Mantua is one of the important cities of art that are located a short distance from Lake Garda. Unlike Verona and Brescia, which are easily accessible by train, to reach Mantua is advisable to move by your means.
A brief history of Mantua
The first settlements in the area of Mantua, in the territory between the southern course of the Mincio and the Po, date back to the Late Bronze. In the 6th century B.C. an Etruscan town centre was founded within a Mincio’s loop. Mantua then passed, like many settlements in the northern area of the Po valley, under the control of the Cenoman Gauls that would be linked by excellent relations with the Romans. The city in 214 BC became a Roman colony and then a Civitas in 90 BC during the Social War and later, in 47 B.C., a Municipium.
At the end of the Roman Empire Mantua was occupied by the Goths and then passed under Byzantine control. At the beginning of the 7th century A.D., it was conquered by the Longobards, who kept control of it for about 170 years until they fell at the hands of the Franks, becoming part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Around the year Thousand, the city became part of the territories assigned by the Emperor to the House of Attoni or Canossa, from the name of the town where they had their main castle. It was a Longobard noble family that in a couple of generations, thanks to clever policies of alliances, marriages and loyalty to the emperor managed to gain control of much of central and northern Italy. Mantua was designated as their capital in the mid-11th century. The house’s most lustrous period was between the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century with the Grand Marchesa Matilda of Canossa born in Mantua in 1046. In those years she was one of the most important women in Europe, also playing an important role in the Investiture Controversy between popedom and empire. On her death without heirs, in 1115, Mantua proclaimed himself a free Commune.
It was during this period that it was decided to intervene in the course of the Mincio that flowed around the city. The Reasons seem to be multiple: regulate the flow to prevent the floods, solve the problem of the unhealthy swamps that surrounded the city and finally create a defensive work. A barrage was then built to the north of the city flooding the surrounding swamps and getting four lakes that surrounded the city making it an island. This fortified barrage was called the bridge of the mills, from the fact that, from 1229 until Allied bombing of February 1944 that destroyed them, there had been twelve mills on it exploiting waters that from the upper lake. A second fortified bridge was built to the west side of the city. On the other sides of the bridges were built fortifications.
Gradually, within the municipality of Mantua, some families came to gain power, among which finally led that of the Bonacolsi, which in 1273 obtained the lordship of the city. In 1328, thanks to the support of Cangrande Della Scala, the Bonacolsi were driven out by a popular riot and the Gonzaga family gained power.
Over the next three centuries the Gonzaga, thanks to their private possessions, to the excellence in the Craft of Arms and their wise trade and investment with the Republic of Venice, became one of the richest Families Italy.
As early as 1329 the family was awarded the title of Marquis by the emperor but the apex was between the end of the 16th and the first half of the 17th century with Francis II who married Isabella d’Este and their children: Frederick II, who, after a generous donation, received the title of Duke from Emperor Charles V in 1533 and the cardinal Hercules Gonzaga that in the conclave of 1559 for only five preferences did not become pope. Mantua under the Lordship of the Gonzaga family became one of the artistic and cultural capitals of the Italian Renaissance.
In 1627 the direct dynastic line ended the title and the city switched to a French cadet branch the Gonzaga-Nevers. The First Duke, Charles I, for financial difficulties, sold some of the masterpieces preserved in the family art collection to the King of England Charles I. It was the beginning of the dispersal of the “Celeste Gallery”, one of the most conspicuous collections of paintings, sculptures, jewels and silverware of that time. Mantua suffered a further tragedy in 1630 when it was sacked by the Lanzichenecchi sent by the Emperor who, under the “War of the Thirty Years” did not see with favour the presence of a French line in an important Italian Duchy. Gonzaga’s rule of mantua ended in the early 18th century when the last duke decided to side with the French during the Spanish War of Succession. Declared a traitor to the Empire, its assets were seized and its title erased.
Mantua went under the direct control of Austria until the Napoleonic Wars. From 1797 to 1815 it was annexed by the French Empire and then it returned to Austrian control after the Vienna Council. In 1866 after the Italian Third War of Independence Mantua became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
A stroll in Mantua
We will spend the day visiting the city, following the Gonzaga guideline that from south to the north connects Palazzo Te with Ducale Palace, touching some of the most important monuments of Mantua.
Since you have listened to our advice and you arrived in Mantua by car, our walk starts at Palazzo Te south of the city centre.
