Mantua is the perfect Italian city and makes a great place to visit, famous for its architectural treasures, elegant palaces and medieval remains. Its compact center is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a dense concentration of historic buildings, some of which date back to the Middle Ages, while others reflect the strong Renaissance tradition of town planning.
These historic sites, so close together around three adjacent piazzas, make it very easy to see a lot in a short time with a minimal amount of walking. Located in the Lombardy region in the north of Italy, even though Mantua is inland, it's surrounded by water including three lakes and a canal, with a green park along the lakeshore, as you'll see more of later.
This is the ideal city for discovering on foot, where it is so easy to get around while exploring these endlessly fascinating sites. This visit is extra special because you will be enjoying a walking tour with a local expert, Giacomo Cecchin. He lives in Manitoba, wrote a book about the town, and hosts a TV show about the history of the town. The rest of this article is a transcript from the video as narrated by Giacomo Cecchin.
Mantua is one of the most incredible towns in Italy. When you walk in Mantua, it's just like telling all the history of Italy in a nutshell. And then sit down for a spritz, and you can watch the people walking by. This is one of the most incredible things to do in Italy, because Italians are people who live their life in a wonderful way.
We're going to take a walking tour of Mantua starting in front of the Duomo, and we'll go all around through the highlights of the historic center. This is a small town, but in Italy you can do a walking tour during the centuries. And so here you can walk from the Middle Ages, to the Gothic, to Renaissance times. It's one of the most incredible towns in Italy.
The town is not as well-known as Florence and Venice and Rome, but it ranks right up in the top five of northern Italy. And we're going to find out why. Even when the tourists came to Mantua in the 18th century, Mantua was not so important as Florence and Venice or other towns. But we should say that nowadays it's the best way to experience the Renaissance times in Italy.
We start in Piazza Sordello, the center of political and religious power inside the town. For visitors, this square is central to the history of Mantua. We'll show you more of this piazza and take a look inside the Duke's Palace later in the story. But first, we have more to show you about the streets and other features of this beautiful city. It is interesting to see that there is the river, the Mincio River, that comes out from the Garda lake and goes to the Po river. But for the Mantuan people, this is not a river, but three lakes.
These lakes around Mantua are the Upper Lake, Middle Lake and Lower Lake. These three artificial lakes were created during the 12th century by diverting the river and damming it up to create a defense system for the city, like a large moat all around it. Now it's a popular park and boating area.
We are going to see the town of the Middle Ages with the Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo della Ragione, the Clock Tower. And we are going to see the place where the Mantua people go to the market and where there is real living inside the city of Mantua.
The gate of Saint Peter is the main gate of the ancient town, considered the main gate because the walls of the town were there. The tower of the Palazzo Podestà was the tower of the commune. And it was again a prison with a clock. In the Piazza Broletto we are going to see one of our most important poets born in Mantua, that is to say, Virgil, the Roman poet, and there is a famous statue here in Piazza Broletto. And Virgil was very famous during the Roman times, but also during the Middle Ages. Tourists came to Mantua for Virgil.
And they extended the building out because they built the porticos, so they can build a floor larger than the previous one. And then we should say that this place is private and public because the private have to keep clean of the porticos, but it is a place where everyone can walk.
The piazza is an Italian invention because you can do market, and where you can meet people. You can have a relationship with people. The square in Mantua are very close because the town is very small. And so they created the places where people can meet and they have different functions.
You have Piazza Sordello, the square of the power of the Gonzaga and of the religious power of a bishop. You have Piazza Broletto and Piazza Erbe, the market square and then you have a Piazza Virgiliana, the garden square, all squares, different functions. The places where to meet and to do relationship. And they're so close together, because during the Middle Ages they created places where people could walk and can meet and can have market. And these places have to be in the center of the town. It's very easy to cross from one square to the other. This is a unique characteristic of Mantua, not so big as Verona, not so big as Brescia, very small, but with all the elements of a real Italian town, all concentrated within 500 meters. And it is for this reason that to walk inside the town is to walk inside the story, the history.
The streets are narrow and you can walk at your ease, at your rhythm. It is also incredible that a town so small can tell you a lot of stories and also that walking inside the street, we have all the history of Italy where you have from Gothic, to Renaissance, to modern times.
Unusual scenes occasionally pop up when you have enough time, when you're visiting a place to relax and just enjoy the passing parade. It's I think, a very great experience just walking inside the streets of cobblestones of the town. One of the most popular activities in Italy is taking a walk in the late afternoon, the passeggiata, enjoyed by locals with their families and by visitors, a chance to see and be seen.
