Mantua is a city of Lombardy, in central northern Italy. It is where Romeo was banished in Shakespeare’s famous tale, after Romeo murdered Juliet’s cousin Tybalt and the Prince of Verona expelled him. Aside from the fact that his beloved Juliet was not there with him, Romeo couldn’t have ended up in a better place. Since the 13th century Mantua had been free of the rule of Rome, and had become prosperous and artistically rich.
From the 14th century to the early 17th century the city was ruled by the Gonzaga family, and it would have been under their rule that Romeo saw the city (if he has really existed that is). In 1530 Federico II Gonzago became the first Duke of Mantua and built the Palazzo Te. This magnificent building is one of the main reasons to visit the city today. The square building, then on the outskirts of the city, was intended as a pleasure palace. It is the architect Giulio Romano’s best work – he was a pupil of the famous painter Raphael – and is filled with fresco paintings. The most astounding is the Fall of the Giants, an incredible piece of painted illusion covering all the walls of the room and creating a false dome – it’s almost a bit overwhelming. Another room features a banquet of the gods of Mount Olympus, and don’t miss the Casino della Grotta, a series of rooms around a grotto and loggia where the courtiers once bathed amongst the shells encrusted on the walls and floors.
In 1630 the city was invaded and looted when the last of the Gonzaga family died out and its great days were over. The palace is now a museum and a reminder of the great wealth and decadence of Italy’s golden era of arts and trading. There are other notable buildings to see in Mantua, which still sits on the three artificial lakes created in the 12th century to drain the land. In 2005 Mantua was declared Italy’s most liveable city by ecological standards.