A walk-through some photos of Mantua, Italy, and its Renaissance history…
It’s so easy to take Italy for granted.
So easy to stroll across its centuries-old cobblestone piazzas, look past frescoes older than the United States of America, rush by history-laden buildings, intricate details, corners, nooks, and crannies.
It is upon this historical landscape we move through our new world, relegating it all to background decoration.
Yet when you stop, pause, and take another look around, you fully understand why Italy remains the destination with the highest number of UNESCO-protected World Heritage Sites (50+) and a country you have to explore at least once in your lifetime.
My relationship with Italy has spanned decades with several trips starting from my toddler years and various family vacations to solo travels and quick getaways. So much so that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been fortunate to explore its shores.
But that doesn’t make me appreciate it any less. Far from it. In fact, Italy is that historical box of chocolates which surprises you with every bite, every trip back.
This time around, I was exploring its Lombardy (Lombardia) region. Particularly the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Mantua and Sabbioneta often overlooked by travelers and overshadowed by Milan’s glare and the lure of Lake Como.
Riding across the SP10 bridge which takes you over Lago di Mezzo and right into the heart of its old town, you’re met with the blush-colored cityscape of Mantua surrounded by three lakes against the backdrop of clear blue skies.
That initial sight is like catching your breath when you see your lover step out under flattering light.
Crowned as the 2016 Italian Capital of Culture, Mantua dates back to the 14th century when it was designed and created by the Gonzaga family – a powerful dynasty which ruled the city up until the early 1700s.
I will share more photographs from Mantua including my favorite street photography moments and local food experiences but first, I want to walk you through some of Mantua’s Italian Renaissance history, frescoes, façades, and interiors.
So here are some photos of Mantua, Italy.
Basilica di Sant’Andrea
They say a relic of the Blood of Christ is kept in a crypt within the fresco-lined walls of the Basilica of S. Andrea. It is ancient soil soaked with His blood and gathered up by the Roman soldier Longino who pierced His side on the cross.
There is a brotherhood instated by the Gonzaga family, cloaked in white with large red crosses across their breasts, which guards it. They are its keepers and it is safely stowed away in a box which requires 12 keys to open.
It is opened only once a year every Good Friday and a procession carries it through the streets and alleys of Mantua in somber reverence. Of these 12 keys, three are kept by the bishop, three by the mayor, three by the police chief, and three by the brotherhood itself.
Considered one of the greatest Italian Renaissance architectures, the basilica was designed by Leon Battista Alberti and construction commenced in 1472. Its façade alone took over 20 years to complete and it stands today as an impressive mesh of coffered ceilings and classical motifs threaded in gold.
Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower)
For panoramic views of Mantua and its surrounding lush countryside, climb up to the viewing room at the top of its Clock Tower. Located between Palazzo della Ragione and the old circular Roman church of St. Lawrence, the tower was built between 1472 and 1473, and was of course, commissioned by the Gonzaga family. It contains an astronomical clock which still works today.
There are five levels that take you through its history and construction – from the clock quadrant room with astrological, zodiac and lunar bodies, the mechanism and gear rooms which shows the inner workings of the astronomical clock, the timeline room, and the best room of the all, the view room which spreads Mantua out in front of you in every direction.
Libraries on their own are impressive worlds that suck you right in for hours, carefully thumbing through delicate pages of history often deeply buried beneath the superficial chatter of social media today.
And whenever I set foot into one, it’s with the same reverence I step into a place whose walls could literally tap me on the shoulder and whisper tales of lives that once stood within its bowels.
Created at the wish of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (hence its name) who once ruled Mantua at one time, the library was opened up in 1978 with rooms, wooden details, and shelves holding 340,000 volumes as of today.
From literature and art to 16th century cartographic etchings and globes, Biblioteca Teresiana definitely reminded me why I need to carve out some time every month to go get lost in a library.
Stepping into Teatro Scientifico del Bibiena was like finding myself within a beehive and looking directly at honeycombs surrounding me in every which way. This was a place where I could feel an intense energy, feel the ghosts of people, of individuals sitting all around in those balconies from centuries past, laughing or contemplating quietly, looking down at that broad stage.
