I like Mantua quite a lot. I want you to go there, since then you will be indebted to me forever for my fine advice. Since Mantua, or Mantova, a lovely city in Lombardia, is not popular with American tourists, I could try to lure you in. I could say things that seem to ring bells for you, for example, “Mantua is the best small city in which to view art in Italy!” or simply and concisely “Best city in Italy! Mantova!”
But that’s been done thousands of times on the web with millions of cities—so I shall take the easy way out.
I’m talking Sex, of course.
Really, the period we’re in, web-wise, is like the transition from Late Renaissance art to Mannerism. See, the Renaissance exploded on the scene. It was a really popular movement like Florence is a city popular with tourists. But… dopo un po’ everything had been done already. Artists were a dime a dozen. So the paradigm changes. Mannerism bursts on the scene. Muscular, well-endowed men and women of exaggerated beauty and curvaceousness are suddenly seen flitting about lasciviously in ravishing two-dimensional hyper-reality over the walls of the palaces of the few who are monetarily unchallenged in the 16th century.
Sound good? Go to Mantova. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage city. See the art. Spread the new joy.
Go specifically to the pleasure palace of Federico II Gonzaga called the Palazzo Te. He built his magnificent palace up from the family stables, away from the prying eyes of Mantova proper. It was a place where he could take his lover for a bit of dalliance. His mother didn’t like the affair or the women he was having it with, but the idea was brilliant. If you’re gonna horse around, what better place than the stables?
Federico got Giulio Romano and his boys to work on his pleasure palace. Romano is a genius. You’ll get that when you poke around a bit. Everywhere there is pleasure for the eye. Everywhere there are surprises; surprises in the architecture and the Mannerist art.
Take the picture above. It’s painted on a ceiling. You get a perspective you don’t get in much of the boring wall-art we see today. Yes, you’re looking up—right up the tunic of the chariot driver. Whoops! He’s not wearing underwear! Surprise!
And thus you are prepared for things to come.
In the picture at the top of the article, you see the naked yumminess of the Olympian banquet in a room called the Sala di Psiche.
And then, in the same room, just over a glass door spewing toxic light into the room, there’s this image of graphically-depicted Jupiter Seducing Olympia. It looks like the seduction is just about over. If you look carefully, you’ll see the main act is about to take place.
Ah, the gods! Nasty but very attractive.
And then there’s the Sala dei Giganti. I mean, you have to see it. It’s not erotic, but your head will spin anyway. I will talk about this incredible room covered in fantastic art another time. Perhaps soon. Some of the most interesting art you’ll ever see. Trust me.
Because I have to tell you, as you leave these fine paintings, you are thrust into another reality. War takes up Federico’s thought process. The war room isn’t all that compelling. It’s the last thing you see. So forgettable it didn’t even occur to me to take a picture.
And that’s the way the world goes, not with a bang but a whimper. You don’t even know it when the fat lady stops singing. But it ends in way. It always does.
Really, go see Mantua before its treasures are lost. And while you’re there, take a little excursion to Grazie and see the Crocodile Church where things get even stranger.
Travel ToolboxWhy go to this destination? Fantastic Mannerist art in a fine Lombardy city surrounded by lakes.
Region map and guide Lombardy
Train Station Piazza Don Leone, northwest of the historic city center -- Buy Train Tickets in advance
Lodging Montua (Montova) Hotels, Hostels, Camping and Vacation Rentals
Guidebooks to destination Cadogan Guide Lombardy & the Italian Lakes
Best of our travel pictures: James Martin on Picfair
Long Term Traveler Car Leasing: Why Lease a Car on Vacation?
(Information gathered for this article came via the “Rediscover Italy project”, which is promoting the regions that make up the UNESCO Quadrilateral of Northern Italy – Emilia Romagna, Lombardy and Veneto.)