Mantua, a hub of Renaissance art, is just a short, two-hour hop from Milan, and a definite must for anyone visiting Lombardy. The city, along with the neighbouring comune of Sabbioneta, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
Mantua is best explored on foot or by bike. Make first for the historic centre and the Castello di San Giorgio, with Mantegna’s famous frescoed Camera degli Sposi in the northeast tower. The nearby Piazza Sordello contains the Ducal Palace, the official Gonzaga residence, with a wealth of frescoes by Giulio Romano and Pisanello and a Reubens altarpiece, the Palazzo Castiglioni, now a fashionable B&B, and the Bishops’ Palace. Don’t miss a visit to the Teatro Bibiena, an atmospheric C18th century temple to music and Palazzo Te, one of Giulio Romano’s greatest masterpieces, commissioned by Federico II di Gonzaga in 1524 as a venue for receptions, celebrations and entertainment. This is now home to the City Museum and the International Centre of Art and Culture.
There can be nowhere better to stop and recharge one’s batteries with a generous aperitif than Zanzara, a kiosk immersed in lush greenery, ideally situated for a truly amazing view of the sunset over Mantua’s Lake Maggiore. The city has a multitude of restaurants producing delicious regional dishes drawn on the famous Gonzaga chef Bartolomeo Stefani’s recipe book ‘L’arte di Ben Cucinar’.
Just half an hour away from Mantua, is Sabbioneta, defined “the ideal city” by the canons of Renaissance architecture. The town centre is surrounded by an imposing curtain wall, encompassing the Ducal Palace complex, which contains the Galleria degli Antenati, the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta, with its elegant black and white marble façade and the Museum of Sacred Art, where many of the sumptuous Gonzaga treasures are conserved. Another must is the Teatro all’Antica or Teatro Olimpico, the very first permanent theatre to be built in the modern era and one that was not built over a pre-existing structure. Last, but no means least, is the historic Jewish quarter; the 1824 Synagogue is still active.