where Emanuela found the same ferment that ran along the rooms full of art in Gonzaga’s palaces.
“Some years ago I started collaborating with ArteArte Gallery, where the curator Valentina Marongiu keeps believing in my work. This collaboration is a milestone for me and a source of inspiration, besides being a connection with other artists and the city I live in. It’s an honor to be a visual artist in Mantua, Gonzaga’s city; the emotional bond with the city and the value of my roots permeate my artistic journey, and my work is influenced by all the ancient traditions of my area. In the last year Mantua itself discovered my art, letting me participate to two important exhibitions in institutional spaces Mantegna’s House and Palazzo Ducale. It has certainly been an incentive for my art and a real joy.”
What to see in Mantua
Going further in Piazza Andrea Mantegna, an imaginary curtain seems to divide us from the most ancient square of Mantua. On the right: the Merchant’s House, built in 1400, with its oriental colonnade and the carved figures of the architrave. On the left. the magnificent Saint Andrew Church designed by Leon Battista Alberti. Few steps more, and the tension seems to disappear. The eye is caught by the broadness of Piazza delle Erbe. And you feel why it has always been the lively centre of the city.
At the edge you are welcomed by the Rotonda of Saint Lawrence. Slightly shadowed by the fifteenth century Torre dell’Orologio that is shining in its beauty after a restoration. On the side we find the Palace of Reason and the Palace of Podestà, built in 1227. They remind the importance of the area as administrative core of the city since the Medieval Age.
Saint Andrew Church
During the Renaissance Leon Battista Alberti presented Ludovico III Gonzaga with a plan: to restore the church and make it the biggest one in Mantua. It would have been his last work. Today, inside the church, there are works of Andrea Mantegna, Giulio Romano and Correggio. He,in particular, decorated the chapel where the grave of the Master Mantegna rests.
The Clock Tower was realized at the end of 1400 by the architect Luca Facell. During the age of Ludovico II Gonzaga. It gained the nickname of astronomic tower. Thanks to the clock that adorned it at the beginning: it marked not only the conventional hours. But also those of astronomers and planets. Indicating the journey of the sun through the lunar phases and zodiacal signs.
Another lively place in the city of Mantua, rightly known as one of the ten most beautiful squares in the world. Here Palazzo Ducale overlooks the space. It is also known as Gonzaga’s Realm. Just in front, the Dome of Mantua, or Saint Peter Cathedral: neoclassical facade, gothic right side and Romanesque bell tower. On the left Palazzo Castiglioni. On the two opposite corners of the squares, almost guarding each other: rests the Torre della Gabbia on one side, and Saint George Castle on the other.
,Palazzo Ducale is a real city within the city. Spreading for almost 35.000 square meters: palaces, gardens and courts connected by corridors and endless galleries. You will get an idea of the reason why it is called a royal residence. Inside there are around 500 rooms covered in frescos. By artists such as Raffaello, Giulio Romano and Andrea Mantegna. They will literally catch your eye and breath.
Saint George Castle
Part of the Gonzaga Realm, Saint George Castle was house to Isabella D’Este. She was the wife of Francesco II Gonzaga, passionate about arts and humanism. Many intellectuals such as Ludovico Ariosto, Leonardo Da Vinci and Mantegna walked in these rooms. Among them, the most famous is the “Camera degli Sposi” (Bridal Chambers): painted by Andrea Mantegna, who gave to the small space wide windows and bucolic views.
Built at the beginning of 1500, Palazzo Te was financed by Federico II Gonzaga. It was designed to be an island of happiness. Where his hosts could relax far from the mundane affairs. Giulio Romano was assigned the duty of reclaiming the land and adapt the natural elements of the place to a majestic roman villa. Nowadays it is possible to visit the Palace, which also hosts the City Museum.
What to do in Mantua
Follow the towers
“The Clock Tower is not the only one to dominate the skyline of Mantua. Climbing the stairs within the astronomic clock it is possible to admire the other massive towers that mark the skyline of the city. It is possible to explore them starting from the Tower of Zuccaro, or “Tor dal Sucar”: this year it is available for visits thanks to Cantieri Aperti initiative. You will reach the Tower of Podestà, the Tower of Salaro and the Tower of Gambulini. Then the Tower of Sant’Alò in Arche Square. The bell tower of Saint Domenic and the medieval Tower houses of Boateri and Bonacolsi families. The highest is the Torre della Gabbia: 55 metres, near to Sordello Square.”
Discover the old Jewish ghetto
“Besides these marvelous places, I also suggest an alternative path: to visit the less known and old Jewish ghetto. Survived to the destruction of the beginning of nineteenth century, it is still possible to visit the Palace of Rabbi in via Bertani; the synagogue Norsa Torrazzo, the only one left of the previous six existing in the ghetto. And the big Jewish graveyard located outside the city beyond Mincio river.”
Jewish ghetto – Via Calvi, via Giustiziati, via Dottrina Cristiana, via Pomponazzo, via Spagnoli.
