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View of Mantova

Cathedral San Pietro, Mantova

Interior of the Cathedral San Pietro, Mantova

Rotundo di San Lorenzo, Mantova


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Welcome to Mantova (Mantua)
From Jesse's Journeys in Italy

Population:  46,372 (2004)
Official site:

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In the late 16th century, the poet, Tarquato Tasso, wrote the city of Mantova - or Mantua as it is known to English-speakers - was so worthy that one should travel a thousand miles to see it.  "Worthy" is an interesting word, implying that Mantova's attractions go beyond its surface charms and beauty.  Tasso was right.

Mantova sits reflectively in the midst of three man-made lakes (at one time there were four) which were formed by the damming of water from the River Mincio which flows out of Lake Garda to the north. 

The area was originally settled by Bronze Age tribes over 2000 years ago.  By the 6th century BC, it had become an Etruscan village named for Mantus, the god of the Etruscan's hell, or Hades.  The Etruscan's were conquered by the Cenomani, a Gaulish tribe, but in time the Cenomani fell to the Romans who colonized it with soldiers who had fought under Augustus Caesar.

After the decline of Rome, the city, as with other other towns and cities in what is now Lombardia and Emilia Romagna, was subjected to a long succession of bloody conquests and invasions - first by Goths, then by  Longobards, Byzantines, Franks, and others.  The city became a possession of the Marquis of Toscana (Boniface of Canossa) in the 11th century, and remained under his family's control for a century or so, after which the city became an independent comune which, during the 12th and 13th centuries, fought valiantly to protect its independence against the Holy Roman Empire.

The independence of the comune was lost during the long struggles between the Ghibelline (pro Empire) and Guelph (pro Papal) factions.  The powerful Buonacolsi family ascended to power in 1273, but in 1328 they were deposed by the even more powerful family, the Gonzagas who fought amongst themselves until Ludovico managed to eliminate any other challengers from within or without the family.

During the long reign of the Gonzagas, new walls, with five gates, were built around the growing, prosperous and cultural enriched city.  The Gonzaga court drew the great painters, poets and architects of the day, men like Mantegna, Petrarch, Pisanello and Rubens.

Gonzaga rule lasted until 1627 at which time Mantova fell into a period of violent upheaval, plague and. decline.  By 1708, the city was under the dominance of the Hapsburgs, rulers of the Austrian Empire, and remained their, except for a brief period during the Napoleonic conquest.  During the 150 year long "Austrian" period, Mantova's fortunes rose again, but, the Austrians were ultimately defeated and pushed out by the forces of the Italian Risorgimento, and six years after  Italian unification in 1860, Mantova was annexed into the modern country of Italy.

So, what will the modern traveler find in Mantova today?  There is, of course, a bustling, energetic, 21st century city built up around the ancient core - the centro historico - inside of which you will find a number of piazzas, most cobbled during Medieval times with interlocking square pavements.  Along the piazzas and the narrow, medieval streets that lead into and away from them you will find many good restaurants, cafes,  trattorias and shops where you can refresh yourself and while away any number of unrushed hours.

The principal "monument" in the city, without a doubt, is the amazing  Palazzo Ducale or the Reggia dei Gonzaga as it is also known.  More about it in a moment.  First, you might want to visit the Renaissance style Basilica di Sant’Andrea, that features a baroque cupola. 

The church boasts a Pope-endorsed relic, a golden vessel purportedly holding the Preziosissimo Sangue di Cristo (the Highly Precious Blood of Christ), which was supposed to have been brought to Mantua by Longinus, the Roman soldier who speared Christ during his procession to the Cross.  The church also holds the tomb of the great artist Mantegna whose work is found in major buildings throughout Mantova.

Across the colonnaded Piazza delle Erbe, look for the Romanesque style  Rotonda di San Lorenzo, built in the XII century.  Some evidence suggests it was built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Venus.  The Duomo, which features an 18th century facade and is dedicated to San Pietro, is located on the Piazza Sordello.  On the Piazza Broletto there is another imposing palazzo of the same name, with a statue that is said to represent the poet Virgil who was born near Mantova in 70 BC.  On Piazza Brodello you will find an ancient prison, the Torre della Gabbia and Casa Rigoletto, which Verdi figures into his opera, Rigoletto.

Just outside the walls of the city is a square planned palazzo built around a cloistered courtyard, Palazzo Te, done primarily in the Renaissance style but with sensual, sometimes steamy  Raphaelite overtones.  The building houses the civic museum with its displays of art and artifacts dating back to time immemorial.  One of the rooms, the Camera dei Giganti has a Renaissance frescoe cycle portraying Jupiter's triumph over the Titans.

We come at last to the Palazzo Ducale - or Reggia dei Gonzaga - in the northeast corner of the city.  It is a world unto itself,  built over 300 years - from the 14th to the 17th centuries.  Inside its walls there are 500 rooms, three piazzas, fifteen courtyards, and a magnificent park.

The original "palace", the Castello di San Giorgio, was built in the 14th century by the Buonacolsi's and later  elaborated upon by the Gonzagas.

Some of the main rooms and buildings inside the grounds are the Chiesa Santa Barbara (16th century), the Sala Metamorphoses and the Loggia Eleonora.  The Camera degli Sposi, located in one of the castle towers and perhaps the most magnificent of all the rooms, was created in the middle of the 15th century and features frescoes by Andrea Mantegna.  There is a painting in the Morone's room, accessible up the 17th century Scalone delle Duchesse (Duchess Staircase) that portrays the Gonzaga's ousting of the Buonocolsis.

Other rooms include the Sala del Pisanello where Antonio Pisano started but did not finish a fresco about the Legends of King Arthur; the Sala di Troia , which has a fresco of the zodiacs, and the large and grand Room of the Archers which boasts an altarpiece by Rubens.   The Sala dei Fiumi - Room of the Rivers - was created during the rule of the Hapsburgs and is decorated with painted grottos covered in shells and mosaics.  The Mirror Gallery - Galleria degli Specchi - is also of interest.

The centro historico and the Reggia dei Gonzaga within are truly fascinating.  But being "inside" can tax the most intrepid visitor.  Surrounded as it is by lakes - whether man-made or not - Mantova also lends itself to other recreations than touring its buildings and monuments.  Renting a small boat for a paddle, or even walking some of the lakeside paths, in the company of the local people - the Mantovani - will give you views of the city at a distance, and will let you build an appetite for a wonderful meal near the tale end of a very pleasant day.

By Vian Andrews, August 15, 2006


45°10′N 11°21′E


Verona - 47 km;
Modena - 79 km;
Brescia - 97 km;
Parma - 116 km;
Bologna - 118 km;
Padova - 123 km;
Piacenza - 174 km;
Milano - 193 km





Coat of Arms, Mantova

The poet, Virgil, was born near Mantova in 70 BC.
Mantova figures in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  After killing Tybalt, Romeo is exiled to the city and stays there until he learns that Juliet has killed herself.
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