Rich in charm, art and history, Mantua and Sabbioneta were inserted onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008. The two cities are associated for the significant bequest left to them by the noble Gonzaga Family, that envisioned and realized their magnificent Renaissance downtowns. Indeed, Mantua is a constantly-evolving model of the Renaissance city, renewed on a continuous basis between the 15th and 16th Centuries (having undergone interventions urbanistic, architectonic and hydraulic). Sabbioneta, rather, built from the ground up during the epoch, is one of the points of reference for the ideal city, as proposed by humanism.
Aristocratic, cultured, and surrounded by an extraordinary natural environment, Mantua was transformed by the Gonzagas (1328-1707) into a city-court of great splendor. In every pocket and corner of its historic center, the city offers testament to its prestigious history and rich traditions: porticoes, piazzas and courtyards, and enchanting places that have continued to transmit through time the pomp and circumstance of the 16th-Century court.
The Renaissance palazzi, interspersed with Medieval constructions and imposing neoclassical edifices, are the monuments that best bear witness to the creative dynamism of the Gonzaga rule.
Palazzo Ducale, the family’s main residence, is a certified “city-palazzo,” with over 500 rooms and halls that are connected by corridors, internal courtyards and gardens. The oldest part is constituted by the Palazzo del Capitano and by the Magna Domus; both face Piazza Sordello, in the city center near Piazza delle Erbe.
Then, inside the 13th-Century Castello di San Giorgio is enclosed the most famous room in the entire Palazzo Ducale: the Camera degli Sposi (or Bridal Chamber), frescoed by Andrea Mantegna between 1465 and 1474. It is considered one of the absolute masterpieces from 15th-Century Italian painting.
This is just the beginning, as the city’s architectonic gems seem to pop up over the landscape in continuous succession, beginning with the Duomo (11th Century), creature of various architectural styles: Romanesque bell tower, a Late Gothic right side, neoclassical facade and interior decorations from the Renaissance.
Just as majestic are Palazzo Vescovile, Palazzo degli Uberti, Palazzo Castiglioni, Palazzo della Ragione and the adjacent Clock Tower, Casa del Mantegna, and the Temple of St. Sebastian, accredited to Leon Battista Alberti.
In the city’s eastern end we find Palazzo Te, grandiose villa plunged in green, commissioned by Federico Gonzaga II in 1525. Gonzaga enlisted Giulio Romano to head the project, including the elaborate interiors.
The Palazzo’s residential rooms (wanted by Federico, primarily for rest and relaxation) take their names from the frescoes that decorate them: the most famous of these is the Sala di Psiche, a masterwork of European Mannerism. Also extremely striking are the Sala dei Cavalli (depicting horses) and the Sala dei Giganti (Chamber of the Giants), depicting the Zeus’s rage and the fall of the Titans when they dared to climb Mount Olympus.
A tiny urban jewel of inestimable value, this is Sabbioneta, conceived along with the humanistic dream of Vespasiano Gonzaga (1531-1591), enlightened prince and follower of Vitruvius. This ideal city was edified from nothing in the second half of the 1500s, based on the model of the Classical city of Antiquity. Vespasiano really hoped to give life to a city of art and culture, a sort of Athens on a smaller scale – yet upon his death, Sabbioneta saw a rapid decline, and the population dwindled. Still, the monuments remained unchanged in time. Today Sabbioneta preserves its urban structure – embraced by a defensive wall and refined Renaissance structures – intact. It is composed of three major points of interest: the Porta di Accesso Imperiale and Porta della Vittoria; the Galleria degli Antichi in Piazza d’Armi; the Teatro Olimpico (Olympic Theatre), projected by Vincenzo Scamozzi and frescoed by Veronese; the Church of Santa Maria Assunta; the Palazzo Ducale and Palazzo Giardino.
Mantua and its environs boast long (and well-attended) bike paths, so that cyclers can explore the entire urban and extra-urban environments in almost complete freedom. And Mantua’s Bike Sharing system makes renting bikes easy, just about everywhere.