The Rio Mantovano is an artificial canal constructed in the Middle Ages to balance out the uneven water levels of the lakes. Today it is partially covered, but its free-flowing waters remain an intrinsic part of the image of the city – a city surrounded by water – and of the lives of its inhabitants.
One of the most striking points on the river is the site of the fish markets, designed by Giulio Romano. While they have been restyled many times over the years, they still bear the hallmarks of his mannerist style.
The intervention by Giulio Romano consisted certainly in the design of the building. His style is visible in the overall decoration, in the blocks forming the pillars and the walls of the building. The main feature is the rustic ashlar, one of the main elements characterising the work of Romano. Here the roughness of the overall design is due to the fact that these constructions were intended for humble, though important, trades. The space was indeed meant for workshops. The ashlar portico was to become one of the most used elements in the inventions of Romano in the years preceding his death.
The same area of the city features an imposing Gothic bell tower – the sole remaining part of the church and monastery of San Domenico. In 2016, the local authorities decided to renovate the area, restoring the Butcher’s shops below and refitting the lighting systems.This area is more suited than ever to visits by locals and tourists alike, who can discover yet more treasures of Virgil’s city. There is Mantegna’s House, the Tazio Nuvolari Museum, the Firefighters Museum, the Archaeological Museum, the Astronomical Clock and so many other countless riches, all of which combine to make Mantua the city of museums around every corner.
Ponte dei Mulini
The bridge was designed by the engineer Alberto Pitentino, built in the 12th century in order to regulate the waters of the Mincio river and prevent it from swamping. An elevation gain of a few meters between Lake Superior and Lake Mezzo was artificially created, which from 1229 fed 12 mills. The ancient medieval building was destroyed by air raids in the Second World War.
St. George’s Bridge
The bridge was included in the defensive military system by joining the fortified village of San Giorgio with the Gonzaga court. First in wood, it was built in masonry by Ludovico Gonzaga towards the end of the 14th century, thus dividing the Mezzo lake from the Inferiore lake. In 1922 the arches were buried and the bridge took its present form.
“Not much has run, for he finds a blade, neither is it stretched and the” mpaluda ”
– Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto XX, vv. 79-80
In the 12th century, the architect and hydraulic engineer Alberto Pitentino, on behalf of the Municipality of Mantua, organized a defense system for the city, taking care of the arrangement of the Mincio river so as to completely surround the town with four bodies of water, so as to form four lakes: Superiore, di Mezzo, Inferiore and Paiolo; Mantua, in fact, was an island.
The countryside was accessed via two bridges – the Ponte dei Mulini and the Ponte di San Giorgio – still existing.
In the communal age the Rio was traced, a canal that bisects the city, connecting the inferior lake to the Upper one. Other dams and sluices allowed adequate defense from the waters.
In the seventeenth century a strong flood began a rapid decline: the Mincio, transporting solid materials, transformed the lakes into unhealthy marshes that conditioned every further development; then Lake Paiolo was dried up in the south, so that the city remained wet from the water only on three sides – like a peninsula – and today it still looks like this.
Therefore, there are three stretches of water, not of natural origin, obtained in the bend of the river Mincio which give Mantua a very particular characteristic, which to some seems almost magical as it appears as a city born of water. In 1984 the Parco del Mincio was established of which the territory of the Municipality of Mantua is part.
The splendour of the three lakes of Mantua can be enjoyed by visitors all year round, both on foot and by bike.
From the banks of Lago Superiore, the Ducal Palace shows the bell tower of Santa Barbara, built by Bertani.
On mistier days, the unique beauty of the expanse of the lakes is suffused with a tranquil charm. The labyrinth of branches conceals landscapes further afield.
The whole course of the Mincio is protected by its park, a major ecological reserve home to a range of animal and plant species.
Virgil, the Eclogues: “for as long you remain in Mantua, Varo, the swans shall raise your name to the stars with their sweet song”.
Although they have been changed and lessened by the impact of man over the centuries, the three lakes that encircle the city are still extensive.
The utmost attention and care must be paid to preserve the extraordinary environmental riches that nature has bestowed upon us.
Virgil, Eclogues 1: “You, Tityrus, lying under the canopy of a spreading beech, wooing the woodland muse on slender reed, but we are leaving the country’s bounds and sweet fields. We are outcasts from our country; you, Tityrus, at ease beneath the shade, teach the woods to re-echo fair Amaryllis”.
