These are two distinct cities that, since 2008 UNESCO inscribed in the List of World Heritage Sites, because together they represent the two main urbanistic forms of the Renaissance: the newly founded city, based on the concept of an ideal city (Sabbioneta) and the transformation of an existing city (Mantua).
Mantua and Sabbioneta in fact represent the two fundamental stages of the interventions undertaken by the Gonzaga’s within their domains between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, in search of the urban form that better reflected the greatness of their family. This was the reason why they surrounded themselves with the most important artists of the time: in Mantua Leon Battista Alberti and Andrea Mantegna, in Sabbioneta Vincenzo Scamozzi and Bernardino Campi. For this reason, both cities have represented a point of reference for the subsequent experiences of urban planning up to the modern age.
Mantua has always been a city linked to water: at the end of 1100 engineer Alberto Pitentino fragmented the course of the Mincio river into four lakes: Superiore, di Mezzo, Inferiore, Paiolo, the latter dried up starting from the 18th century. Thanks to this complex and powerful hydraulic planning, the small medieval town stopped undergoing the floods of the Mincio river and became what centuries later, in 1729, Montesquieu described as "a second Venice". Walking along the comfortable and green shores of the city's lakes is therefore one of the must-see activities not to be missed in order to know Mantua.
In the city centre, then, you must visit Palazzo Ducale in Piazza Sordello (here you can find information on accessibility); the building represents the synthesis of the artistic and architectural culture that has experienced its maximum glory in the period between the 15th and the 17th century, with artists such as Andrea Mantegna, Giulio Romano, Rubens and Pisanello. Inside the Palazzo Ducale there is the Camera degli Sposi, famous for the cycle of frescoes that covers its walls, a masterpiece of Andrea Mantegna and expression of the conquests of the Renaissance concerning the perspective.
Also in Piazza Sordello, you can find the Mantua Cathedral (here the information on accessibility) dedicated to San Pietro the Apostle. Its double façade is peculiar: originally, in fact, it had a Gothic facade, still visible in the right part of the building. In 1755 the current Baroque facade was built by Nicolò Baschiera and visible on the other three sides of the church. The interior was renovated in 1545 on a project by Giulio Romano, which was inspired by the austere Basilica of San Pietro in Rome. Inside the main altar are the remains of Sant ‘Anselmo, patron of the city and of the diocese, who lived in the eleventh century.
The largest church in Mantua is the Basilica of Sant ‘Andrea (here the information on accessibility) one of the most famous churches of the Renaissance, designed by Leon Battista Alberti on the model of an Etruscan-Italic temple, and built on the remains of an ancient Benedictine monastery. Of the latter, today only the bell tower and a wing of the cloister can be recognized. Inside the Basilica you can admire the funeral chapel of Andrea Mantegna: frescoed around 1507 by the young Correggio, it also houses two works by Mantegna: the Baptism of Christ (1506) and the Holy Family and the Baptist's family (1504-1506).
From the religious to the civil architecture, one of the jewels of Mantua is the eighteenth century Bibiena Theatre (here you can find information on accessibility).
It was Bibiena himself, after having designed and directed the works, to personally paint the interiors of the many stages of the theatre, which only a month after the inauguration had a "baptism" of all respect: on January 16, 1770 in fact, a very young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at the time was only 14 years old was in Mantua during his first Italian tour, held here a memorable concert together with his father Leopold.
Even today, the theatre is used to host musical events, concerts and high-level conferences.
Before leaving Mantua, we suggest you visit Palazzo Te (here you can find information on accessibility). Designed by Giulio Romano for Federico II Gonzaga, son of Isabella D'Este and Francesco II Gonzaga, built and decorated between 1525 and 1535, it was then built on an island called Teieto. This is the origin of its name "Palazzo Te", one of the most extraordinary examples of a Renaissance villa outside the city walls. The original nucleus on which the Palazzo was built are the Gonzaga's stables, built in the first years of the 16th century.
The ground floor section is entirely accessible and is enriched with frescoes by Giulio Romano and now hosts temporary exhibitions. Among the most famous rooms: the Sala dei Cavalli, where the prince's favourite steeds are portrayed in full size; the Camera di Amore e Psiche, which portrays numerous episodes of the story of the god Cupid and his beloved earthly princess Psyche, inspired by the narration of Apuleius; the Camera dei Giganti, within which the visitor is involved in the tragic ruin of the Giants, cruelly punished for having climbed the Olympus and attacked the throne of Jupiter.
