While I was traveling in Northern Italy a few years ago, I have also visited a historic city of Mantua (in Italian Mantova) located in Po Valley, almost the equal distance between Venice (Venezia) and Milan (Milano) and very close to Verona. The old part of Mantua was declared as UNESCO World Heritage site. I have spent there only a few hours and was able to see some of the most important historic landmarks of this town.
Mantua, located in the Lombardy region of Italy, is quite well preserved, full of historic building, works of art and other monuments, but somehow it is not really very popular and crowded with tourists, as many other historic places in Italy. Some local people even call Mantua “Bella addormentata” – the Sleeping Beauty. Indeed the city seems a bit asleep with lack of crowds and all these historic buildings, which seem as they were frozen in time. You might remember that Mantua is actually the town where Romeo, from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” story, was banished for killing Tybalt.
By the way, Lombardy (Lombardia in Italian), one of the twenty administrative regions of Italy, is situated in the North-West of the country. With the surrounding mountains, many alpine lakes and numerous monuments, Lombardy is one of the most beautiful and richest parts of Italy. Its surface of 23,861 km2 (9,213 sq mi) makes Lombardy the 4th largest region of Italy. About 10 million people live there, which is around 1/6th of Italy’s population. Lombardy’s capital is Milan and it is the second-largest city in Italy. It is also a region of famous Italian lakes of glacial origin, which are situated in Lombardy’s northern highlands. They are lakes Maggiore, Lugano (both shared with Switzerland), Lake Como, Iseo, Idro and finally Lake Garda, which is the largest in Italy. I have visited several of them when traveling in Northern Italy and I have already written on this blog about my visits to Lake Garda and Lugano.
Short History of Mantua.
This city has very long and interesting history reaching back to Etruscan times in 6th century BC, and even further to the legendary times around 2000 BC, when it was founded. Etruscans believed that the city was re-founded by Ocno, whose name derives from Mantus, the Etruscan god of the underworld – Hades. The city was conquered by Romans during Punic wars. They have confused the name Mantus with Manto, a daughter of prophet Tyresia (Tyresias).
The ancient famous poet Publius Virgilius Maro (Virgil) was born near Mantua in 70 BC.
The city went through many wars being invaded by Goths, Byzantines, Longobards and Franks. In the 11th century it belonged to marquis Boniface of Canossa. The last ruler of this family, the countess Matilde of Canossa, according to legend, has ordered the construction of the oldest still standing church of Mantua’s, “Rotonda di San Lorenzo” (1082). It is believed that this church stands in the place where once the temple of the Roman goddess Venus was located.
You can see this antique church in the picture below. I have visited it and noticed that, as other churches in this Roman style, its intriour is pretty dark since only very little light is able to get in through a few very small windows. There was a little artificial light but not enough to take any good pictures with my camera without using flash or tripod. The church has very little decor and some remains of old frescoes are still visible.
Back to the history of this city, after the death of Matilde, the city was so called “free commune”. In 1198 Alberto Pitentino has changed the course of the river Mincio creating around the city 4 artificial lakes, which reinforced its natural protection from possible outside invaders.
One of the most prominent families related to this city is Gonzaga, who ruled Mantua for more than 200 years, starting in the 14th century. Under their rule, Mantua had one of its best periods, when it has become an important center of the Renaissance culture and one of the most prominent cities of this era. During this time many of city’s architectural landmarks and works of art were created. Gonzaga were investing in developing the city directing the creation of many buildings. They were avid art collectors and sponsors attracting numerous artists to Mantua. Many of the monuments still remaining in the city were created, or redesigned during this period.
Weak and vicious Vincenco II was the last ruler from the direct line of Gonzaga family. After his death in 1627, the city slowly declined under the Gonzaga Nevers, a French branch of the family. During the war for the succession over Mantua, in 1630 with the army, a terrible plague was brought to the city. It was a huge disaster for Mantua and its citizens, from which it has never recovered do the previous splendor. The last ruler from this French Gonzaga’s line, Duke Ferdinand, when escaping from Mantua to Venice after his defeat, carried away about a thousand of pictures. When he died in 1708 he was declared deposed and his family lost Mantua forever. The new rulers were the Habsburgs from Austria.
Mantua had again some good period when it was ruled by them and it was then, when the Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts, the Scientific Theater and many palaces were build. During Napoleon wars it was shortly part of France and in 1814 it again belonged to Austria.
After further wars for the Italian independence and unification of the country, finally in 1866 Mantua was united with Italy by the king of Sardinia.
One of the Most Beautiful Mantua’s Churches – the Basilica of Sant’Andrea.
One of the buildings I was the most impressed with when visiting Mantua, was the Basilica of Sant’Andrea. It is a Roman Catholic church and co–cathedral. It is one of the most important works of architecture of 15th century Renaissance era in Northern Italy. The building of this church was commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga and started in 1471 following the design of famous architect Leon Battista Alberti, one year before his death. This site was previously occupied by a Benedictine monastery, of which the bell tower from 1414 still remains. The building of the Sant’ Andrea basilica was finally completed 328 years later. When designing this church, Alberti was inspired by the Roman basilicas and triumphal arches, which he incorporated into the facade and interiour design. His project of this church has become an inspiration for many architects and designs of churches that followed. Despite changes and addition done to the design after Alberti’s death, the basilica is considered as one of Alberti’s most important works. It looms over the Piazza Mantegna.
I was particularly impressed with very elaborate relief around the doors of this church. It was depicting mythological events and many animals were presented in great detail, as you can see in several of my pictures below. I was not able to find information who has designed this door. Was it Alberti or somebody else?
The interiour of the church was also very impressive and elaborate, but the dim light and only short time I was able to spent there, didn’t allow me to take pictures good enough to present them here.
Is Mantua Worth Visiting?
To summarize, Mantua, even if not as famous as some near-by cities like Milan, Venice or Verona, is certainly worth visiting, especially if you already are in Northern Italy. It could make a great day trip from Lake Garda, Milan or Verona. There are many more interesting places to see there, which I was not able to visit myself in the short time I was in this city. Perhaps I will be able to return to explore it further.
The Copyright Info.
This article and all photographs in this blog post are copyrighted by me, Renata Ratajczyk. If you would like to use any of them in your publications or on your website, please contact me. I will be adding some of the pictures from this article and many more images from Italy to my Light Vision website, where you can license images or buy them as prints. I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and seeing my photographs from this beautiful part of of Italy. I will be posting more articles soon, so please remember to subscribe to my blog to be notified about future updates. Thank you.
You May Also Like to Read:
- Visiting Lake Garda, Italy.
- Sanctuary of Madonna Della Corona, Italy.
- City of Lugano, Switzerland, on the border with Italy.
- Gardens of Versailles, France.
- Gadens of Spiazzi village – an article on my Vibrant Garden blog.
- Giardino Sigurtà” in Northern Italy – on my Vibrant Garden blog.
- Niagara Parks Botanical Garden – Part 1 and Part 2 on my Vibrant Garden blog.