Exploring the Alto Adige in Italy: Mantova

After the noise & chaos of Rome, as well as the immense scientific energy of OHBM2019, it was time to chill out. The other half & I took a week to see a part of Italy we had not spent time in before – the Alto Adige. This region is very well known for it’s wines & indeed when travelling through it, there are vineyards everywhere as the Adige River wends it way through this very hilly region. We first travelled to Mantova [in the Lombardy region of the Alto Adige] where we stayed for 3 nights. Mantova is a fascinating city that started out as an ancient Umbrian settlement, which then became a home for Etruscans & then subsequently Celts & of course, Romans [see https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mantova]. Given the perpetual state of wars & conflicts in the region, there was a need to protect oneself from invaders. Therefore, in the 12th century Alberto Pitentino (an architect & hydraulic engineer) re-engineered the course of the Mincio River. Incredible for its day, he was able to create 4 artificial lakes using water from the river. The 4 lakes [Superiore, di Mezzo, Inferiore and Paiolo] surrounded the town, forming a defense system for the city. The surrounding countryside was accessed via two bridges – the Ponte dei Mulini & the Ponte di San Giorgio.

The city is very picturesque, with narrow streets & very old buildings. Everyone rides bicycles – including very well-dressed elderly folks – that was very impressive.

There is quite a mélange of architectural styles which are evident particularly in one of the largest squares in the city, as seen in the image below:


In terms of people that the city is known for, the poet Virgil [70 BC-19 BC] is the most famous son. As he was born in the region, there are tributes to him everywhere. Also among the rich & convoluted history of the town, there is also the Gonzaga family dynasty who had long prevailed over it, leaving behind many monumental buildings. One of their major building projects spanning the 14th to the 17th centuries was the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ducal_palace,_Mantua]. The extensive complex of buildings includes ~500 rooms & occupies an area of ~34,000 m² – which includes long corridors with frescoes leading to hidden gardens & very elaborately decorated rooms, as some of the images below show:





The most amazing aspect of the complex for me was the intricate detail in the rooms – usually very fine woodwork & marble…

The above images come from a section of the complex called the Apartment of Isabella d’Este. Isabella d’Este [1474 – 1539] was the Marchioness of Mantova & was married to Francesco II Gonzaga [Marquess of Mantua]. She was born in Ferrara & was a very well-educated woman. So much so, that she became a major political & cultural figure – being a part of the Italian Renaissance [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabella_d%27Este]. At one point she served as Regent of Mantova – after her husband was captured & held hostage in Venice from 1509-1512. Apparently she was a better ruler than her husband, leading Mantova’s military forces & successfully keeping invaders out until his return. She was also a major patron of the arts. Interestingly, in 1499 Leonardo da Vinci drew a profile image of her, as a study for a painting, which he never painted. That said, the similarity of the drawing to his painting of Mona Lisa [painted between 1503–1506] is striking – resulting in speculation today that she was the original subject for La Gioconda. Check out the drawing at [https://www.leonardodavinci.net/portrait-of-Isabella-deste.jsp].

Mantova’s Basilica di Sant’Andrea [https://guideturistichemantova.it/st-andrews-church/?lang=en] is one of the most elaborately decorated churches I have ever set foot in. It is also one of the largest churches in Europe. My photographs do not do it justice… It was commissioned by Ludovico Gonzaga in 1472, but took ~300 years to complete! The project was started by the famous architect Leon Battista Alberti, whose sudden death meant that the project had to continue under the supervision of a different person – Luca Fancelli.  It’s very large dome was a late addition, being added at end of the 18th century by Filippo Juvarra.






When you are in the church it is staggering to look at the decoration – & it is even more of a surprise when you realize that it is all trompe l’oeil – a visual illusion – there are no actual carvings on the walls…



So many Catholic Churches have relics of Christ & this one’s relic is more unusual than some of the others – the so-called Precious Blood of Christ. Purportedly it was brought to Mantova by the Roman soldier Longinus, who had picked up a bit of soil soaked in the blood of Jesus after his crucifiction & had become a Christian. He came to Mantova in 37 A.D. after apparently roaming around for years. He was killed & no-one actually found the relic. Legend has it that the relic was found in 804 by a beggar who had a dream where St. Andrew showed him the spot where the relic had been stashed… The relic is now housed under the floor of the church.


It is so hard to capture the scale of this amazing space with a camera…


Speaking of trompe l’oeil, another interesting example is the Teatro Scientifico Bibiena [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teatro_Bibiena]This theatre is a small one – the stage is 12.3 metres wide X 5.6 metres deep, with a full seating capacity of 363. The non-stalls seating consists entirely of boxes, which looked like they could only seat 2 people. The theatre was designed & built by Antonio Galli Bibiena between 1767-1769 in a late Baroque or early Rococo style – which was in vogue at the time. This multipurpose theatre was commissioned by the Royal Virgilian Academy of Science and Arts [Accademia Virgiliana].




The really cool part about the history of this theatre is that 3 weeks after it opened the young [12 year old] Wolfgang Mozart played the piano here in a concert which was a resounding success.