Flora and fauna
Flora and fauna of the territory inevitably revolve around the imposing presence in Mantua of the lakes and the waters that surround it. Surprisingly, in the Mantuan lakes there are lotus flowers (Nelumbo nucifera), originating in South East Asia. From the shores of the public park of Belfiore, on Lake Superior, the floating island of lotus flowers with the spectacular flowering in July-August-September is clearly visible. Their beauty is undoubted but from the environmental point of view the introduction of the lotus flower was a questionable operation since it is an alien specieswith a strong pest capacity that makes them subject to massive periodic mowing to preserve the integrity of the lakes. Their introduction in Italy is the work in 1914 of the Saverian fathers of Parma who decided to use the starch obtained from the rhizomes for food, as the Chinese had done for centuries. Maria Pellegreffi, a young graduate in Natural Sciences, dealt with the transplantation of rhizomes in Lake Superior in Mantua in 1921. The flour was not successful in the Mantuan kitchen but the flower colonized the lakes. The exciting and surreal landscape that the expanse of lotus flowers contributes to create has also given birth to a legend about their birth in the territory. It is said that a young man traveling in the East met a girl with almond-shaped eyes and perfumed skin like the petals of a lotus flower. When she came to Mantua, the poor girl, in the mirror of the lake, fell there, losing her life. The boy then threw the seeds of the flower in the lake so that, flowering every summer, they could remember with their perfume and their delicate beauty his bride and defeated by the pain he took his own life by disappearing also in the waters of the lake.
In addition to the undisputed king of the lake, it is easy to see native species such as the water chestnut (Trapa natans), also called trigol, particularly developed on Lake Mezzo with its pyramid-shaped and edible fruits, the ranunculus islets water (Nuphar luteum) with their golden yellow flowers, which, opening only in part, maintain the particular round shape and white water lilies with a fragrant flower that forms plant clusters together with other water lilies and floating herbs (frog bite, salvinia, Ceratophyllum demersum etc).
On the margin, together with the marsh reeds, weeping willowsand cartai (the famous carésa used to stuff chairs and make hats and other craft products), grows the native and very rare marsh hibiscus, which is found not only in the Mincio Valleys only in Tuscany, Friuli and Veneto.
The scargia (Stratiotes aloides) has now disappeared in these territories, as in almost all of Italy.
The birds find in the reeds and in the waters of the marsh area the ideal place to lay eggs and find food. It is therefore the most representative fauna of the area that is even closer to the city.
The red heron, the water hens, the coots with typical black plumage in contrast with the white that extends over the frontal region, and other anseriforms use the lake to “manufacture” floating nests on the edge of the reed on the shore or on accumulations vegetables never too far off, the gray heron instead nests on the trees near the numerous waterways for irrigation that branch out in the fields of the province, places of nesting and hunting also of the bitterns of the bitterns and more ” reserved “owls.
The family of herons found in the waters of the Parco del Mincio, in addition to red and ash, also includes egrets, grebes, squacco herons and night herons. Usually these birds were observed only in the months between April and September because they are migratory species, but in recent years they have preferred to stay even in winter.
The nests of the reed warbler and of the small beak hide among the reeds. But the gentle waters of the lake and the marshes of the Mincio and the Po are also populated by catfish, tench, carp, perch, eel, pike and torpedo.
You can navigate the Mantua lakes, with cruises that allow you to see the whole city from the water. Combining the historical, artistic and architectural aspects with the nature of a more unique and rare natural oasis.
Hares, pheasants and foxes can be the protagonists of some nocturnal encounter in the Mantuan countryside.
Repaid by the generous hands of visitors, also ducks and swans are to be counted among the species present in the Virgilian “soil”, populating, now without too many fears of human presence, the shores of the lakes and giving a perhaps unexpected contact with nature to the tourist of the city art.
Mantova Urban Museum
A city raised on the shores of beautiful lakes which in the past encircled and decorated it. A city celebrated by Virgil who was born in Andes: “I will raise a marble temple in the green countryside”. A city which hosts the most ancient christian relic, Jesus’ Blood that drained on Longino’s lance. A free city, raised in spite of matildic domination. A miracle of the Reinassance which has its center in the Ducale Palace and in the “Camera Picta” by Andrea Mantegna. A sixteenth century court which has collected infinite masterpieces, while the music and the theatre created unique moments.
Finally, a city which hosted treasures, part of many ages and cultures, in the Teresiana Library, in the National Archive, in the museums. All these elements explain, together with Festilavletteratura, the title of Italian Capital of Culture 2016.