Where to eat in Mantua
Trattoria Al Portichetto
Via Portichetto, 14, Mantua – +39 0376 1960620
Not too far from ArteArte Gallery, Trattoria Al Portichetto is located in one of the narrow streets of the old town. With a wide selection of classical recipes of Mantua’s cousine and of the more humble peasants’ customs, you will enjoy Al Portichetto for its well-looked after atmosphere with a simple and informal taste, sign that their is not only cousine, but also life philosophy.
Antica Osteria Leoncino Rosso
Via Giustiziati, 33, Mantua – +39 0376 323277
In the perfect setting of Piazza delle Erbe, the ideal place to try the typical cousine of Mantua is near Rotonda di San Lorenzo, at Antica Osteria Leoncino Rosso. For those who appreciate the old genuine taverns it will be a pleasant surprise, where it is possible to taste the classical “salame cotto” or the delicious “risotto alla pilota”, together with well selected wines.
Il Cigno – Trattoria dei Martini
Piazza Carlo D’Arco, 1, Mantua – +39 0376 327101
In the core of Gonzaga’s Mantua, Tano and Alessandra Martini have been following for 40 years the traditional family recipes to cook marvelous typical dishes, feeding locals and tourists as well. Their restaurant is located in the warmth of an old noble house, and their cousine is a real blast from the past, a journey between rich and studied delicatessen and more humble and simple daily dishes.
Osteria Delle Quattro Tette
Vicolo Nazione, 4, Mantua – +39 0376 329478
This particular restaurant from the old times is hidden in a narrow but central street of the old Mantua, and offers delicious dishes, simple and plentiful, linked with the area and the tradition. The relation between quality and price brings almost half Mantua to have lunch here, to try the pike in sweet salsa or the typical “tortelli di zucca”, pasta filled with pumpkin.
Osteria Ai Ranari
Via Trieste, 11, 46100 Mantua – +39 0376 328431
If you are looking for something more countrified, Mantua has definitely something for you. At Osteria Ai Ranari you’ll find dishes from the Virgilian tradition, like the “sorbir d’agnoli” or the “stracotto di cavallo” prepared following the original old recipe. In this cosy environment, soberly decorated with original frescos, you will also taste typical dessert such as the famous “torta sbrisolona”.
Where to sleep in Mantua
B&B Palazzo Castiglioni
Sordello Square, 12, Mantua – +39 0376 367032
In the old residence of one of the intellectuals that lived in Mantua, Baldesar Castiglione, there is a luxury B&B with a view on the marvelous Sordello Square. The enormous rooms decorated with elegant furniture remind the splendors of the past Renaissance, coming together with the luxury and comforts of nowadays.
B&B Residenza La Villa
Strada Ghisiolo, 6, Mantua – +39 0376 340905
Built in 1700 on the ruins of a 1500’s old villa, the building that hosts B&B Residenza La Villa has more than one story to tell. A noble mansion during the Renaissance, nowadays it is a shelter for tourists coming from all over the world to enjoy the Italian hospitality mixed with tastes and scents of the Po Valley.
Hotel Casa Poli
Corso Garibaldi, 32, Mantua – +39 0376 288170
This elegant and modern hotel has been placed in an old building, with the steady intention not to miss any comfort deserved by today tourists. The inside is an endless discovery, for the extreme attention to the details and the unique design of the rooms, suitable to any traveller. With a lounge bar and a meeting room, it really does offer a complete staying.
Casa San Domenico
Vicolo Scala, 8, Mantua – +39 331 2713109
You will find Casa San Domenico in a 1700s building, with wide rooms and bright spaces decorated with many frescos of the time and exposed beams. Donata and Alberto’s passion has been welcoming all kind of visitors for years, so that they can take a moment for themselves in the rooms furnished with taste and character that will make them feel at home.
Via Accademia, 1, Mantua – +39 0376 326784
A warm hospitality is the soul of Mantua’s people: this is the reason why the accommodations are many and all excellent. Hotel Broletto is managed by friends for friends and aims at giving the same comfort and wellness that often are found only in ones own house. Characterized by a strong attention to the details, the hotel is a welcome break even during an holiday of exploration.
How to get to Mantua
By car: From the highway A22 Modena-Brennero, the exits for Mantua are Mantua Nord, 4 km from the centre, and Mantua Sud, 11,5 km from the centre. From the A4 Milano-Venezia, the exits are Desenzano, Sirmione, Peschiera and Verona Sud. From A1 there are the exits Parma Est and Reggio Emilia.
By train: Mantua can be reached by train from Verona in 45 minutes, from Modena in 55 minutes and from Milan in 2 hours. Other railways connections besides Verona-Modena are Milan-Cremona, Pavia-Monselice-Padova. The old town is few minutes walking from the train station.
By plane: The nearest airport is in Villafranca, Verona, 33 km from Mantua. International flights come from Amsterdam, London, Bruxelles, Edinburgh, Bucarest and others. Other close airports are “Gabriele D’annunzio” in Montichiari, Brescia, and “Giuseppe Verdi” in Parma, both at 60 km from Mantua.