Mantua from the end of the 12th to the middle of the 18th century was an island surrounded by four lakes, the southern Lake Paiolo was later drained. Within this lake, there was an island that from the Middle Ages was called “Tejeto” island shortened then to “Te”. Francis II Gonzaga decided to use the island as a training ground for his horses. His son Frederick II decided to build there a country villa on the model of the Roman villas to which he had access during his youth when he was a hostage in Rome. He signed to Mantua the painter and architect Giulio Romano, a pupil and collaborator of Raphael, to whom he commissioned the works. Giulio Romano created a low square-shaped structure with central garden inspired by the ancient Roman Domus. The exterior walls were decorated with Doric lesene to punctuate the faces divided into two registers, the lower with rectangular windows framed by raw ashlar-work the upper register with small unframed windows. All topped with a series of metope and triglyphs. The interior walls, while maintaining a link with the exterior, have stylistic inventions that break the classical linearity. The eastern facade has a central Serlian loggia, a motif that decorates the entire first register of the facade that is lined with two fishponds. The second register originally presented itself as an uninterrupted covered loggia. In the 18th century, the loggia was removed and the central tympanum was added. The court with the Esedra that we see today was added later as well as the Orangerie on the southern side. Originally this was an open garden with some rooms in the east corner to form a small secret apartment. As well as the exterior, the interior of the palace was decorated by Giulio Romano and his workshop with fantastic inventions designed to enhance the figure of Gonzaga and amaze guests. Each room has a theme inspired by the splendours of the Gonzaga family, classical mythology or the exaltation of Roman traditions. The most famous room is the Chamber of Giants, where Giulio Romano, creating an environment without edges and painting a single frescoed scene that joins the walls with the vault, illustrated the battle between the gods of Olympus and the giants, alluding to the figure of Emperor Charles V who defeats the enemies of the Empire. The scene painted on the vault, with the draw of a round opening with balcony and people facing the parapet, is inspired by the decoration of the ceiling of the “Camera degli Sposi” by Andrea Mantegna. While for the underlying composition of the Olympic gods in the clouds seems to be inspired by the decoration of the domes of St. John and of the Cathedral of Parma by Correggio.
Inside Palazzo Te are also housed some collections donated to the Civic Museum of Mantua including a small collection of Egyptian antiquities and another of Mesopotsty antiquities.
So let’s start heading for the city centre. Passed the avenue that follows the path of the Renaissance city walls we face on the left Palazzo San Sebastiano.
This residence was built by Marquis Francis II between 1506 and 1508 on the southern edge of the city, near the stables of Te island. At Palazzo San Sebastiano there were the nine paintings of Caesar’s Triumphs by Mantegna, now on display at Hampton Court. The palace, which over the centuries has been lazaretto, warehouse, barracks and a school, has been restored in the last years of the twentieth century and since 2003 is the Civic Museum of Mantua.
Continuing towards the centre, in a lay-by on the right, you can admire the Temple of St. Sebastian, a church designed in 1460 by Leon Battista Alberti. The church maintained the Greek cross plan of the original project, as well as the upper register of the facade, while the transformation into a war memorial, carried out in 1926, modified the interior and the lower part of the facade with the creation of the two access stairs.
On the northern side of the lay-by, you can see a simple brick construction, it is the house of Andrea Mantegna. It is an interesting square-plan building in which a circular court is inscribed. The simplicity, elegance and proportion of this simple building built in 1476 are to be ascribed to a project of Mantegna himself (noting the parallel with the architectural fiction of the ceiling of the “Camera degli Sposi”) or perhaps of Leon Battista Alberti, active in Mantua a few years before. We find subsequent reinterpretations, certainly more monumental, in buildings symbol of 16th-century Mannerism such as The Palace of Charles V at the Alhambra by Pedro Machuca and the Farnese Palace in Caprarola by Vignola.
Proceeding towards the centre, after about 700 meters you arrive in Martiri di Belfiore Square, where you cross the Rio of Mantua. It is a canal excavated in concomitance with the construction of the Bridge of the Mills and the transformation of Mantua into an island. The canal served as a transport route and during the Communal period also as a defensive moat, since the city walls were built to the north of it. The central part of the Rio has been covered, from the square, the eastern part is still in sight and there, in 1536, were built by Giulio Romano the “Logge delle Pescherie” and the “Beccherie” i.e. the fish market and the butchery of Mantua.
At that time the settlement already extended over the entire southern part of the island and the walls of the Communal period had been incorporated into houses and palaces. The fish market still exists while the Beccherie were torn down at the beginning of the 20th century along with the convent and the church of San Domenico of which survives only the old bell tower that you can see at the right side of the “Pescherie”.
