The trip involved some planning around being able to see certain places when they were open to the public. One such place was Palladio’s iconic house in Vicenza, La Rotonda, open only on Wednesdays. So we detoured a bit and backtracked somewhat to fit that in. Mantua seemed like a place worth exploring and we booked a charming apartment right in the centre of town, complete with special tickets to allow driving into the limited traffic zone. I expected the old buildings but I was not prepared for the size or magnificence of the palaces and villas.
It appears that the ducal palace in Mantua is the third largest palace in Europe after the Vatican and the Louvre and not all of it on display. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed internally. Much of what is collected here is art from places that have been demolished, such as convents. There are gardens and walks and corridors and battlements and galleries and each room was decorated and different. The paintings of the Gonzaga family in the bedchamber showed a line that flourished, producing cardinals, dukes and even a saint.
One wing of the Ducal palace, Mantua
Courtyard of the four plane trees
Not to be outdone, the son of another branch of the family, Vincenzo Gonzaga, remade another town to his liking. Sabbioneta is a town with walls a little like Lucca, but perhaps not so grand or well kept. He created several palaces and a theatre in town and planned the town layout. Unfortunately there was no one to take over after he died, and the city ceased growing. The extraordinary colonnaded gallery of the Garden Palace allowed him to display his treasured art works, now mostly in Mantua.
Gallery of the Garden Palace, Sabbioneta
The ducal palace here is renowned for its beautiful wood ceilings and painted and decorated walls. No furniture these days, but lovely terrazzo floors and marble inlay as well as beautiful fireplaces.
Gilded wood ceiling
The three graces painted on a wall
The theatre, by Vicenzo Scamozzi was one of the first covered theatres in Italy and displayed a permanent street scene with false perspective and a sloped stage. It allowed actors to enter from a number of directions. The audience watched either from the curved benches or from the ornate gallery with colonnade and statues of heroic figures.
Stage with false perspective
Galleries for the audience
The synagogue in the town no longer houses the Ark but the rich decoration is still evident in a really beautiful room.
Back in Mantua there were a number of churches, the Cathedral of St Peter, the huge basilica of St Andrea which is supposed to house the holy blood of Christ, and tiny, circular St Lorenzo, discovered afresh after some buildings were pulled down and then restored.
Chapel in St Pietro
The piazzas were charming and we ate quite well. However, we avoided some of the specialities of the area, horse and donkey.
At the other end of town Palazzo Te delighted with richly painted and decorated rooms, from some rather raunchy ones celebrating the marriage of Cupid and Psyche to another where every inch was covered with the painting of one picture “The death of the giants”. The Palazzo is set in beautiful parks and has gardens with a vista from the main assembly room. No photos inside, unfortunately.
Continuing the palazzo theme, we travelled to Vicenza via Stra and visited Villa Pisani. The vista in the back garden was postcard perfect, from the villa to the decorative back building which was really just a facade with no depth at all.
Vista at Stra
Along the eastern side of the land was an orangerie with huge citrus in enormous terracotta pots, a coffee house on a small moated island, a maze and a series of gardens and vistas.
Bacchus in the orangerie garden
Vicenza, of course, was home to the architectural genius Palladio and we timed our visit to be there when La Rotonda was open. We were rather surprised to realise that the house is in private hands and visitors are only allowed to see the rooms on the main level, which are sumptuous, especially under the dome. The upkeep on this treasure must be enormous.
La Rotonda, Palladian gem
The wall of dwarves to which history or legend is attached
The interior of the Villa is filled with many frescoes. The gardens at Valmarana are very pretty, whereas La Rotonda is quite plain. From the gardens you can view Monte Berico where the Virgin is supposed to have appeared several times. There is a church and a sanctuary there, with a calm cloister and many offerings of thanks (ex-votos) around the walls for prayers granted.
Monte Berico from Villa Valmarana
Cloister, Monte Berico
The town itself is quite charming, with a river and shaded walks beside it and many squares and streets with examples of beautiful architecture; even a Venetian lion of St Mark in the piazza and the magnificent Teatro Olympico with its ornate stage set and perspectives.
Lion of St Mark
River and bridge
Palladio's Teatro Olympico, Vicenza