Published on: 25 May 2014 | Last updated: 6 January 2020
Surrounded on three sides by water, Mantova is very pretty, even by Italian standards. It’s got more than its fair share of cultural riches (again, even by Italian standards), but it’s also just a really nice place to enjoy a meal or a drink and a ride around.
If you’re just heading into town to enjoy the atmosphere then head for the heart of the city around the Piazza dell’Erbe. Look out for the unusual Casa del Mercante (Merchant’s House).
|Ostiglia - Mantova||41kms|
|Mantova - Sabbioneta||47kms|
|Sabbioneta - Casalmaggiore||7kms|
If you’re up for a bit of sightseeing then the two must-see sights in the city are the Palazzo Ducale and the Palazzo del Te. Both were homes to the Gonzaga family. Highlight of the Palazzo ducale (opening hours) is the Camera degli Sposi (also known as the camera picta) with its frescoes by the artist Andrea Mantegna.
The ceiling is the most famous of the frescoes but the walls celebrating the Gonzaga dynasty and the election of Francesco Gonzaga as a cardinal (at the grand age of 17) are equally vivid and glorious.
The other must-see in Mantova is the Palazzo del Te (opening hours and ticket prices. Although it’s only just outside the city it was built as country home for the Duke Francesco II where he lived with his mistress Isabella Boschetti. The villa and its frescoes were the work of artist and architect Giulio Romano It was also the site of his stables and some of the duke’s favourite horses are depicted, life-size, on the walls. As well as the Sala dei Cavalli don’t miss the technicolour spectacle of the Camera dei Giganti and the Camera di Amore e Psyche with frescoes that celebrate his love for Isabella.
If you’re wondering why there are only frescoes to see it’s because the rest of the Gonzaga’s art collection was sold off to raise money and carried off agents of the British king Charles I. These included the Triumphs of Caesar a series of nine large painting by Andrea Mantegna. According to the wikipedia article ‘together they form the world’s largest metric area of renaissance paintings outside Italy’ (so there you go). You can see them in Hampton Court Palace near London.
There’s a high-quality video slideshow of the Palazzo del Te on youtube (credit: Marialba Italia):
Sabbioneta, 47kms down the road from Mantova, forms part of the same UNESCO listing. Sabbioneta was a new Renaissance city built by Vespasiano Gonzago. According to Aldous Huxley:
“ Vespasiano seems to have been the typical Italian tyrant of his period — cultured, intelligent and only just so much of an ungovernably ferocious ruffian as one would expect a man to be who has been brought up in the possession of absolute power. ”
“ He poisoned his first wife on a suspicion, probably unfounded, of her infidelity, murdered her supposed lover and exiled his relations. His second wife left him mysteriously after three years of married life and died of pure misery in a convent, carrying with her into the grave nobody knew what frightful secret. His third wife, it is true, lived to a ripe old age; but then Vespasiano himself died after only a few years of marriage. His only son, whom he loved with the anxious passion of the ambitious parvenu who desires to found a dynasty, one day annoyed him by not taking off his cap when he met him in the street. Vespasiano rebuked him for this lack of respect. The boy answered back impertinently. Whereupon Vespasiano gave him such a frightful kick in the groin that the boy died. ”
Aldous Huxley: Along the Road (1925)
When I visited the Palazzo Ducale the guide said that Vespasiano had actually locked his first wife in a cell with the dead body of her alleged lover and offered her the alternative of remaining locked in with the decaying body or taking poison. After several days she drank the poison.
As well as the Palazzo Ducale, Sabbioneta is known for the Teatro all’Antica by the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi. Scamozzi was the pupil of, and assistant to, Andrea Palladio: overseeing the completion of some of Palladio’s greatest works.
Take a few minutes to visit Sabbioneta’s synagogue - a gem tucked away on the upper floor a building in the corner of the main square (virtual visit and more information). Download a pdf brochure about the synagogue and Sabbioneta’s Jewish community from moked.it.
Sabbioneta, in fact, has a singular – but often little known – history: built in the 1500s, according to the renaissance principles of the città ideale (i.e. ideal city), it had been home to one of the most flourishing and best-integrated Jewish communities. In contrast to many other Italian cities, Jews weren’t forced to live in a ghetto and were always able to live and work freely throughout the city.
Places to stay
Cycling-related websites and resources
There’s a very helpful website promoting a cycle route between the Lago di Garda and the Adriatic: Dal Garda all’Adriatico (it/en/de). There’s a very useful guide available from tourist information offices in the Ferrara and Mantova areas. It’s also available as a pdf - download link for the English-language version .
General tourist information
Mantova’s association of tourist guides also have a good website: guideturistichemantova.it (it/en/de/fr).
Websites for Mantova’s Palazzo del Te and Palazzo Ducale
Articles in this series
- eurovelo 8 in Italy: Overview
- eurovelo 8 in Italy: Part 1: Trieste to Venezia and the Po delta
- eurovelo 8 in Italy: Part 2: Along the Po
- eurovelo 8 in Italy: Part 3: Torino to Cuneo and the Col de Tende
- eurovelo 8 in Italy: detour to Mantova and Sabbioneta
- eurovelo 8 in Italy: Planning your route: books, maps and GPS tracks