Standing on the stage I tried to imagine the scene back in the day with the young Mozart at the piano playing to a packed wigged audience who would have been dressed up to the nines. This is the view that the young maestro would have had from the stage:


Apparently, Mozart’s father wrote about the experience & waxed lyrical about the theater in which the performance had taken place.

When we visited Mantova, we stayed in an apartment – which was great because I could catch up on my washing after Rome & also have a meal at ‘home’ after the week of eating out in Rome. The apartment was very comfortable, but had a bizarre arrangement in that the washing machine was in the loft. The stairs to get to the loft were astounding to say the least… more like a ladder actually. Thought I would have to put the washing in a back pack to go up them…


Our landlady showed us around the place & pointed to the stairs & noted that that was where the washing machine was. She did not climb them. Probably a good idea since she was pregnant. The other funny part was the floor in the living room was sunken relative to everything else. So when you came down the stair/ladder from the loft & thought you had made it down safely, you would then stumble on the 3-4 cm little step down. Took us about 2 days to get used to that one…

We were able to buy some lovely groceries at a local deli & also went to a wine merchant to get some local product. Everyone was very helpful, but few people in the area speak English [& indeed there are not that many tourists there either]. My other half can hold his own in Italian, so we were good. The nice people in the deli also gave us butter & a local speciality cake – they were very generous. The local cakes have a lot of sugar & butter – see below – as well as whole almonds. The one we were given is a called a Sbrisolona.


The image above on the right is a local wine – a dry moscato, that was not unlike a Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc – which is unique to the region. It was great to try it – thanks to the suggestion of the friendly wine merchant.

One of the other things we tried were the ‘tortelli di zucca’ – essentially ravioli filled with pumpkin [a special variety that is on the small side & has a green outer skin]. The pasta filling has also a lot of nutmeg & mostarda di frutta – a special type of local apple that has been preserved with some mustard [which to me actually tasted more like wasabe…]. After you cook the pasta you dump it in a butter & sage sauce [that was why the deli folks gave us the butter…]. This was a very lovely local dish. Might have to try to make something like this when I get home…

The last thing we did in Mantova was to check out a small art exhibit featuring the works of Georges Braque [1882-1963] [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Braque]. A lot of these were on loan from the Kunstmuseum Pablo Picasso Münster, in Germany. The exhibit was interesting because it featured more unusual works such as drawings, lithographs & images that had been specifically produced for books on various themes at the time. The style was also interesting – the works were not in the cubist style that he ultimately become famous for. Birds & vegetation were the main topics of the exhibition. The image below is a good example – I would never have guessed this was a work by Braque…


Braque, like other artists in his day, had many friends in the literary world. Therefore, he also made drawings & lithographs for the books of others – which might include books of poetry or literature, or books on the artists themselves, as the images below show:



The exhibit also featured work by other artists, including a set of original Matisse works from a book called Jazz that was produced in 1947 in Paris by Editions Tériade that are currently in a private collection in Mantova [see image below]:


There was also a 2019 recreation attempt [Flavio Favelli vis-a-vis] of a studio sculpture & then an illustration of it by Flavio Favelli. In Braque & Picasso’s experiments with various art forms including cubism in 1912-1914, they would assemble models or ‘sculptures’ in their studios, which they would subsequently draw or paint. The sculptures were composed of cardboard in Braque’s case & glass/wood for those of Picasso. They were usually destroyed after the images had been made. Indeed, only a few of Picasso’s models have survived, whereas all of Braque’s models have been destroyed. Therefore, it was good to see a modern day example that illustrated how the masters had created innovative work in the studios in the earlier parts of the 20th century.

The exhibition itself was held in the Pallazzo della Ragione [see https://www.comune.mantova.gov.it/index.php/cultura/musei-e-monumenti/palazzo-della-ragione] a building dating back to 1250. It was built as a hospice by the Canossa family for pilgrims visiting Mantova to see the relic of the Precious Blood of Christ. Later, it became a ‘town hall’ and then subsequently used as a site for a market – which now occurs in the main town square. In the 15th century it functioned as a palace of Justice & notarial archive. Today the space is used for exhibitions & events, although it suffered some damage in the earthquake of 2012. The building has been restored beautifully by the Mantovan architect Aldo Andreani in 1942. Amazingly, there are still extensive fragments of frescoes signed by Grisopolo da Parma dating from the 13th century).  Some of the frescoes can be seen below:



These reminded me a bit also of some of the extensively frescoed walls in the Palazzo Ducale that I discussed at the beginning of this post:


Overall, Mantova is such a beautiful place to visit – narrow streets, picturesque buildings & attention to detail.


Check out the concrete blocks that are used to channel traffic for roadworks – even those have been produced with an esthetic mindset!


People are friendly & look out not only for each other, but for creatures also… While we were there the weather was very hot, so that everyone got fed & watered in the outdoor cafes. When little Fido came to sit with his owners he got his bowl of water too…


Our next stop in the Alto Adige was a village called Palù di Giovo – more on that one in the next post.



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