There are lots of places to eat in the porticos of Mantua, but one of the most popular is Scaravelli, a bakery known for its traditional baked goods, pizza, focaccia, sandwiches, cakes and pastries. It can get very busy at the peak evening hour, but when you see a line forming at an eatery, that's a good sign that there is some excellent food inside at a reasonable price. It's a bakery that does a lot of Mantuan cakes, and the main, the most important is Sbrisoilona. It is easier to eat this Sbrisoilona because it comes to pieces.
Piazza Erbe is the green square where there is a market of fruits and vegetables. The real center of the town is this this square Piazza Erbe, not the Piazza Sordello. It is a postcard view of Mantua with the Palazzo della Ragione, the clock tower and the Rotunda.
This Piazza Erbe is the main gathering place of the town because you have a lot of porticos, and the people usually walk all around because they do aperitivo, they do a lot of conversation. Italians love to speak, to tell a story to each other. In Italian it is called the "vasca". It is like a swimming pool when you go up all around and you do these things. And the porticos are typical of this town, and also the town of other parts of the northern part of Italy, because you can walk under the portico with bad weather. And so it's very useful, also for all the shops on the street.
You can go inside both the Rotunda and the Clocktower and it's worth climbing up the steps because you will get a wonderful view over the central historic part of the city. Torre Dell'Orologio is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Mantua, 53 meters high, made of brick and marble. It was built in the late 15th century, and the clock was added in the 16th century and is still working today.
The Rotunda is the most ancient church here in Mantua, built by Matilda di Canossa during the Middle Ages, in the form of the Holy Sepulcher. But it's very interesting to say that the house of a ghettos of the Jews completely covered the Rotunda, and disappeared entirely for three centuries. But now we see again the Rotunda, restored at the beginning of the 20th century. It is the most the beloved church here in Mantua, by Mantuan people. A lot of people want to marry inside the Rotunda.
Behind the Rotunda there is a wonderful viewpoint, because you have 1000 years in a very small place You have Rotonda di San Lorenzo, the clock tower, Palazzo della Ragione, the dome of Sant'Andrea, and then the facade of Sant'Andrea, and Bell Tower. So you have 1000 years just in one place.
Next to it is the four-star Grand Hotel San Lorenzo in the heart of town. It is one of the most important hotels in Mantua. A lot of people go there to feast a birthday, to feast their marriage anniversary and all the other important things.
The house of a merchant, Boniforte da Concorezzo, was built during the 15th century and it was a house, it was a shop, and the merchant decided to build the house just in the center of the town near the market of Piazza Erbe, near the Basilica of Sant'Andrea and the porticos, because these porticos are full of shops. This is the commercial center of the town. And there is something very interesting because under the portico, he sculpted all the goods he sold inside the shop. So it's just like an advertisement, Spoons, knives, gloves, an advertisement from the Middle Ages.
The Church of the Basilica of Sant'Andrea was built by a very famous architect in Italy, Leon Battista Alberti. It ihas more than 500 years of history. So Alberti planned the basilica, but he didn't want the basilica to be covered by frescoes or by paintings because this had to be a place of worship. It's a more eternal, perfect basilica, a Renaissance style, very simple, and clean.
This was completely covered by frescoes by the Austrians during 18th century. And so the basilica lost its simplicity. The Basilica of Sant'Andrea is the biggest church in Mantua. And it is the second cathedral in Mantua, because Mantua, a very small town, has two cathedrals, the Duomo on Piazza Sordello, and the Basilica of Sant'Andrea.
The church was built because inside there is the relic of the Holy Blood of Christ that was taken to Mantua by Longino, the Roman soldier who struck Jesus in the chest. He collected the earth under the cross, mixed up with the blood of Christ and came to Mantua to preach the gospel. The relic was used to create diplomatic relationships, and so small pieces of the relic were gifted to very important persons all over Europe. The relic was very important for the town because many people, many pilgrims, came to Mantua to worship the holy relic of the Blood of Christ. Those pilgrims were the first tourists to come to Mantua. And if you think of the portico just on the side of the cathedral, the basilica, they were the place where they could buy things, or we could sleep under the porticos, because they did not have enough money to lodge in a hotel.
If you look at the facade, you have the Renaissance facade in a nice front and a gothic bell tower. Because when Leon Battista Alberti built the basilica, the Gonzaga didn't want to spend so much money to build the Gothic bell tower again, because it had only 50 years of life at that period. The triangle tympanum goes inside the window of the bell tower.
Italy has something difficult to find in other parts of the world. Italy has something special. It's a great place also to live. To live in Italy, you have art and history and are completely surrounded by beauty. So you have a style and the architecture. It's incredible how Italians grew up with beauty all around. And then it's difficult to go outside Italy to live because you lack, you lack beauty. If you think of all the things that we have all around, sometimes we forget to remember them. We have to go outside Italy and then you want to go back because you feel homesick.
