Aldous Huxley called it the most romantic city in the world. With a skyline of domes and towers rising above its three encircling lakes, MANTUA (Mantova) is undeniably evocative. This was where Romeo heard of Juliet’s supposed death, and where Verdi set Rigoletto. Its history is one of equally operatic plots, most of them acted out by the Gonzaga, one of Renaissance Italy’s richest and most powerful families, who ruled the town for three centuries. Its cobbled squares retain a medieval aspect, and there are two splendid palaces: the Palazzo Ducale, containing Mantegna’s stunning fresco of the Gonzaga family and court, and Palazzo Te, whose frescoes by the flashy Mannerist Giulio Romano encompass steamy erotica and illusionistic fantasy. Mantua’s lakes, and the flat surrounding plain, offer numerous boat cruises and cycling routes.

The centre of Mantua is made up of four attractive squares, each connected to the next. Lively Piazza Mantegna is overlooked by the massive Basilica di Sant’Andrea. Beside it is the lovely Piazza delle Erbe, with fine arcades facing the medieval Rotonda church. To the north, through medieval passageways and across Piazza Broletto, the long, cobbled slope of Piazza Sordello is dominated by the Palazzo Ducale, the fortress and residence of the Gonzaga, packed with Renaissance art. Mantua’s other great palace stands in its own gardens 1.5km south of the historic centre – Palazzo Te, adorned with sensational frescoes.

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