Mantua: where noble patrons of the arts held sway for centuries

While a handful of cities dominate tourism in Italy — Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples and Venice are magnets for tourists — the real urban backbone of the country are its towns.

Perhaps reflecting that Italy only became a unified country a century-and-a-half ago, these towns fiercely cultivate their urban identity, a pride that took root centuries ago when rival duchies and principalities concentrated power and influence, often through patronage of the arts.

One such proud town is Mantua. Well-to-do, almost austerely elegant in style, Mantua is one of several town in Lombardy awash in art and architectural gems. In Mantua’s case, this cultural richness is the legacy of the Gonzaga noble family, which passionately pursued commissioning frescoes and palaces that are some of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture.

Starting in fall 2019, and lasting well into the first months of 2020, Mantua is showing off its artistic jewels in a special way. It is celebrating the talented painter and architect, Giulio Romano, dubbed the “Mannerist master,’’ who left his mark on the town as well as villas in surrounding areas.

Under the Gonzagas, art and architecture blossomed, giving the town the reputation as “Mantua the Glorious.”

In the 15th and 16th centuries especially, the Gonzaga princes were famed as art patrons, along with Isabella d’Este, whose husband Francesco II, was one of the family’s more notable rulers. It was Francesco who sponsored Giulio Romano, a native Roman whose 16th century works in the city is being showcased with two major exhibitions as well as through numerous walking tours.

Chosen as venues for the pair of exhibitions are two palazzi that are Mantua’s tourist highlights.

The Ducal Palace is hosting “With a new and extravagant manner, Giulio Romano in Mantua.” It’s a clever title that captures the spirit of the artist, a master of mannerism and innovation, who is considered to be the most celebrated pupil and heir of Renaissance superstar Raphael.

At the core of the exhibit are 72 drawings lent for the first time by the Louvre in Paris. Much of the art that the Gonzagas amassed ended up hauled away by Napoleon in the early 19 th century, The Louvre doesn’t lend its treasures easily, especially to smaller museums abroad. That it did so for this show is a tribute to the Ducal Palace Museum Complex’s Austrian dynamic director, part of a vanguard of daring directors hired a few years ago after Italy dropped its rule against having foreigners at the helm of its top state-run museums.

Also lending for the show are the Albertina Museum in Vienna and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The Ducal Palazzo is sprawling, fortress-like affair facing cobblestoned Piazza Sordello in the heart of the old town. Giulio Romano designed one section of the palace, known as Corte Nuova (New Court), which is next to a castle. One of the rooms in the palazzo has a painting depicting a late 15th century battle between the Gonzagas and a rival family that took place in the square. Frescoes by, yes, Giulio Romano, and paintings by Tintoretto and Rubens are among the art decorating the palace.

In the castle, are some of the most celebrated frescoes of the Renaissance, by Mantegna. Illustrated are scenes of the Gonzaga heydays. The family was famed as horse breeders, and in the frescoes are scenes depicting their servants with hunting dogs and a horse. On the vaulted ceiling, Mantegna pulled off a remarkable trompe l’oeil featuring mythological scenes.

The companion exhibition boasts the intriguing title “Giulio Romano: Art and Desire.” It is hosted in Mantua’s other lavish palace, Palazzo Te, which was designed by Giulio Romano on the edge of town, as a kind of summer residence and playground for the Gonzagas.

The show explores the relationship between erotic images from the classic world and the inventive figurative work of artists in Italy’s Renaissance. Again, the exhibit is enriched by loans from some of the world’s leading museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Perhaps the most renowned room in Palazzo Te is the Room of the Giants, with a spectacular fresco with almost frenzied scenes of bare-breasted damsels, men brandishing swords and clubs, and, in tribute to the Gonzagas, magnificent, muscular steeds.

The two mega-exhibitions run through Jan. 6. But the city’s feting of Giulio Romano’s heritage continues well into June, with occasional guided walking tours of Mantua’s historic center to admire the artist’s influence on the town’s architecture and urban planning. Also on tap are guided tours in some of the villas where Giulio Romano worked in the countryside outside Mantua.

The town, prone to fog in winter, is surrounded on three sides by small lakes, which are really part of the Mincio River. The waters run under stately portico-topped bridges, including some designed by Giulio Romano.

These watery surroundings figure in the centuries-old cultivation of what is possibly the most famous agricultural product in the Mantuan countryside: rice. Mantua’s signature rice dish is called “alla pilota,” made with a kind of pesto of ground pork, butter and a favorite local cheese, Grana Padano. Also popular are risotto made from humble river life: catfish and frogs are often among the catch that makes the leap into local kitchens. All make for hearty fare for tables set on brisk winter nights.