In Italy, you walk, you ride bicycle, you have the piazza. The towns are very good to walk all around. And so you feel at home and also outside your home because the towns are just like little homes all around. And this is just like the dining room, then you have the kitchen, there are the restaurants. And so, to live outside in Italy is to live inside a very small flat, we can say, with a lot of rooms and a lot of people to see and to meet. And for most of the year, the weather is pleasant, you can sit outside. It would be best if you stayed from March to October, a wonderful period.
There is something like a secret passage in front of the church, because we are going inside a square where you are in the Middle Ages. So it's just like a traveling in time. Most visitors would never notice the side door and portico that leads into a hidden courtyard. This was the main entrance of a Benedictine monastery of the Basilica of Sant'Andrea. Doing time travel, we go inside the Middle Ages.
The square is the Piazza Alberti, because it is named after the architect who built the basilica, Leon Battista Alberti. Adjacent is Palazzo Canossa, built during the 17th century for the family Canossa, a very important family. They built this house where there was the stables for their horses, for the chariots. And so it was related to the palace. The main entrance of the palace has two dogs guarding the main door.
It has all the elements of an Italian square -- the little church, the Church of the Virgin of Earthquake, to protect the town from the earthquake. You have a little bell tower there, and then you have that edicola. That edicola was a place where the Italians bought newspapers and magazines.
Piazza Virgiliana is the first public garden in Mantova. Here there was water, the second port of the town. They dried up the water and covered the place completely and they created this incredible garden because there was not a lot of gardens in Mantua. After all, it was a fortress, and the inside the fortress, you do not have gardens.
Palazzo D'Arco dates back to the 18th century. It is the only museum, that is completely furnished, so you can go inside and live, just like the noble people in Mantua lived during the 18th century.
We are going to walk to the center and towards the rio because the water was important for the town. Here it links the Upper lake to the Lower lake and Porto Catena. Still nowadays you can go from here to Venice by boat. Mantua was an island. It was just a little Venice in the northern part of Italy. Rio in Italian means a little river, and it is the canal that comes from the Upper lake and it goes to the Lower lake to Porto Catena.
The canal goes near the center of the town and divides the city in two different parts, just like a moat to protect the town. So the canal is just under some streets. After the Second World War, they covered up some of the canal. They destroyed the ancient palaces and they built these new apartments. But since you are in Italy, they made apartments with porticos.
Loggia delle Pescherie is a place that was completely transformed during the 20th century. Originally built as a fish market in the 16th century, it now serves as a cultural center and a park. They opened a wonderful view, with the fish market by Giulio Romano.
The arcades are the porticos of the fish market where you can get a nice view looking out on the Rio. And if you look a little further, you see that there's a park that runs alongside the Rio, which you can easily walk to in a few minutes. Then you can enjoy some other views of the canal from a different bridge, looking out in both directions.
Via Roma is nearby and would lead you back into the town center. We are continuing our walking tour with Giacomo along a street now that had been a center of jewelry making. And the street of jewelry is here, called Via di Orefici, with a very famous Mantuan shop for Salumi, prosciutto, salami, the typical typical food of Mantuan people.
This Cámara de Comercio was built during the 20th century, but it is a mix of Middle Age, modern, Liberti, and it is the House of Enterprises here in Mantua. It is the Cámara de Comercio, the commercial house. That is very strange because it seems from the Middle Ages, but it is modern. It is a cocktail of different styles. It is on the ancient street of the ghetto of the Jews, because in the center of the town of Mantua, there was a ghetto, just like in Venice or in other towns .
But then it was destroyed at the beginning of the 20th century because the streets were very, very narrow, the buildings are very old. And so they destroyed, built the Cámara de Comercio, constructed the municipal, and then the Bank of Italy. And it is interesting to say that all these buildings are related to money. And usually the banks were in the ghetto of the Jews.
Mantua is very small, but you have a lot of beautiful views to see when you go inside the town. One of the things people do not do is look up, because when you are looking up, you see a lot of things, but usually, you don't see. So it's just like opening eyes, walking inside of town when you open the eyes and see a lot of things.
Now we are going to cross the last bridge on the Rio that is to the Porto Catena, where the cruise that goes to Venice starts from. Porto Catena means the chain in Italy, a chain that closed up the entrance of the harbor, because they wanted to prevent the ships from going inside during the night without paying the taxes.
From Porto Catena, it's very easy to take a walk along the lakeshore of the Lower Lake. It's a public park with beautiful green lawns and lots of trees. Some people are out fishing. Boats are going by. It's a family-friendly recreation area. From here, it's easy to walk back into the old town for more sights.
