The City Beyond the Lakes – A Travel Guide to Mantua
Mantua is a small city located in the North of Italy in the proximity of other famous cities like Verona, Padua, Venice, Parma or Milan. It is surrounded by 3 artificial lakes created in the 12th century to the North, East and South for defensive purposes. They are simply called the Upper Lake (Lago Superiore), Middle Lake (Lago di Mezzo) and Lower Lake (Lago Inferiore). Entering the city on the road Via Legnano from the East you can get the well-known vista over the old city center, with the Inferior or the Middle Lake in the foreground, or both if you stay on the road, with the Palazzo Ducale magestically emerging in the middle of the town just like the Mont-Saint Michel in the La Manche bay. Coming to the city by train from Verona you enter from the Northern side on the Via dei Mulini.
The distance is short, only 45 minutes and the train costs only 4 euro. Travelling from Milan takes a little longer: it lasts 2 hours and it costs between 11 – 20 euro.
The old town of Mantua was declared part of the Unesco World Heritage in 2007 and the European Capital of Gastronomy in 2017. The city has a history similar to other cities in this region of Italy: founded as a settlement along the river Mincio, it belonged first to the Etruscans, then to the Cenomani, the Romans and the Ostrogoths.
By the end of the first millennia, the region was conquered by the Roman Empire and after witnessing several other wars involving the Romans, later the Austrians and the French armies, it eventually became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866 after the Prussian – Italian war. The outlook of the city was mainly shaped by the Gonzaga family who ruled the city from 1318 until 1708 and the Habsburgs until the middle of the 19th century.
The main sights were preserved quite well during these times despite fires, looting and the plague that decimated half of the population in the 17th century. In the followings we present you 6 of the most remarkable places worth visiting in Mantua.
Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale di Mantova)
Mantua is a small city with a population of 48 353 people and less than 64 km2 surface. The main sights are all at a walking distance. Situated near the Via Legnano and a 20 minutes walk from the train station, the Ducal Palace is a building complex built at the order of the Gonzaga family and it served as their royal residence. The group of buildings are connected and are made up of the Old Court (Corte Vecchia), Castle of St. George, the New House (Domus Nuova), the New Court (Corte Nuova) and the Gardens and Courtyard. The palace can be accessed from the Piazza Sordello, where you enter to the Old Court. Here you can visit the Captains´s Palace (Palazzo del Capitano) built by the Captain of People Guido Buonacolsi in the 13th century, including the Duchesses´s Staircase (Scalone delle Duchese) and the Room of Pisanello where the frescoes of the famous painter Pisanello are exhibited. The Big House (Magna Domus), the Apartment of Isabella d´Este, the Apartment of the Tapestries including Napoleon I´s Hall are other exquisite rooms, decorated with paintings and tapestries dating back to the 15th and 16th century.
The construction of the Castle of Saint George was ordered by Franceso I Gonzaga and finished in 1406. The castle includes the Painted Chamber (Camera Picta) and the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi) famous for the frescoes of the Gonzaga family painted by Andrea Mantegna.
The New House (Domus Nuova) got its current shape by the end of the 16th century and comprises the Ducal Apartment (Appartamento Ducale), the New Corridor (Galleria Nuova), the Room of the Archers (Sala degli Archieri), the Hall of Mirrors (Galeria degli Specchi) and the Dwarves´ Apartments (Appartamento dei nani). The rooms are decorated with altarpieces by Francesco Borgani, Carlo Bononi, Spognaletto, Peter Paul Rubens.
The New Court is famous for the Apartment of Troy where the story of Troy is depicted in frecoes.
Address: Piazza Sordello, 40, 46100 Mantova
Tuesday – Sunday: 8:15 – 19:15 (ticket office closes at 18:20)
Corte Vecchia: 13:15 – 19:15
Entrance: 12 euro (reduced 7.50 euro)
In the Piazza Sordello is also the Mantua Cathedral (Duomo di Mantova) where Ludovico I and Ludovico III Gonzaga are buried. The initial church that existed in the place burned down in 894 and instead a cathedral with a Gothic facade was built and finished in 1401. In the 18th century another fire caused serious damage to the construction, therefore the initial Gothic facade was replaced with a Baroque one, the interior was reconstructed in Renaissance style but the Gothic Bell tower was preserved. The rose windows illuminate the frescoes of artists such as Antonio Maria Viani, Domenico Brusasorci and others.
