Mantua is an easy destination to visit from Verona and is just a 45-minute train ride from Porta Nuova train station.
The city is best known as the place Romeo was banished to in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Despite this, Mantua – known as Mantova in Italian – does not pay tribute to the story of Romeo and Juliet, preferring to honour its artist son, Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). You can visit Mantegna’s home, Casa Mantegna. The design by the artist was revolutionary, comprising an external cube with a circular atrium which was open to the sky.
The Romans in Mantua
In 3BC, Mantua was also ruled by the Romans, only to fall into the hands of the Ostrogoths after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. The Eastern Roman Empire won it back in 6AD, but it eventually fell into the hands of the wealthy Lombards and today is part of Lombardy, one of the two wealthiest provinces of Italy – the other being Veneto.
Virgil and Mantua
Mantua is also very near the place where the Roman poet Virgil was born (Publius Vergilius Maro) during the rule of the Emperor Augustus at Virgilio. Anyone who has pored over his epic poem The Aeneid will perhaps want to pay homage at the statue of the poet (Monumento a Virgilio) in Bosco Virgiliano, the city park, which offers shady relief from the relentless sun in summertime.
You can download The Aeneid online (translated by John Dryden) if you are nostalgic for your days of Latin unseens (translations) for homework.
Gonzagas in Mantua
But Mantua these days is a small industrial town – on arrival at the station, you will pass by the manmade lakes which were built out of swamp lands. The lakes originate from the waters of Lake Garda and the Po Valley and the swamp on which the city was built was considered to be a good defensive position. The name Mantova may derive from Mantus, god of the underworld in the Po Valley.
The Gonzaga family ruled Mantua from 1328 to 1708 and their legacy is seen everywhere in the ancient part of the city.
The old part of Mantua is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Romeo in Mantua
For Romeo, Mantova was not a great place to be exiled to, compared to mighty Verona, although today there are a few bars he might have hung out at.
The story of Romeo and Juliet is true, based on the Capuletti and Montecchi families who were battling for control of Verona in the thirteenth century. It is estimated the real Romeo and Giulietta died around 1291-1299. They were buried together, but today Giulietta’s tomb lies in the Franciscan priory outside the city walls of Verona. At that time they would have spoken Latin and maybe even whispered amor amnia vincit to each other – Love Conquers All.
Arriving in Mantua
On leaving the station, cross the road, turn left and keep walking to La Chiesa di San Francisco. Turn right and you will soon arrive in the centre of modern Mantua.
Head for Via Roma (all roads lead to Rome) and you will be heading towards the historic centre of the city, which was founded by the Gonzaga family in 1206.
Basilica of San Andrea, Mantua
En route you will find the Basilica of San Andrea, which is a working church, so will close at lunchtime. It is famous for a relic of the Holy Blood – a vial of Christ’s blood from the Crucifixion is held in the crypt. Designed by Leon Battista Alberti, the basilica was commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga – construction began in 1472 on the site of a Benedictine monastery.
There are some lovely shops to browse in Mantua and also plenty of cafes and restaurants to relax in – the lovely colonnaded Piazza Erbe boasts a shady place to eat lunch and the square offers the Palazzo della Ragione and Mantua’s oldest church Rotonda di San Lorenzo to visit.
Piazza Erbe leads onto the old city gate and Piazza Sordello, a vast and architecturally breathtaking square, where there is sometimes a market.
Palazzo Ducale di Mantova
The Gonzagas bequeathed to Mantua the largest ducal palace in Italy – larger than the Doge’s Palace in Venice – as well as what is now an extensive museum, both set between the spectacular piazza and a peaceful garden.
Entrance to the palace and museum is just three euros without a tour guide – but the palace closes for lunch so you have to enter the museum by another entrance during lunchtime. I lingered too long and found myself completely alone inside the palace – however, if I am not politely asked to leave a museum or am not locked in, I don’t consider I am getting value for money.
The works in the museum are perhaps a little ecclesiastical for some tastes – and if you have small children or family members of a nervous disposition, when I visited there were explicit photos of well-endowed, naked men stuck inside fireplaces and in odd corners, apparently for some contemporary artistic purpose. Classical art considered small male members to be “pretty” and the classical statuary conforms to this ideal; but times have changed considerably, so don’t be surprised if something unexpected is generously dangled before your eyes.
Naked men aside, there is a fully clothed Rubens to marvel over, The Circle of Friends, which contains a self-portrait of the artist. There are so many paintings and artefacts to explore that I always photograph the ones I find interesting and the accompanying info, to refer to later. Remember not to use flash, though, as this causes pigments in paint to fade. I photographed almost everything in the palace and museum – and poked my camera through most of the windows, too.
If you are a fan of flying buttresses and swallowtail battlements, you have come to the right place. There are moats full of fish – and even an antique cart lying abandoned in a dried out moat that looked like a prop from the Pietro Mascagni opera Cavalleria Rusticana.
You can walk back to Piazza Sordello or to the museum through the peaceful palace garden.
Casa Rigoletto – Mantua Tourist Office
Opposite the palace, you may see a sign for Rigoletto’s house. Rigoletto is, of course, the hunchback court jester to the Duke of Mantua, who is the title character in Verdi’s opera.
The 11th century house is actually a tourist information centre with apartments above – but there is a bronze statue of Rigoletto in the courtyard, providing a selfie opportunity.
I arrived in Mantua at around 10am and left at around 3pm, but spent most of my time happily locked inside the palace and museum during lunchtime closing until detected when they opened up again. I still managed to fit in lunch, so add an extra hour for shopping and a gelato pitstop if you are planning to spend most of your time in the palace and museum.
The fare to Mantua from Verona is 19 euros return – and there are two trains an hour, so be gone and get thee to Mantua!
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