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Introducing Mantua

As serene as the three lakes it sits beside, Mantua (Mantova) is home to sumptuous ducal palaces and a string of atmospheric, cobbled squares. Settled by the Etruscans in the 10th century, it has long been prosperous, the Latin poet Virgil was born just outside the modern town in 70 BC, Shakespeare's Romeo heard of Juliet's death here and Verdi set his tragic, 19th-century opera, Rigoletto, in its melancholy fog-bound streets.

Mantua's 400-year heyday, however, began in the 14th century when the city passed to the fast-living, art-loving Gonzaga dynasty, one of Italy's great Renaissance families. It rapidly became an important buffer state between the expansionist ambitions of Milan and Venice, and attracted leading lights such as writer Petrarch, Renaissance teacher Feltre and artists Mantegna, Rubens and Romano. Even now, and despite a worrying wobble after the earthquake of 2012, the city preserves its illustrious and antique history in its fabulous art and architecture. The golden days of 'La Gloriosa' ceased when Austria took control in 1708 and ruled (aside from the Napoleonic interlude in the late 1700s) until 1866, when Mantua joined Italy.