Continuing along the same direction we arrive in Piazza Andrea Mantegna, here you are in front of the monumental facade of the basilica of St. Andrew. At the beginning of the 11th century in this place, at the time outside the walls, was built a Benedictine monastery. A few years later, around 1046 on behalf of Beatrice of Lotharingia, mother of Matilda of Canossa, the monastery was enlarged and a church in honour of St. Andrew was founded to house the relic of the Blood of Christ, which, according to the Mantua hagiographic tradition, had been buried there along with Longino remains. Longino was the centurion who, after hitting Jesus at the cost, converted to Christianity. Legend tells that this burial had been found about two centuries earlier, in 804, by a farmer who had a vision of the Apostle Andrew indicating the place of the burial-place. Remains of this Romanesque building are the bell tower and one side of the cloister on the left side of the basilica.
In 1472 Ludwig III Gonzaga commissioned Leon Battista Alberti to re-build the basilica. The Alberti designed a church with a Latin cross plan, a single nave flanked by chapels on both sides and with a short but wide transect. The building, inspired by the canons of Roman classical architecture, has a pronaos and the monumental facade recalls the structure of the imperial triumphal arches, especially that of Trajan in Ancona. The module of the facade, with full-height Corinthian lesene topped with moulded lintel and an all sixth central arch with a second order of lower lesene and further trabeation, is also repeated inside to frame the side chapels. Internally the nave is topped with a barrel vault decorated with lacunars. The construction continued after the death of Leon Battista Alberti, under the technical direction of Guido Fancelli, a collaborator of Alberti. The work continued for a long time, after an initial phase that ended in 1494, work resumed in 1530 and then ended in the second quarter of the 18th century with the dome designed by Filippo Juvarra.
On the corner of Piazza Mantegna and Piazza delle Erbe, there is the Merchant’s House or the House of Boniforte from Concorezzo, merchant of wool and fabrics and supplier of the Gonzaga court, built in 1455. The terracotta facade, once decorated with small golden leaves, has late-Gothic Venetian motifs.
You then arrive in Piazza delle Erbe, the nerve centre of the city in the Communal era. In this area just outside the walled enclosure of the ancient Roman and medieval city, in the 11th century, in front of the ancient basilica of St. Andrew, which at that time had rotated 90 degrees compared to the 15th-century redevelopment, space was created for the “foro boario”, the area of the cattle market. Here, perhaps in 1083, on the commission of Countess Matilda of Canossa, was built the Rotonda of San Lorenzo. A circular building probably built on the foundations of a previous Roman building of the 4th century A.D., a temple or a burial mausoleum. In 1579 the temple was deconsecrated and became first a warehouse, then, collapsed the ceiling, was incorporated into subsequent buildings becoming a circular courtyard. In the demolition of these buildings at the beginning of the 20th century, it was discovered that much of the original structure was still “in situ” and it was decided to restore it.
In the Communal period, during the 12th century, the town began to expand to the south. In the 13th century, this area started to become a real square with the construction of administrative buildings. The first was the Palace of Podesta which construction began in 1227 dividing the area into two distinct squares. In 1250 the Palace of Ragione was added, built on the remains of a hospice intended to house pilgrims who went to Mantua for the relic of Christ’s blood. This palace, that then was joined to the Palace of The Podesta, first was the palace of the municipality, then a market and then designed, in the 15th century, to the court of justice. After this transformation, was added the porch on the side of Piazza delle Erbe and, taking advantage of an earlier tower, the Clock Tower, was built, between 1472 and 1476, by Fancelli. Between the end of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Palace della Ragione underwent the refurbishment of the facade, which was restored to the 15th-century appearance by a restoration work during 1942.
Continuing along Via Broletto towards Piazza Sordello you begin to see the Voltone of St. Peter under which you have to pass to access the square. Towards the end of the third quarter of the 13th century, this ancient city gate of the first walls of Mantua, was transformed into an elevated passage between the two palaces that the Bonacolsi family, at that time holding the position of Captain of the People, had purchased to transform them into their townhouse. The passage as we see it now is due to a cover-up intervention of the 16th century. The Bonacolsi first bought the palace and the tower to the left of the door built by the Acerbi family, then the palace to the right, finally, at the end of the 13th century, Pinamonte Bonacolsi built the great palace Bonacolsi, also called Castiglioni. At that time the Bonacolsi palaces overlooked a narrow street since Piazza Sordello was created in 1330 demolishing the buildings between two parallel streets that still followed the ancient Roman urban design. The tower that dominates the Voltone to the left before being incorporated into the Bonacolsi palace complex was owned by the Acerbi family, was named Tower of the Cage after 1576, when Count William Gonzaga installed a suspended cage on the southern side with the function of outdoor prison.
