Mantua is not very well known, nor on the usual tourist routes in Northern Italy. In fact, I can’t even find it inmost guidebooks. That is a pity. It is a wealthy and undeniably beautiful. It offers several wonderful sights worth a day or two, for those who, like me, like to get off the beaten path.
Last fall, I spent a remarkably full day checking out this historically significant city. There are other cities in the plains west of Venice, such as Cremona, Padua, Vicenza and Verona. They all smack of Shakespeare and Italian romance and music. But there is nothing like actually setting foot in these towns with the mellifluous names, to get a true sense of them.
I went to Mantua, known as “Mantova” to the Italians, to view an exhibit of Italian landscape painting, about which we had heard from Italian acquaintances. Since I am quite crazy about the Italian countryside, and love what is knownas “plein air” (open air) painting, we thought it would be a great side trip on our way north to Milan.
We arrived on the outskirts of Mantua at about mid-morning, and had no trouble finding the Palazzo Te, the origin of whose name is not known. H. V. Morton in his timeless A Traveler in Italy suggests that it could be because of the T-shape of the avenues which lead to it, or possibly because of the many linden trees, called “tigli” in Italian. Built between 1525 and 1535, as the summer palace of the Gonzaga, this edifice is now run by the City of Mantua as a Civic Museum.
Undoubtedly, we were in for a double treat at this sprawling site. In addition to the very large temporary exhibit of landscapes, we got to see the many frescoed rooms of the Palazzo. These frescoes cover all the walls
and ceilings. They make you smile, and in some cases laugh out loud. They are quite beautiful, with rich color, but would be tough to live with on a day-to-day basis. Everyone’s favorite room, and it was definitely mine, seems to be the room containing six life-sized horses: two chestnuts, three grays, and a black, all painted in profile. As Morton says: “A difficult room to live with, and one worthy of Newmarket or the Curragh.
As to the landscape exhibit, it was one of the most extensive I’ve seen. Its countryside, its romance, its weather, its buildings, and its charm have drawn artists from all sorts of countries to Italy for centuries. This exhibit was organized with paintings on loan from some of the world’s best museums. We saw works by Turner and Corot, as well as major Italian artists, and paintings from The Cleveland Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, among others. There were very few people anywhere around, so we had lots of time and space to seethe hundreds of paintings.
However, since we were in Italy, we had to watch the clock. Americans have to change their habits when traveling this country, as I think I told you a couple of months ago. Everything closes from about noon to three or four in the afternoon. All you can do is eat lunch or sleep. (Active types can walk around of course, or drive to another place.)
We did want to see the famous Mantegna frescoes at the Ducal Palace before lunch, if possible. So off we went to the center of the oldest part of Mantua. Lakes and lagoons surround this part of the city. The center square, which is mostly devoid of traffic, by regulation, thank goodness, sent me back to the middle ages, like one of those time and space movies. I would not have been surprised to see a band of Shakespearean actors wander by. I would not have thought they were actors.
The cobblestone square was surrounded by buildings of a soft pink brick, or in some cases of brick and stone. The ducal palace, which was the home of the Gonzaga for nearly four centuries, is a large meandering colonnaded building of some 500 rooms, and fifteen courtyards. We would never have made it out of this maze without arrows that were discreetly placed to show the way. Our destination, located after what seemed like a hike through at least half
of the rooms, up and down endless stairs, was the Cameradegli Sposi, or the Bridle Chamber. Here we finally found the famous Mantegna frescoes, showing scenes from the life of the Gonzagas. I was captivated by flight of cupids,(“putti” in Italian,) over the door, with elegant butterfly wings. They carry an inscription announcing that the artist painted the room in the year 1494. May I remind you that that was two years after Columbus discovered America? See how easy it is to be astounded by Italy? The various frescoes are among my most favorite in the whole country, full richly colored scenes, with rounded lively life-like figures of men and women, dogs and horses, against backgrounds of fairly easily identifiable towns and cities. A feast for the eyes.
Speaking of feasts, when we finally got back to the quiet sunny square, we went in search of lunch. We located a needle in a haystack about fifteen minutes later, when my friend and cultural attaché managed to locate a restaurant that she remembered from years before. Though our route was circular, the lunch was fantastic.
We had managed to find ourselves at the Risorante Aquila Nigra. In case you ever go to Mantua, the Aquila Nigra is down the alley on the opposite side of the square from the Palazzo Ducale. This was one of those warm and inviting restaurants, with golden ochre walls, remnants of frescoes, heavy wooden beams on the ceiling perfect simple flowers in silver mugs, clear thin crystal, crisp white napery. We had a simple green salad, pumpkin ravioli, and two desserts, (shared, of course.)
Although we’d only touched the surface of this city, we had plenty to talk about as we replayed our morning in Mantua, and planned our next few days in Verona.