Like the Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga family were great patrons of art and culture in Mantua

In 2007, UNESCO listed Mantua as a World Heritage Site, calling it an exceptional testimony to the urban, architectural and artistic realizations of the Renaissance. Solid proof, in other words, of the town’s historical importance and of its artistic heritage.

Mantua – Mantova in Italian – is a northern Italian town with a population of some 50.000 people. It takes only about 20 minutes to cross from one side of the town to the other on foot.

River Mincio flows in a u-shape through Mantua. The river basin is divided by access roads into three separate parts; Lago Maggiore, Lago di Mezzo and Lago Inferiore; the upper, middle and the lower lakes. From above it looks like the town is situated on a peninsula but it was in fact an island once upon a time.

Lago Maggiore, Mantua (Mantova), Italy - Photo: Asgeir Pedersen
Lago Maggiore

Mantua is basically one historic center where the inner part of the town is typically also its most charming. If you arrive in Mantua by train, follow the wide Corso Umberto until you reach the arcaded end of the street. Stop for a bit there and take in the life in Mantua in the tiny Piazza Marconi or around the next corner on Piazza Mantegna, in front of the imposing façade of Basilica di Sant’Andrea.

Right past the basilica, on the lively Piazza Erbe, you will find several restaurants and plenty of shops under the arcades. There are also the clock tower with the zodiac signs and the Rotonda di San Lorenzo. Just past Piazza Erbe is the biggest square in Mantua, Piazza Sordello, with some important buildings such as Palazzo Ducale.

Basilica di Sant’Andrea
Basilica di Sant’Andrea

The Gonzaga Family

Palazzo Ducale was the main residence of the Gonzaga family, rulers of the city for almost 400 years. The ducal palace building is the center piece of an enormous interconnected complex consisting of gardens, squares, galleries, and courtyards; a total of some 500 rooms on an area of about 34.000 square meters. In Italy only the Vatican is bigger.

Palazzo Ducale - Photo: Asgeir Pedersen, Heredajo
Palazzo Ducale – Photo: Asgeir Pedersen, Heredajo

Like the Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga family were great patrons of art and culture. They supported artists like Leone Battista Alberti, Andrea Mantegna, Donatello and Luca Fancelli. The palace once had an extensive collection of around 3.000 works of art before overspending and foreign invasion diminished both the collection and the Gonzaga’s power. There are still a huge number of paintings and frescos well worth seeing, among them Mantegna’s frescos, the Flemish tapestries made after cartoons by Raphael, as well as a series of mostly empty rooms with lavishly decorated walls and ceilings.


Palazzo Te

The name “Te” is a derived from the name of the place and not from tea-drinking as the name might suggest, but this “villa suburbana” situated on the outskirts of Mantua is in any case no ordinary palace. Walking from room to room one can only begin to imagine how they spent their time in this sumptuous palace of pleasure created for the Gonzaga’s and their court.

Palazzo Te
Palazzo Te

Palazzo Te was built in the so-called mannerist style of architecture, a little distinct style that follows renaissance classicism and precedes the baroque. The walls facing the courtyard is a curious mixture of unevenly spaced columns, covered windows, recesses without statues and an ornamented frieze along the top of the wall.

If the exterior leaves you puzzled as to what kind of place this is, then the bold frescos inside the building will soon put you on back on track, possibly smiling.

Sala dei Cavalli, Palazzo Te
Sala dei Cavalli, Palazzo Te

In Sala dei Cavalli the stylized horses seem totally out of place, yet the effect is striking and quite amusing. The next room, Sala di Amore e Psiche is a lavish sensory, if not erotic surprise with scenes from Olympian banquets including some rather explicit love scenes.

Sala di Amore e Psiche - Photo: Asgeir Pedersen, Heredajo
Sala di Amore e Psiche
Mantua, Palazzo Te - Ceiling of the Room of the giants - Livioandronico2013 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Ceiling of the Room of the Giants (detail)

Last but not least, Sala dei Giganti with its trompe l’oeil style masterpiece. Both the walls and domed ceiling is one big painting; that of giants wreaking havoc, fury and ruin around the walls of the Sala dei Giganti (see also header photo).

All photos © Asgeir Pedersen, Heredajo except:
Ceiling of the Room of the giants by Livioandronico2013 (Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)
This article was first published February 17 2015.