Palazzo Ducale

For more than 300 years the enormous Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Gonzaga – a family of wealthy horse breeders who rose to power in the 14th century to become one of Italy's leading Renaissance families. Their 500-room, 35,000sq-metre palace is vast; a visit today winds through 40 of the finest chambers. Along with works by Morone and Rubens, the highlight is the witty mid-15th-century fresco by Mantegna in the Camera degli Sposi (Bridal Chamber). Executed between 1465 and 1474, the room, which is entirely painted, shows the marquis, Lodovico, going about his courtly business with family and courtiers in tow in impressive 3D. Painted naturalistically and with great attention to perspective, the arched walls appear like windows on the courtly world – looking up at the Duke’s wife Barbara, you can even see the underside of her dress as if she’s seated above you. Most playful of all though is the trompe l'œil oculus featuring bare-bottomed putti (cherubs) – the point of view is quite distastefully realistic in places – balancing precariously on a painted balcony, while smirking courtly pranksters appear ready to drop a large potted plant on gawping tourists below. Other palace highlights are the Sala di Troia, Frederico II's council chamber entirely done out in Trojan War scenes and Rubens' Adoration of the Holy Trinity in the Sala degli Arcieri (Room of Archers), which Napoleonic troops brutally dismembered in 1797. In room 8, the Sala del Pisanello, fragments and preliminary sketches of Pisanello’s frescoes of Arthurian knights remain, while room 24, the Sala dello Zodiaco sports a ceiling representing the heavens studded with starry constellations. The palace's finest remaining features are its frescoed and gilt ceilings including, in room 2, a labyrinth, prophetically predicting the capricious nature of good fortune. Below it, as if in illustration, are two portraits of Eleanor Gonzaga (1630–86), who rose to marry a Habsburg emperor, and Vicenzo II (1594–1627), who lost the entire family fortune and one of Europe's most enviable art collections. Rooms 34 to 36 house the Stanze degli Arazzi, some of the only original artworks commissioned by the family: nine 16th-century Flemish tapestries reproduced from Raphael’s original designs for the Sistine Chapel. Woven in Brussels using the finest English wool, Indian silk and Cypriot gold and silver thread, they represent the cosmopolitan sophistication of the Gonzaga court at the height of its power.

Palazzo Te

Palazzo Te was where Frederico II Gonzaga escaped for love trysts with his mistress Isabella Boschetti, and it's decorated in playboy stylHaving escaped a Roman prison sentence for designing pornographic prints, Romano, Raphael's most gifted student, was the perfect choice for the Palazzo Te commission. Using the trompe l'œil technique, he eschewed the cool classicism of the past in favour of wildly distorted perspectives, a pastel colour palette and esoteric symbols. The second room, the Camera delle Imprese (Room of the Devices), sets the scene with a number of key symbols: the salamander, the symbol of Federico; the four eagles of the Gonzaga standard; and Mt Olympus, the symbol of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, from whom the Gonzaga received their titles and in whose name they ruled Mantua. The purpose of Renaissance devices was to encode messages, mottos and virtues so that visitors to the palace could ‘read’ where loyalties lay and navigate political power structures. Federico's device, the salamander, is accompanied by the quote: Quod hic deest, me torquet (What you lack, torments me), alluding to his notoriously passionate nature when compared to the cold-blooded salamander. The culmination of the symbolic narrative, however, comes together masterfully in the Camera dei Giganti (Chamber of the Giants), a domed room where frescoes cover every inch of wall with towering figures of the rebellious giants (disloyal subjects) clawing their way up Mt Olympus (symbol of Charles V) only to be laid low by Jupiter’s (Charles') thunderbolt. The effect is spectacular. As the viewer you are both spectator and participant, standing in the centre of the scene, the worried faces of Olympian gods staring down at you.e with stunning frescoes, playful motifs and encoded symbols. A Renaissance pleasure-dome, it is the finest work of star architect Giulio Romano, whose sumptuous Mannerist scheme fills the palace with fanciful flights of imagination.

Castello di San Giorgio

In Castello di San Giorgio, built between the end of the Fourteenth century and the beginning of the following century by Bartolino Ploti, an architect from Novara, only three of the four towers are equipped with projected castellated walkways, supported by corbels, between which one can still see the embrasures. The non-castellated tower was to be the highest, the high fortified tower, which was never finished, as one can tell from the putlog holes that are still visible. In front of this tower, one can also see a counter-tower against which the original drawbridge used to close. The drawbridge was later replace with the masonry bridge that still stands. In front of the counter-tower, towards Piazza Castello, the bridge landing - the masonry structure on the other side of the moat that used to support the end of the drawbridge when it was lowered - is still clearly visible. From here, with the ticket for the Museo di Palazzo Ducale, one can access either the Camera degli Sposi - located in the North-Eastern tower of the manor - or the space dedicated to renaissance art exhibitions on the ground floor.