In the internal garden of Palazzo Te it is possible to visit the Giardino Segreto and the Appartamento della Grotta, designed as a private place for contemplation and rest, adorned with paintings and reliefs concerning the culture and virtues of the classical world.
In the palace there are several aids to facilitate use by people with visual impairment: various bas-reliefs, a three-dimensional plastic model that can be opened in the Camera dei Giganti and two visual-tactile maps, located at the entrance showing the museum's plan and the historical and geographical location of Palazzo Te in the city.
Mantua seen from the water:
For those wishing to admire the beauty of the city from a different perspective, in the city centre there are several easily accessible piers from which boats leave for navigating the Lago di Mezzo and Inferiore, separated from Lago Superiore by a hydraulic lock system to overcome an artificial height difference of about 3 m, designed by Pitentino. The navigation of the lakes of Mantua allows you to discover beautiful natural landscapes near the city, where it is remarkable the presence of various species of birds and herons in particular. The offer includes short journeys, leaving behind the city of the Gonzaga’s and descending through the lakes to the Vallazza Nature Reserve, and longer river cruises, which continue along the Mincio river to the Conche di Governolo, where the boats reach the Po river. From here it is possible to reach the Adriatic sea.
For information, please visit: www.turismo.mantova.it/index.php/approfondimenti/scheda/id/419
Sabbioneta was built as a new city in the second half of the sixteenth century, in place of a small medieval village. Vespasiano Gonzaga wanted mainly to build a fortress and it certainly succeeded, but in a very short time it was transformed, not only into a state-of-the-art defensive structure, but also into a refined cultural and architectural centre. Its walls with a star-shaped plan, the grid pattern of the streets and the role of public spaces and monuments made it one of the best examples of an ideal city in Europe.
Here is one of the jewels of the history of the European theatre: the Teatro all'Antica (here the information on accessibility) built as a court theatre in 1587 by Vincenzo Scamozzi at the behest of Vespasiano Gonzaga. It is the first stable theatre of the modern era made in Italy as one of the first structures built to be exclusively a theatre and not as an adaptation of rooms or interiors of pre-existing buildings. The interior has wooden steps and a semi-circular loggia surmounted by statues of deities. In the centre, where Vespasiano used to sit, the Roman emperor Titus Flavius Vespasiano seems to offer him the laurel crown to consecrate him as the new emperor of the "new Rome", the name attributed to Sabbioneta in the sixteenth century.
After the death of Vespasiano, the theatre underwent various uses that inevitably distorted the original structure: from the end of the eighteenth century it was first transformed into a barrack and then into a warehouse and in the fascist period was even transformed into a cinema. Only in the 1950s the wooden staircase and the raised stage were redone and the floor was renovated. In the 1980s the paintings and stuccos were restored while in 1996 the current fixed scene was mounted to imitate the original one. Currently the theatre is used for concerts of ancient music and for conferences.
At 200 meters from the theatre, in Piazza Castello, you can find Palazzo Giardino, built as a private residence of the prince, where the Galleria degli Antichi is, a 96 meter long structure (which correspond to the long portico on the square) illuminated by large windows, with a decorated wooden ceiling and frescoed walls. Here you can also find the Tourist Office where you can get free tickets for visiting the Teatro all'Antica.
The oldest building in the city is the Palazzo Ducale, the first step of the architectural program of Vespasiano Gonzaga of his ideal city. It was the residence of the ruling family and the fulcrum of the political, administrative and courtly organization of the duchy. The ground floor is preceded by a beautiful portico covered with marble. Inside you can admire the decorations on the walls by Bernardino Campi and the golden wooden ceilings.
Not far from Palazzo Ducale is the Church of the Incoronata (here the information on accessibility) with its original octagonal plan inspired by Lombard models of the fifteenth century by Bramante. The church was built as a private temple between 1586 and 1588 in the place where previously stood the church of S. Nicolò, demolished at the behest of Vespasiano.
Inside there is the mausoleum of Vespasiano, made in 1592 in polychrome marble by Giovan Battista della Porta. In his will, Vespasiano had explicitly asked to be buried here.
For those wishing to use public transport, Mantua can be reached by train.
Information on the accessibility of the railway station can be found at this link
The railway station provides assistance service for passengers with reduced mobility; for information on how to book the service click here
Sabbioneta is connected to Mantua by the buses run by the APAM company. For information on lines, timetables,and on the accessibility of the service for people with reduced mobility, please visit: https://www.apam.it/it/disabili