Mantova (Mantua in English) may not be the most famous Italian city abroad today, yet it was during the Renaissance thanks to the powerful Gonzaga family, who held court there and influenced the political, economic and artistic history of Europe at large. The long reign of the Gonzagas left a mark that is still very tangible today, and which makes this town a real treasure.
Key to understanding the place itself is its topography: the ancient part of the city was conceived as an impenetrable fortress, protected on all sides by natural and artificial lakes that made it to all effects and purposes an island. While one of those lakes bogged into a swamp and had to be drained, to this day Mantova benefits of a unique ecosystem and it is often referred to as “the city born out of the waters”.

In practical terms this means that the place is often too humid, very cold during Winter and frequently foggy except in Summer. The climate however also influences the fauna – many species of herons live on the low waters all around town – and the flora. Most unique in the latter aspect is the presence of lotus flowers islands growing in the water: they were imported in the 1600s by local monks hoping to farm them to make flour in the Eastern fashion, but people never went for that kind of food. What remains is an infestation of those beautiful plants, making the place a fascinating oddity for botanists and laypeople alike.
Also remaining from the Reinassance is an almost perfectly preserved inner city. Although many buildings were severely damaged by a violent earthquake in 2012, walking through Mantova really feels like going back into time – even more than in other, more famous, Italian cities like Firenze. The list of churches, towers, palaces, statues, fortresses and other buildings would be hundreds of entries long, but a few highlights are worth mentioning. Piazza Sordello is a very large square around which many important buildings have been erected, including a cathedral, several patrician palaces and the Dukes’ palace.

Said Ducal Palace is a marvel in itself, being the second largest royal court in Europe – the first being the Vatican in Rome. Truth is, this is also due to the “palace” being in fact a number of conjoined buildings, since each new duke used to expand the complex by adding his own palace. The number of art treasures and masterpieces within the palace would keep a visitor busy for days, including works by Andrea Mantegna, the resident artist whose style defined the very looks of the town.
Similarly impressive is Palazzo Te, built in the early 1500s as a “folly” for the marquis Federico II. He used it to house his mistresses and to relax among incredibly intricate rooms heavy with symbolisms and occult meanings. The palace was once built in a small forest and game reserve which was later razed, but inside it has lost none of its mystery and fascination.
Finally, Mantova is famous – as every Italian city – for its local cuisine. Its specialities are pumpkin-based recipes (especially tortelli, a kind of ravioli), torrone, pickled fruit and torta sbrisolona, a crumbly cake – all “extravagant” foods for a very extravagant city.