About 40 kilomtres south of Lake Garda in the flattest part of Lombardy, Mantova is a compact city hemmed in by artificial lakes on three sides; a fortification that has separated the town from the outside world for nearly a thousand years. Its water-bound location on the plains means it gets hot and humid in summer, and famously foggy in winter.
Some people call Mantova a “mini Florence,” dripping in Renaissance art and with a dark history full of intrigue. Where Florence had the Medici family, Mantova had the Gonzagas, a dynasty that ruled the city for nearly four centuries; ruthlessly murdering their enemies, making powerful connections with Rome and the Catholic church, and commissioning the finest Renaissance craftsmen they could find to build elaborate palaces and stuff them with treasures.
The elaborate Palazzo Te was built for no other reason than to impress the family’s guests, though some say it was also a hideaway for 16th-century Duke Federico and his mistress.
Palazzo Te. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy
Created by Renaissance architect and painter Giulio Romano, the interior is almost completely covered with vivid frescoes which apparently took a small army of plasterers, carvers and painters a decade to complete.
One room’s frescoes immortalise the family’s prized horses, while grotesque, exaggerated figures of giants and monsters leer across the walls of the Sala dei Giganti.
Part of the fresco in Palazzo Te's Sala dei Giganti. Photo: Flickr/Allie_Caulfield
In another room, frescoes depict the gloomy-looking Gonzaga family on one of their trips to Rome – a display of their wealth and influence, just in case their visitors were in any doubt.
But for the Gonzagas, this wasn’t much more than a summer house. Their main residence, the Palazzo Ducale, is like a small town, with 500-odd rooms and a dozen courtyards.
Part of the Palazzo Ducale. Photo: Flickr/Rick Ligthelm
In the first courtyard I walked into, already darkening in the late afternoon, I learned that here one of the Gonzaga dukes had his wife beheaded when she became politically inconvenient.
Along with the fog stalking around the palace, that tale set the tone for my visit to what seemed like a very spooky building.
The facade of Palazzo Ducale at night. Photo: Flickr/mstefano80
With names like the Zodiac Room and the Hall of Mirrors, each imposing room was older and emptier than the last, some with lonely examples of the family’s weapons, shoes and other belongings on display.
The most famous room, full of intricate frescoes and accessed by a passageway that spirals upwards, is the Camera degli Sposi.
The palace once contained some 3,000 works of art and there are still plenty of impressive pieces, from dark 15th-century portraits to unsettling bronze sculptures depicting demons and mythological figures.
A highlight was an exhibition showing how incredibly elaborate reproductions of paintings were made using polished pieces of precious stone. You can see the exhibition in the palazzo's Sala di Manto until March 2019.
Photo: Complesso Museale Palazzo Ducale
The Gonzagas brought some of the best artists, musicians, and writers around at the time to Mantova. But maybe there’s something in the water, as the city attracted and inspired artists and musicians before and after their time.
The Roman poet Virgil was born nearby. Antonio Vivaldi wrote many of his most famous operas while employed here in the 18th century. A 13-year-old Mozart performed at the rococo Teatro Bibiena. The town was used as a setting of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, and it was also the place of Romeo’s exile in Romeo and Juliet.
The Basilica di Sant'Andrea, Mantova. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy
None of these things are as well-known as they should be. If they were, perhaps more people would visit. Mantova is strikingly, happily free from the usual parade of ticket touts, tacky souvenir shops and selfie stick-wielding hordes. In this regard, Mantova is nothing like Florence at all.
Though I seemed to be one of just a handful of foreign visitors, the streets were packed on that December weekend. The cold hadn’t put anyone off an evening passeggiata, a visit to the street markets, or an outdoor aperitivo.
Christmas market stall on the streets of Mantova. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy
The compact city centre, a series of interlinked cobbled piazzas lined with arcades, is best explored on foot.
Not only because much of the city centre is off-limits to vehicles but because you’re sure to stumble across something interesting; a tiny theatre, a photography exhibition, a craft market, or a cosy cafe.
It might be a tiny city, but it can quickly become a sensory overload.
Hot chocolate at Cafe Borsa. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy
The fog had really descended by the time we got back to our hotel, Rezidenza Ottoetti, for dinner. We sat in front of the fire trying to decipher the very local menu. Mantovan cuisine is its own thing, but owner Davide talked us through the menu, and convinced us that we needed a bottle of Lambrusco.
“It’s not the Lambrusco you’ve had before,” he insisted. And luckily he was right. Here it’s a light, sparkling red that's drunk with everything and anything, and a splash was even added to our tortellini in brodo.
Then there was a rich beef stew and a plate of cotechino, a type of local sausage with Protected Geographical Indication status. It’s made with rind, bacon and various seasonings and cooked slowly for hours. Served here with mashed potato, romanesco broccoli and sauerkraut, this dish could have come from much further north.
Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy
The next morning I went for a walk along the lakeside paths. The fog had vanished, and in places the mirror-like waters stretched out to the horizon.
Before the drive home there was just time to hunt down a few bottles of locally-made Lambrusco at the market, and half a kilogram of handmade tortellini, sold at every bakery in town.
I have definitely been seduced by Mantova's mysterious charms, and there’s no doubt I’ll be back.
Photo: Clare Speak/The Local Italy