Mantova: Italy’s Sleeping Beauty City
August 7, 2015
“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been; travelers don’t know where they’re going.” Paul Theroux
I’m fascinated by Italian towns that are under the radar of most tourists. Mantova (English: Mantua) is one such place. This is “Italy’s Sleeping Beauty City” – in Italian, “la bella addormentata”.
Mantova is a city of almost 50,000, located at the southeastern corner of the Lombardy region, only 40 kilometers from popular destinations Verona and Lake Garda. In many ways it feels like part of neighboring Emilia-Romagna – from its rich, pork-based cuisine to its friendly down-to-earth people.
Mantova’s most distinctive features are the three artificial protective lakes created to surround the city during the 12th century. Essentially they closed off the inhabitants to outside influences, leaving it small and, in many ways, frozen in its Renaissance splendor. You can walk across the entire city in about 20 minutes. Or, take leisurely boat rides through the tranquil lakes, with guides who are experts on the area’s flora and fauna. Have lots of time on your hands? How about Mantova to Venice via bike and boat? There’s an Italian company that specializes in the trip. Nice flat roads. A stop in elegantissima Ferrara. Tempting…
While the Ducal Palace is certainly worth a stop, the standout visit for me was the over-the-top Palazzo Te (built 1525-1535), the summer residence/pleasure palace of Frederick II of Gonzaga. The Gonzaga family left their mark on Mantova much the way the Medicis did on Florence. Accomplished Renaissance architect Giulio Romano created a vast early Mannerist palace for Mantova’s first duke at the site of the royal stables, just outside the city walls. Many say this was a home for Frederick’s stunning lover, Isabella Boschetti. The fabulous Camera degli Sposi, Sala dei Giganti and Sala dei Cavalli are replete with remarkable frescoes. Surely the occasional orgy was inspired by those Bacchanalian images! The rest of the palace is basically empty – having been looted from top to bottom in 1630 by invading forces.
Mantova is also famous as the birthplace of Italy’s greatest poet of ancient times, Virgil (b. 70 B.C.E.), author of The Aeneid (written about 29 B.C.E. – unfinished). Claudio Monteverdi, considered revolutionary in the world of Italian opera as bridging the gap between Renaissance and Baroque, worked for the Mantovan court for several years. He became court conductor in 1602 before moving on to Venice by 1613. Here he would restore the musical standard to the Basilica di San Marco and spend the remaining years of his life.
For years now thousands have flocked to Mantova in early September for the Festival Letteratura, which features lectures by dozens of young talented writers as well as vibrant street life. I would suggest this as a fabulous time to get to know the city, since private homes and gardens are opened to the public and Mantova extends its most welcoming hand. The Festival Letteratura has become one of the most renowned literary festivals in Europe.
The Mantovani are quite proud of their culinary offerings: from Risotto alla Pilota (made with a locally-produced sausage), and Stracotto (stews of various bovines served with the ubiquitous polenta), to pumpkin-filled ravioli that are rendered over-the-top with the addition of crumbled amaretti, and sbriciola (a crumbly butter cake that didn’t impress me). I’m sure that two of the city’s famous restaurants, Dal Pescatore and Aquila Negra, would be well worth trying.