Entering Piazza Sordello, which during the Lordship of the Gonzaga family became the political and representative centre of the city, you see, on the left, the palaces Acerbi and Bonacolsi and the Bishop’s Palace, built in the 18th century on previous buildings of the 13th century also built by the Bonacolsi. In front, you can see the Cathedral and right the 13th-century facade of the Captain’s Palace followed then by the “Domus Magna“, buildings that later became part of the Complex of Palazzo Ducale.
The Captain’s Palace was built towards the end of the 13th century by the Bonacolsi family, then, after the expelling of these, became the property of the Gonzaga, who in conjunction with the gutting for the construction of the square, between 1330 and 1340 made the loggia on the ground floor and raised it with one more floor, creating a large parlour on the second floor.
The Palazzo Ducale complex is one of the largest buildings in Europe, occupying more than 35,000 square meters with more than 500 rooms, 7 gardens and 8 courtyards. The Palazzo Ducale is divided into four different areas. The Old Court including the oldest buildings near the square Sordello. The St George’s Castle built near the walls, between 1394 and 1406, by Francesco I Gonzaga during the stormy years characterized by the clashes with Gian Galeazzo Visconti. The Domus Nova, to the east of the Old Court, built around 1480 by Luca Fancelli and renovated about a century later. Finally, the New Court built from 1536 by Giulio Romano. Towards the end of the 16th century, a series of works began to fit all the various buildings in one complex. The interiors are grandiose and have decorations ranging from the late Gothic to the Baroque. Unfortunately, they are particularly naked because a large part of Gonzaga’s art collections were alienated in 1626, then in 1630, The palace was raided by the Lanzichenecchi and finally, the remaining furnishings were taken away by the last duke who took refuge in Venice. Some of the furnishings that are present now, were placed during the Habsburg period by taking them from some noble residences, including those of the Pico family from Mirandola. Among the masterpieces that remain in the ducal Palace are the frescoes and synopses painted, between 1436 and 1444, by Pisanello and depicting the Tournament-battle of Louvezerp. They were covered by a plastering at an unspecified time and were rediscovered in 1969. Also, worth noting the tapestries of the Acts of the Apostles, a replica, on cartoons of Raffaelo, made by the same Belgian workshop that had made those commissioned by Pope Leo X between 1514 and 1516 for the Sistine Chapel. Then the fragments of the canvas painted by Rubens between 1604 and 1605 depicting the Trinity worshipped by the Gonzaga family. This canvas was part of a triptych made for the church of “Santa Maria della Trinità”. During Napoleonic wars, the church was deconsecrated, and the triptych commandeered. The two side canvases ended up in Antwerp and Nancy, while the central canvas was also cut to make portraits to sell on the antique market. Finally, the most remarkable masterpiece is housed in St George’s Castle, which was from the middle of the 15th to the middle of the 16th century the residence of the ducal family.
This is the “Camera degli Sposi” frescoed, between 1464 and 1475, by Andrea Mantegna. In this square room, Mantegna paints a false architecture representing a loggia opened on two sides and the ceiling, with a central oculus, outwards. The first of two main walls depict the Gonzaga court gathered around Ludwig III and the second the meeting between Ludwig III and his son Francis cardinal with Rome in the background.
On the northern side of Piazza Sordello is located the Mantua Cathedral. In the site of an early-Christian church, between the end of the 11th and early 12th centuries, perhaps during the reign of Matilda of Canossa, a new Romanesque structure was built, of which remains the bell tower. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, with the erection of St. George’s Castle, Francis I Gonzaga redeveloped in Gothic style the Cathedral. The mixed facade can be seen in the framework of 1494 by Domenico Morone: The banishment of the Bonacolsi, now housed in the Palazzo Ducale. In 1545 Julius Romano was commissioned to redesign the interiors that were rebuilt reflecting the early-Christian structure of the ancient Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. We do not know how much of the original project was later realized since Julius Romano died the following year. The baroque marble facade was built in the mid-18th century.
From Piazza Sordello you can then head to the lakefront where you can take a short boat cruise to admire the Mantua skyline at sunset before heading back to your car.