Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mantova: Lombardy's Renaissance Gem

Surrounded by three artificial lakes created in the twelfth century, Mantova is an overlooked Renaissance gem: a mini-Florence, rich with art, intrigue and infidelities. Where Florence had the Medicis, Mantova had the Gonzagas. Shrewd businessmen who married well, the dynasty ruled the city for more than 300 years, from the 14th-century, commissioning the finest Renaissance craftsmen they could afford. A long bridge slices through two mist-covered lakes that form a gigantic moat protecting this majestic city. Suddenly, at the edge of the water, the swirling haze is broken by a dramatic skyline of ancient towers, turrets, cupolas and domes. Known as La Bella Addormentata, 'a sleeping beauty', Mantua hasn't really changed much since the middle ages.

Mantua has a unique visual effect as if springing from the water, 
almost as if it were a tiny, inland Venice

The three pigeons of Mantua - it could be an opera!

Dating to Roman times, Mantua has inspired and hosted some of Italian history's biggest names in literature, fine arts and performing arts. Virgil, the prolific Roman poet and author who guided Dante on his route from hell up to heaven in the "Divine Comedy," was born just outside the city. His "Bucolics" depict the gentle countryside around Mantua. Many important works by Andrea Mantegna, a notable early Renaissance painter patronized by the Gonzaga family, remain in the city to this day, including his vivid fresco of the Ducal family in the Palazzo Ducale. When Romeo was banished from Verona for killing Juliet's cousin, he was sent to Mantua. The city also hosted the world's first modern opera, "L'Orfeo" by Monteverdi, in 1607, when the noted composer was the court musician. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008, Mantua is a living testament to the powerful Gonzaga family who ruled the city and surrounding towns during the Renaissance.

The Palazzo Ducale, famous residence of the Gonzaga family

Walking across the cobbled Piazza Sordello is the Palazzo Ducale. It's no mere palace, rather a town within the city, the largest residence in Italy after the Vatican. For 400 years this was the home of the Gonzaga family, the dukes of Mantua who ruled until 1707, putting their stamp on everything, much as the Medicis did in Florence. The labyrinth includes a castle, basilica, courtyards, sumptuous galleries, gardens and more than 500 rooms. Unfortunately, many of them are closed off due to the earthquake a year ago, but there is still plenty to see, from precious tapestries, a glittering mirror-gallery and masterpieces by Raphael, to a zodiac painted as a psychedelic 16th-century ceiling fresco by Lorenzo Costa.

The interior courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale in the mist

Galleria degli Specchi, or Hall of Mirrors

The frescoes and lunettes in the vaulted ceiling were painted during the time 
of Ferdinando Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (1587–1626)

The doors and mirror details are Neoclassic and were done in 1779

Andrea Mantegna's glorious frescoes inside the Palazzo Ducale

Detail of a fresco in the bay of a window 
overlooking the rose garden, in the Palazzo Ducale

The 16th-century Sala dello Zodiaco ceiling fresco by Lorenzo Costa

Ceiling detail in Isabella d'Este's personal quarters

A sumptuous formal rose garden and cloistered courtyard 
on the second floor of the Palazzo Ducale

Mantua's historic power and influence under the Gonzaga family made it one of the main artistic, cultural, and especially musical hubs of Northern Italy and the country as a whole. Mantua is noted for its significant role in the history of opera, and the city is known for its architectural treasures and artifacts, elegant palaces, and medieval and Renaissance cityscape.

View from a portico of the Palazzo Ducale over Piazza Sordello,
one of Mantua's main squares

Mantua's 18th-century Duomo, the Cathedral of San Pietro in Piazza Sordello 

An ornate archway in Piazza Sordello

Piazza Sordello with view of the dome of Sant'Andrea 
and the 14th-century Torre della Gabbia, rising over the battlements of Palazzo Acerbi

A view through the archway to Via Cavour

Piazza Sordello with the Duomo in the background 
and Palazzo Ducale on the right

Mantova's heart is a series of interlinked cobbled piazzas lined with arcades, 
where every Saturday morning Lungorio IV di Novembre 
hosts a farmers' market, or mercato contadino. 

Forneria della Erbe in via Broletto

Ciccioli di Maiale Mantovani, are a local pressed dried pork with a soft, 
gelatinous appearance and taste that is typical of pork fat, and enjoyed as an appetizer

Torta di Tagliatelle is a fabulous short crust cake topped with egg tagliatelle
 and has a unique crunchy texture

Mantuan cuisine has a wide variety of deserts, such as the typical “sbrisolona” crumb cake excellent with warm “zabaione” eggnog style pastry cream, “taglietelle” pasta cake and the “bussulano” soft butter doughnut.

Pumpkin the queen of Mantua's cuisine, 
like these Tortelli di Zucca and elongated Capunsei

Piazza delle Erbe

 Mantova's 14th-Century Torre dell’Orologio in Piazza delle Erbe

The clockface portrays the zodiac signs, solar time, lunar phases 
and the positions of the stars

12th-century Rotundo di San Lorenzo built on the site 
of a Roman temple dedicated to Venus

The Basilica of San'Andrea and its soaring 13th-century belltower

Basilica di Sant’Andrea on Piazza Mantegna

At the other end of Mantua, is one of the greatest of all Renaissance palaces, Palazzo Te, which was conceived as a hideaway for 16th-century Duke Federico Gonzaga's trysts with his mistress Isabella Boschetti, as well as being a place for him and his high-society set to live il dolce far niente, or “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Created by one of the greatest Renaissance painters and architects, Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael, the palazzo boasts some of the most spectacular frescoes in Italy. The grotesque giants and monsters in the Sala dei Giganti are overwhelming, spectacular in their scale, while the Bacchanalian scenes in the Camera di Amore e Psiche, where the duke held banquets, are so sensual that they did most likely inspire the occasional orgy.