Chiesa di Sant'Andrea

This towering basilica safeguards the golden vessels said to hold earth soaked by the blood of Christ. Longinus, the Roman soldier who speared Christ on the cross, is said to have scooped up the earth and buried it in Mantua after leaving Palestine. Today, these containers rest beneath a marble octagon in front of the altar and are paraded around Mantua in a grand procession on Good Friday. Ludovico II Gonzaga commissioned Leon Battista Alberti to design the basilica in 1472. Its vast, arched interior is free from pillars and has just one sweeping central aisle, which is dotted with frescoes, gilded ceiling bosses and columns cleverly painted to look like carved stone. The first chapel on the left contains the tomb of Andrea Mantegna, the man responsible for the splendours of Mantua's most famous paintings – those in the Camera degli Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale. The chapel is beautifully lit and also contains a painting of the Holy Family and John the Baptist, attributed to Mantegna and his school.

Rotonda di San Lorenzo a Mantova

The weather-worn 11th-century, Lombard romanesque Rotonda di San Lorenzo is sunk below the level of the square, its red-brick walls still decorated with the shadowy remains of 12th- and 13th-century frescoes. The two-level church was 'rediscovered' in 1907 when houses were being demolished on Piazza delle Erbe to make way for a road. This is thought to be the erstwhile site of a Roman temple dedicated to Venus – today's church is still a Dominican place of worship.Narrowly missing destruction during the frenetic Gonzaga refurbishment of the town, this weathered sanctuary once sat within the heart of the Jewish ghetto and its walls are still decorated with the shadowy remains of 12th- and 13th-century frescoes.

Piazza Sordello

Piazza Sordello is the oldest square in Mantua, and was probably the location of the Etruscan town. The existing layout is thanks to the Gonzagas whose immense living quarters, fronted by the Palazzo Ducale, frame the east side. Sideways onto the palace, the towering, creamy cathedral sports three styles: a late-baroque facade (c 1750), a Gothic left side and a Romanesque belfry. At the square's southwest corner the flat-fronted, red-brick Torre della Gabbia dates from the 13th century. Look out for the gabbia (cage) dangling from one side – people who'd offended the authorities were incarcerated in it.

Piazza delle Erbe

Once the location of the town's vegetable market, Piazza delle Erbe is Mantua's most lively piazza. Its 13th-century Palazzo della Ragione sports a 15th-century clock tower at its south end which marks the phases of the moon and signs of the zodiac. Mantua's oldest church, the 11th-century Rotonda di San Lorenzo, sits just below street level alongside Palazzo della Ragione.

Sabbioneta near Mantova

Sabbioneta was founded by Vespasiano I Gonzaga in the late 16th century along the ancient Roman Via Vitelliana, on a sandy bank of the Po (whence the name, meaning "Sandy" in Italian); he was its first duke, using it as a personal fortress and residence. Statue of the 1st Duke of Sabbioneta, 1577, Grandee of Spain, Viceroy of Navarre, 1572–75, and Viceroy of Valencia, 1575–78, in Spain. Named Vespasiano I Gonzaga (1531–91), he was buried at the Incoronata Church at Sabbioneta city, Italy. He became a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1585. It was also during this period that it became a minor musical centre; composers such as Benedetto Pallavicino (c. 1551-1601) were employed here by Vespasiano Gonzaga, prior to his moving to the main Gonzaga city of Mantua. In 2008, Sabbioneta was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List as a recognition of its perfect example of practical application of Renaissance urban planning theories. Sabbioneta is also known for its historic Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue, and in particular for its Hebrew printing-press. In 1551 Tobias Foa set up the press; he had, however, published certain "anti-Christian books" and his career was "forcibly ended". His work and possibly his type were taken up by a Christian printer, Vicenzo Conte. Vespasiano Gonzaga's town, designed according to the Renaissance principles of the Ideal City, included: The Ducal Palace (now the Town Hall) The Teatro all'antica ("Theatre in the style of the Ancients"), designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi The Galleria degli Antichi and Palazzo del Giardino: "Gallery of the Ancient" and "Garden Palace" respectively.) Churches of the Assunta and Carmine Chiesa della Beata Vergine Incoronata The church and the summer palace contain frescoes by artists of the Campi family of Cremona.