The Teatro Bibiena, also known as the Scientific Theater, opened in 1769 with wonderful Baroque architecture, famous for its horseshoe-shaped auditorium and stucco decorations. Mozart performed here on harpsichord when he was just 13, and today, it's still a popular venue for music, theater and dance with excellent acoustics.
So now we're going back to where we started at Piazza Sordello. It's an easy walk, about 300 meters along these lovely streets of the old town lined with the porticos, the ideal place for walking.
The magnificent palaces all around the piazza were homes to the ruling dynasties that controlled Mantua over the centuries, an excellent place to learn a little bit about their history. The Palazzo Bonacolsi, built for the family who ruled the town before the Gonzaga. In 1328 the Gonzaga got power over the town and ruled for four centuries.
Piazza Sordello is the main square of a town, but it was not a square until the Gonzaga came to town and got the power in 1328. Here was the old town, but the square was created by the Gonzaga, who destroyed completely all the houses from the Middle Ages. The Gonzaga usually used the square for doing great celebrations, feasting, tournaments, and all these things. You have cobblestones all around. They were put there by the Gonzaga because a pope came to Mantua and he said that the town was muddy, so they created this cobblestone square to eliminate the mud. This is not a square created by the market, by the people, crowding in the square. The square is created by the Gonzaga that destroyed a very important part of the town. And so the people do not like this square because they feel that was a square created by the power of the Gonzaga.
We have the Palazzo Ducale, the Ducal Palace. It is one of the most incredible buildings all over Europe, 35,000 square meters with 1000 rooms inside and a lot of things to see.
Andrea Mantegna painted the Camera degli Sposi. It was called during the Renaissance times, the Camera Picture, that is to say the Painted Room, because it is a wonderful way to tell the story of the Gonzaga family. It took Mantegna nine years to complete this fresco, which covers the entire ceiling and upper walls of the room. It's considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Renaissance art, especially famous for the illusionistic Oculus, which appears to be an opening in the ceiling with little cupids looking down, with foreshortened perspective that creates a sense of depth and realism. Many visitors come to Mantua primarily to see this painting. The palace is completely empty, only the frescoes remain because during the centuries a lot of people came to Mantua to sack the town.
The Castle of St. George is one of the ancient parts of the Ducal Palace. It was built by Francesco the First of Gonzaga. He was captain of the people here in Mantua, and he built the castle because he feared the rebellion inside the town. So it was a place to be safe.
The cathedral is the Duomo for the Mantuan people because the Duomo is the most important church in the town. And near the cathedral you have the Palace of the Bishop of Mantua, the Palazzo Vescovile, the Bishop's Palace. It was a recent palace because it dates back to the 19th century.
There are some Austrian influences here in Mantua because Mantua was an Austrian town from 1708 to 1866, when the town became an Italian town. It was built during Austrian period, this palace, and a local family built it. And only after it became the palace of the bishop.
In front there are two Herculese and a lot of statues of gods and goddesses from Mount Olympus, not very suitable for a bishop, but the family before built the palace. And you also have the front of the Palazzo del Seminario, which is in a neoclassical style typical of the Austrian period, just down the street.
There are two cafes on the Sordello square. They open at 6:00 in the morning. If you wake up early before your hotel serves breakfast, you can come down to these two cafes, the only places in the historic center to get coffee at 6 a.m. Later, they get quite busy serving lunch and dinner. Piazza Sordello has a long, rich history dating back to the Roman era. It's been the site of important events throughout the centuries.
From the piazza you also see the Dome of the Basilica of Sant'Andrea and the Tower of the Cage, which is the tallest tower in Mantua. It is very interesting because there is a cage just in the middle of athe tower because they put the criminals there. This was a way to show how you can walk the streets if you are good. If you are a criminal, you will be put inside the cage. It was a prison tower during the Gonzaga times. They had a lot of prisons, also during the Austrian time here in Mantua.
In Italy the skyline of Mantua is very well-known, and Mantua was completely surrounded by the lakes, an island with a lot of very high buildings where you have the power inside the town.
Mantua is a very ancient town, that dates back to Etruscan and Roman times. And then Charles the Great appointed the title of town to Mantua, because it had the Holy Relic of the Blood of Christ. And then you have the Canossa, with Matilda di Canossa, the Bonacolsi, the Gonzaga, the Austrian and then Italy. It is a very long history.
We've been enjoying a walk through the city with our local guide, Giacomo, it's been fantastic. We've had a unique perspective on Mantua, and learned all about this wonderful town and why you should come and visit Mantua.