Palazzo Te, the Gonzaga's 'country' Palace in Mantova, where the back of the palace 
opens onto a garden with two side pools called 'Peschiere'

The archway into Palazzo Te

An ornate ceiling detail just outside the office 
where we bought tickets to tour Palazzo Te

Sala dei Giganti is one of the most famous frescoed rooms of the Renaissance

The Sala dei Giganti at Palazzo Te is one of the most famous frescoed rooms of the Renaissance. The frescoes by Giulio Romano were inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and describe the battle between the Olympians, led by Charles V, who was portrayed as Jupiter, and the Giants. The fresco shows the rebellious giants who had attempted to assault Mount Olympus and their destruction by Jupiter who hurls thunderbolts at them. The scale of the work is overwhelming, as the floor-to-ceiling work completely envelops the viewer. The room's rounded corners, and the river rock covering the original floor, were meant to give the room a cavelike feeling.

The vaulted ceiling in the Camera di Amore e Psiche

The wedding of Cupid and Psyche by Giulio Romano, dated 1526

The Sala di Psiche depicts the classical mythological scene of the wedding banquet of Cupid and Psyche, and is one of the most famous fresco cycles of the Late Renaissance. The most sumptuous room in the palace, it was used only for the Gonzaga's most important banquets and dinners and is supposed to be an allegory of Federico II Gonzaga's union with his lover Isabella Boschetti.  The frescoed ceiling also depicts other mythological tales about thwarted, secret, tragic or unrequited love, and is painted in a series of colourful fresco lunettes, finished with ornate gilt gold framed detailing.

The Sala di Psiche is the most sumptuous room in the palace 
and was used only for the Gonzaga's most important banquets and dinners

Located in the middle of the fertile Po Valley, Mantuan cuisine is closely linked with the history and traditions of its neighbours, Venice and Emilia-Romagna. Flavours from the land and water make Mantuan cooking very special, as Lombardy is home to three distinct landscapes: fertile flatlands, verdant foothills, and snowy mountains. Rice and corn thrive in the northern climate, resulting in a rich repertoire of risottos and polentas. Veal, beef, butter, and cow's milk cheeses appear at nearly every meal, and sweetwater fish caught in Lombardy's many lakes round out the diet. Known as “the cuisine of princes and people,” Mantuan cuisine has a noble as well as common tradition, because it combines the refinement of the Gonzaga's kitchens with dishes typical of the local peasants.

Capunsei, sometimes also called dumplings, are a typical dish of Mantua
and can be enjoyed in soup, dry or seasoned with melted butter or sauce

Mantua is famous for dishes such as Tortelli di Zucca, pasta stuffed with a sweet-and-sour filling of pumpkin and amaretti, Risotto alla Pilota, featuring salsiccia and lots of Parmigiano Reggiano, Mostarda Mantovana, a delicious sweet fruit and mustard sauce made with quince, pears and apples, and Capunsei, a tapered cylindrical-shaped gnocchi that can be traced back to the times of the Gonzagas. Enjoyed with a glass of the region’s most popular Lambrusco Mantovano DOC, which comes from the local vineyards just to the north of the city, it makes the perfect pairing with the traditional cuisine Mantua and Lombardy.

Mantua's Tortelli di zucca, is usually rectangular and filled with a paste 
of boiled pumpkin, amaretti, mustard, parmesan cheese and nutmeg 

Capellacci di Zucca
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Mario Batali

3 lb butternut squash
2 large eggs
1 cup plus 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 tsp nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 recipe basic pasta dough, recipe follows, rolled out to the thinnest setting on a pasta rolling machine
8 tbsp unsalted butter
4 sage leaves
4 amaretti cookies

Basic Pasta Dough:
3 1/2 to 4 cups flour
4 eggs
1/2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

In a pre-heated 350°F oven, bake the butternut squash until soft, about 1 hour. Scoop out the seeds, remove the skin and set aside.

To make the pasta dough, start by mounding 3 1/2 cups of the flour in the center of a large wooden cutting board. Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the eggs and the olive oil. Using a fork, beat together the eggs and oil and begin to incorporate the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well.

As you expand the well, keep pushing the flour up from the base of the mound to retain the well shape. The dough will come together when half of the flour is incorporated.

Start kneading the dough with both hands, using the palms of your hands. Once you have a cohesive mass, remove the dough from the board and scrape up and discard any leftover bits. Lightly reflour the board and continue kneading for six more minutes. The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt. In a large mixing bowl, mix the squash, eggs, cheese and nutmeg together until smooth and homogenous. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. 

Cut the past sheets into 3-inch squares. Place 1 teaspoon squash filling in the center of each, fold to form triangles, pressing firmly around all edges. Take 2 further corners and bring together and press firmly to form little "hats." 

Place capellaci in boiling water and lower heat to high simmer. Cook until tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Melt butter in a 12 to 14-inch saute pan and add sage. Carefully drain the pasta and place in the pan with the butter. Warm gently 1 minute and serve. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and grate amaretti over using a cheese grater.

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