Address: Piazza Canonica S. Pietro, 11, 46100 Mantova
Monday – Friday: 10:00 – 13:00 and 15:00 – 19:00
Saturday – Sunday: 10:00 – 18:00
Basilica of Sant´Andrea
A 5 minute walk from the the Duomo, in the Piazza Andrea Mantegna is the Basilica of Sant´Andrea. The Renaissance style cathedral has a remarkable facade inspired by the ancient Arch of Trajan at Ancona. The interior is grandiose with the Corinthian columns and the walls are beautifully decorated with artworks by Mantegna, Giulio Romano and his school. Andrea Mantegna and Federico I Gonzaga are buried in this cathedral.
Address: Piazza Andrea Mantegna, 46100 Mantova
Everyday: 8:00 – 12:00 and 15:00 – 19:00
Rotonda di San Lorenzo
Near the Basilica of Sant´Andrea, in the Piazza delle Erbe is the Rotonda di San Lorenzo, the oldest church in Mantua. The Rotonda replaced an old Roman temple dedicated to the godess Venus. The current building was dedicated to the martyr St. Lawrence, a deacon in Rome executed under the rule of the Roman Emperor Valerian in 258. The construction is simplistic, built in brick, with little interior decoration. A bizarre painting that to our eyes resembles an extraterrestrial being (we dubbed it the little UFO) can also be discovered on the inside walls.
Address: Piazza delle Erbe, 46100 Mantova
Monday – Friday: 10:00 – 13:00 and 15:00 – 19:00 (until 18:00 in winter)
Saturday – Sunday: 10:00 – 18:00
Teatro Bibiena di Mantova
The Bibiena Theater was constructed in the 18th century by Antonio Bibiena in late Baroque and early Rococco style. It was opened in December 1769 and the next year on the 16th of January Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, at that time only 13 years old, played a concert here.
His father was impressed by the theater, naming it the most beautiful of its kind. The building hosts both theatrical performnaces and concerts, and recently it was opened for tourists as well.
Address: Via Accademia, 47, 46100 Mantova
Tuesday – Sunday: 9.30-12.30 and 15.00-18.00 (closed to visitors during performances)
Entrance: 2 euro
A little farther to the west, a 20 minutes walk distance from the Bibiena Theater is the Palazzo Te. The palace was built between 1524 and 1534 by the famous architecture Giulio Romano at the request of Federico Gonzaga on the Te island, the land where the palace is currently located, but at that time severed from the rest of Mantova by a lake. It was meant to be a residence for leisure and relaxation.
The construction was very well carried out and it impressed Emperor Charles V to such an extent that he named Federico II of Gonzaga from Marques to Duke of Mantua. The palace has several exquisitely decorated rooms. Visitors can admire the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche with the paintings depicting Olympian banquets, the Hall of the Horses illustrating the passion of the Gonzaga family for horses. The Chamber of the Giants is surprising with its raging giants from the Olympus.
Other beautifully decorated rooms are the Chamber of the Winds, the Chamber of the Eagles, the Chamber of the Emperors and the Apartment of the Secret Garden. Unfortunately the palace was looted during the War of the Mantuan Succession in the 17th century and only empty rooms and wall decorations were left behind. The palace is nevertheless worth visiting as it´s still a beautiful construction which allows the visitor to get a glimpse in the rich history of the Gonzaga family.
Address: Viale Te, 13, 46100 Mantova
Monday: 13:00 – 18:30 (ticket office closes at 17:30)
Tuesday – Sunday: 09:00 - 18:30 (ticket office closes at 17:30)
Entrance: 12 euro (reduced 8 euro)