A day in Mantova

8 April 2024
Written by
Laura Ferrari

Why this gem in the north of Italy is worth a visit (and a stay)

When the distinguished scion ordered Giulio Romano, pointing to the old stables on the island of Tejeto, to “prepare a little space where one could go to have lunch or dinner for pleasure,” no one foresaw that here would rise some of the most beautiful villas of the Italian Renaissance. It was 1524, and Federico II Gonzaga only needed to put a couple of kilometers from the Ducal Palace to identify the place where to cultivate honest leisure post labor (as read on the inscription in the room of Amore and Psyche) and presumably to get away a bit from the interference of mamma Isabella d’Este, the “first lady of the world.”

Our visit to Mantua begins here, at Palazzo Te, to discover that the father of all vices is a creative idleness where everyone puts their passions to use, reflects, loves, banquets, and rests. Today, at the residence that became the sumptuous representation palace of the first Duke of Mantua, a valorization path of the artistic heritage of the villa entitled “The labyrinth of metamorphoses” is organized. The program (started on March 27, 2024, and until…) offers a fascinating reading key to visiting the rooms of Palazzo Te, through informative supports and a renewed lighting system that highlights the references to metamorphosis present in the decorative cycle of the premises. The activation of new insights to discover an unparalleled iconographic and architectural repertoire is combined with the realization of multidisciplinary activities, with proposals ranging from exhibitions to concerts, from conferences to workshops. Among these, a schedule of musical and performing events stands out, including Strauss’ Metamorphosen, Ligeti’s Night Metamorphoses, Britten’s Six Methamorphosis after Ovid with the Mantua Chamber Orchestra, and Reich’s Music for eighteen musicians with MantovaMusica.

The aim is to bring to life a embrace of all contemporary arts, to learn to enjoy beauty in a different way. But the first beauty is that of nature, and we remember it by looking out over the Mincio where the Upper Lake is formed (one of the three bodies of water surrounding Mantua) and where we stop for a panoramic snack at the restaurant “Che c’è c’è.” In the atmosphere, we breathe lake air, and on the plate, we enjoy excellent Mediterranean pastas and inland risottos. In front of us, the coots frolic on the lawn that skirts the lake, adorned by the intrusive beauty of lotus leaves, and we understand that we are immersed in a unique habitat: it is the Mincio Park, 16,000 hectares of protected area, visitable on foot, by bicycle, or by boat.

On the trail of honest vices, the city of the Gonzagas invites us to succumb to the call of Vanity, especially if expressed in a context that surprises for the bond it has created with the territory. We are talking about Mantova Village (one of the 5 villages in Italy branded Land of Fashion) which, among the 100 shop windows located a few km outside the city (outlet discounts from 30 to 70%), hosts exhibitions, organises concerts, promotes cultural events in the historic centre to tune shopping to the wavelengths of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The recognition by the United Nations Organisation was awarded to Mantua (and Sabbioneta) for the “exceptional testimonies of Renaissance architecture and urban planning.” But it is reductive. As soon as we enter the historic nucleus of the city, the Ducal Palace – with over 1,000 rooms and an area of 35,000 square meters, it is the largest Italian architectural museum complex – a treasure chest unfolds in which to traverse the cultures that grew up in Mantua over the centuries and the relationships woven with the rest of the world. There are the late Gothic frescoes of Pisanello, there is that absolute masterpiece of the Renaissance which is the Camera degli Sposi by Andrea Mantegna, we find the Baroque paintings of Rubens, who owes much to his stay at the Gonzaga court. And still, underground passages and secrets are discovered, stairs for noble steeds and stairs “for dwarfs” (actually a miniature copy of a more famous Roman staircase), Wunderkammer to amaze guests with exotic objects, gardens of medicinal plants and disused courtyards, frescoed offices, spaces intended for film sets, and prestigious venues for private events. Like the Sala del Labirinto, where Ducal dinners are still held today. The maze is the one painted on the wooden ceiling, in the meanders of which the words “Maybe yes, maybe no” are repeated, the refrain taken from a famous frottola by Marchetto Cara (1504), the same one that can welcome guests, performed live by a vocal quartet accompanied by ancient instruments from the Conservatory of Mantua. The pleasures of the palate are satisfied with dishes inspired by tradition, such as tortellini with Parmesan zabaglione or Capon à la Bartolomeo Stefani (a cook in service in 1662 at the court kitchens), while in the glasses are poured the wines of Garda and Alto Mincio. An exclusive dinner, achievable for a special event by contacting the MyMuseum service of the Palace.

For overnight stays, you can choose the Scaravelli Residenza, suites, and large rooms with minimal furnishings (but excellent comfort), housed in a 16th-century building overlooking Piazza delle Erbe, two hundred meters from the Ducal Palace and next to the splendid Basilica of Sant’Andrea, designed by Leon Battista Alberti. The view from the balcony of the room offers a glimpse absolutely faithful over time to the original, except for a few bicycles that lazily traverse the street. On the cobblestones, we imagine the wings of a theatre, behind which we hear in the distance the bumptious voice of a duke who raves about mobile women, like feathers in the wind…

READ our insider’s guide to Mantova

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