Mantua - Italy's Sleeping Beauty

Andrea Mantegna

Andrea Mantegna

Mantua (English) Mantova (Italian) known as the Sleeping Beauty of Italy has remained virtually unchanged for over 1000 years, surrounded and locked in by 3 morning mist shrouded lakes, emerges into the sunlight to reveal ancient towers, turrets, cupolas and domes. The key to the mystery lies in the remarkable fortification created that effectively closed off Mantua to the world. The city is largely bypassed by tourists. Voted Italy’s most livable city several years ago, it takes no more than 20 minutes to walk across the town, boasting remarkable buildings such as the Palazzo Ducale, no mere palace, it is the largest residence in Italy after the Vatican. Ramble through the gardens, galleries, courtyards and basilica, don’t miss the glittering mirror-gallery and masterpieces by Raphael. In 1586 the poet Torquato Tasso wrote ‘This is a very beautiful city and one worth travelling a thousand miles to see'.

For 400 years home of the Gonzaga family, the dukes of Mantua ruled until 1707, and were largely responsible in establishing the city as an important artistic centre, drawing the most prominent artists of the times including the likes of Rubens and Pisanello, Battista, Donatello, Alberti, leaving a legacy of precious artworks (the opening photo of this newsletter is a section of a fresco by Andrea Mantegna). As the Medici did for Florence, so did the Gonzagas for Mantua.

Mantegna's artworks reveal interesting aspects of the fashion conscious princesses of the day who indeed suffered in the name of beauty, you may note the very high foreheads in some of his paintings, this look was achieved by styling the hair then burning it off at the forehead with a candle.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Mantua, was the place Romeo was banished too, and Verdi upset everyone with his tragic opera Rigoletto revolving around the licentious Duke of Mantua, his hunch-backed court jester Rigoletto and his beautiful daughter Gilda. Mantua flourished until 1708 when the Austrian Hapsburgs took over losing a significant portion of their huge collection in the process.

During its long history it has been sacked, conquered, looted, survived political turmoil, uprisings, revivals, sieges, plagues and revolts to remerge as a vibrant city.

Though time has stood still for Mantua it is no medieval museum, instead you will find a flourishing city without crowds of tourists and tacky souvenir stores, and seemingly hidden jewels all around such as the Palazzo Te, conceived as a hideaway for 16th century Duke Federico’s trysts with his mistress, containing some of the most spectacular frescos to be found. Sample the delights of its old market place, elegant boutiques and piazza’s.  

Join the businessmen for a quick espresso on their way to work or the well heeled ladies before the evening rush for a stiff negroni or Aperol Spritz, with complimentary buffets of pizzette, pasta ham and cheeses, its difficult to leave some space for dinner still to come.

Mantua wont stay a secret for much longer, bearing the title for 2016 as European City of Culture and nominated Europe’s City of Gastronomy in 2017 it is an ideal destination to visit soon. 

Listen to a small portion of Verdi's Rigoletto featuring Luciano Pavarotti here