Thursday, August 03, 2006

Exploring Mantova (Mantua) 7.22.06

The city of Mantova is in the Lombardia region of Italy, around a half-hour's drive from Verona. It is surrounded on three sides by lakes, from which you can take a boat all the way to Venice if you like. The fictional Romeo was sent to Mantova after killing Tybalt but that's just fantasy.

Mantova (that we English-speakers call Mantua for some reason) was founded around 2000 BC along the banks of the River Mincio. Around 70 BC, the poet Virgil was born near here. Etruscans and Romans settled the area. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it's the usual cast of characters: the Goths, Byzantines, Longobards and the Franks. After many struggles and conquests with a slew of noble rulers who fought over it, the Gonzaga family seized power around the 14th century and, for the next couple of hundred years, they built many of the beautiful buildings we admired so much on this, our first visit to the city. The Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna worked as court painter under Francesco II of Gonzaga and produced some of his most famous works here. We were lucky to see the frescoes in the Palazzo Ducale. The details and artistic quality were impressive but it really surprised us that the windows in this room (as in the entire palace) were open with sunlight streaming in, directly hitting one area of the frescoes that have adorned these walls since the Renaissance! I suppose if they have stood the test of time until now that they must be indestructible but I felt concerned nevertheless. Air conditioning is not commonplace here as it is in the states but it still surprises us to find some of the precious works of art we have seen, in rooms not hermetically sealed (or at least protected from the elements) as you might expect.

Mantova featured very prominently in the Italian Renaissance and we overheard a tour guide in the Palazzo Ducale tell her rapt listeners that had it not been for the art of Mantua, stolen by Napoleon, the Louvre would not have half its treasures.

Eventually, and making a long story very short, in the 1700s the Habsburgs took control and built many fine palaces. During the Napoleonic Wars, lovely Mantova was sieged and captured from the Austrians by Napoleon, who eventually lost out to those determined Austrians, just before Mantua became part of the unified Italy in the 1860s.

The view of the city as you approach is nothing short of dramatic, especially after the drive on the superhighway, past modern factories, farms and business. It really takes your breath away, with its red brick walls, towers and palaces, the dome of the cathedral, and various church steeples rising up before you. We couldn't wait to explore its beautiful streets and piazzas.

We picked up a nice little map of the city after arriving. The historic center of Mantova is pedestrian-only so we left our car and walked the few short blocks to the heart of the city.

We enjoyed the lovely 11th century Rotonda di San Lorenzo, a round, red brick church that reminded us of San Michele Arcangelo in Perugia but with a smaller and much simpler appearance. The 15th century clock tower in Piazza Erbe is dazzling with its still-working astrological clock in this lovely square that is also the home of a lively street market.

We visited the Basilica di San Andrea, built in the 15th century, to learn that they are the proud caretakers of two reliquaries containing earth soaked in the blood of Christ. We are often so amazed at the relics that can be found in these historic churches and the faith (or gullibility?) required to believe. Forgive our skepticism, but according to legend, it was picked up on the Golgotha Hill after the crucifixion and brought to Mantova by the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side with his spear. It was around the year 800 AD that they discovered it was buried here on this spot and built a church over it, which eventually became the masterpiece of Renaissance architecture it is today, prompting many pilgrimages.

We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon exploring the Ducal Palace and after a while all that opulence kind of turned me off. With the exception of the Mantegna frescoes and the little terrace garden - complete with trees, that was on about the third level of the palace, some interesting frescoes by Giulio Romano depicting scenes from the Trojan War, I found so much of it excessive and way, way over the top. They painted those hallways and rooms with flowers, nymphs and fluff to within an inch of its life!

Parked outside the Duomo, near the Palace, there was a beautiful shiny black antique Fiat convertible decorated for a wedding, with flowers and ribbons, and Bob couldn't resist taking a few photos.

We visited the Museo dei Vigili del Fuoco (their "Hall of Flame" as the Museum of Firefighting is called in Phoenix, Arizona) and saw some really cool old fire trucks and equipment like the bicycles all decked out with hoses and hatchets and other means of fighting fires, short of carrying a bucket for the water!

We had a nice lunch in a small restaurant called Fragoletta, an Antica Osteria on the edge of town, at Piazza Arche, not far from where the car was parked and a gelato in Piazza Sordello. We headed home around 6, completely wiped out, as the day was hot and we had walked too much.

We really enjoyed this city though and would like to return for more exploring. There is to be an exhibit of Mantegna's paintings in September we want to see so we will try to come back for that.

Today we are taking it easy. I'd like to go to a restaurant for dinner that has good food and is air-conditioned and not necessarily in that order! It's hot. High 90s. We have the shutters drawn like we did in Phoenix to keep out the heat and we have the fans going to move the air around which helps. It's not Phoenix hot though so we can definitely bear it as long as we don't try to do any sightseeing in the heat of the day.

Now we are hearing some loud claps of thunder so perhaps there will be rain tonight. That would be nice. It has not rained since we have been here in Verona so we are doing a little rain dance, hoping and watching the sky.

A domani,
Rosemary and Bob

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