Watching art in motion.
Its jarringly stunning 17th century Baroque style was designed by Antonio Galli Bibiena whom the theater is named after. Inaugurated in 1769, the theater is filled with warm brown monochromatic boxes and frescoes.
At the young age of 13, a certain prodigy named Mozart held a concert there just a year after its opening and it remains in active use for performances and concerts.
Piazza Sordello is Mantua’s beating heart. Its core and its cornerstone with the façade of the Duomo (Mantua Cathedral) sitting in its northern corner like a schoolteacher watching over a student test in progress.
This piazza held all of Mantua until the Middle Ages, and the piazza’s unusual large surface area is due to demolition over the years to give enough space to the Duomo and its processions.
Piazzo Sordello is framed by brickwalled Palazzo Acerbi, Palazzo Ducale, and a large portico that gives you a gorgeous framed view of the piazza during low light when the sun begins to dip.
It’s been awhile since I’ve experienced a full jaw drop at intricate art. The type that leaves you futilely craning your neck upwards in every direction to take in painted ceilings and designed walls so beautiful you feel immensely inadequate as an artist yourself.
That is what Italy does to you with its frescos. Every single time.
And Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale rivals the very best of them in Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan…
First of all, Palazzo Ducale is not a single palace but actually a collection of buildings including churches, courtyards, royal apartments, and porticoes dating from the 13th century to the 17th century. This is where the Gonzaga family thrived and lived in opulence and decadence while they ruled the region with an iron fist.
One of its signature pieces is the Castle of S. Giorgio built between 1390-1406 with its own deep moat now filled with green water you don’t want to slip and fall into, as well as its corner towers. Almost medieval English castle-style in its appearance. It is in here you will find one of the iconic ceiling paintings of chubby cherubs against a baby blue sky (Camera degli Sposi) in what was once the main bedroom.
As you wander through wing by wing of Palazzo Ducale, stumbling into hallways lined with vibrant artwork, paintings, and antiques, of marbled tiled floors and handwoven textile tapestries that you initially mistake for ceiling-to-floor oil paintings, you get the feeling that we’ve lost this artisan era of craftsmanship. That while modern and contemporary art is important and certainly has its place, we’ve lost the sense of purpose that working on an art piece for decades can bring to us without the need for instant gratification.
Many of the artists never live to complete their work or fully get see it to its final fruition but you can feel their passion, the perfectionism, and the sense of purpose outlined in every delicate brushstroke or needlework.
While the sheer grandiose of Palazzo Ducale as well as its intricate décor floored me, it was some of the frescoes within Palazzo Te that will forever remind me of Mantua. This luxurious villa constructed in the 16th century for Federico II Gonzaga has a courtyard and several rooms with stuccoes and motifs which depict several real as well as mythological scenes.
The Sala dei Cavalli room is filled with paintings of six horses that once lived and served the family, etched with their real names as well. The impressive blush-inducing Sala di Psiche depicts the nuptial banquet of Cupid and Psyche with their guests in various levels of undress and intimacy, as well as stories of Mars and Venus.
But my favorite fresco lies within Sala dei Giganti which tells the mythological tale of Jupiter defeating the giants by throwing lighting from atop Mount Olympus. The painting envelopes you in a 360-degree fashion and you don’t see it coming until you’re sucked into its depth.
My metaphor for Mantua – finding arresting beauty as you turn into unexpected corners.
Practical Travel Information
Getting There – The quickest way to get to Mantua is by flying into Verona Airport which is 33 kilometers away from the city center. Subsequently you can take the train down from Milan which is a two-hour ride.
Getting Around – Mantua is a small, compact, and walkable town so you probably won’t need to leave the perimeters of the city itself but I would suggest getting a Mantova Card for €20 which gives you access to all the main sights it has to offer as well as local public transport and bike rentals.
Where to stay – I stayed at Hotel ABC located directly across from the train station. Despite its old boarding school feel, it’s a collection of buildings with ambiance. Rooms are basic but well connected with WiFi, nice showers, and simple amenities you need.
You can view more photos of Mantua, Italy, in my image bank. Have you heard of Mantua or even been before? Please share your thoughts below.