Sabbioneta, the visible marvel

Around here the horizon is a line broken only by poplar trees, farm buildings and a handful of other things. The plain unrolls for miles and miles, and in this crook of land between the Po and the Oglio a building or two pops up every so often, completely static. The little sat-nav screen says that we’re 19 meters above sea level, and that’s where the needle remains fixed.


This is one of the reasons why the walls of Sabbioneta, or what remains of them, are so impressive. You cannot discern its star-shaped form from ground level, but you can piece together how the bastions must have looked once, even if their vaulted-arch gates are now destroyed.


Walking through those gates is like being catapulted somewhere else in the blink of an eye. It’s as if you’re on the set of one of the numerous films shot here; then you’re the protagonist of a precocious young child’s model village.


Indeed, it would not be entirely wrong to say that Sabbioneta was designed as a plaything for Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna, duke of the fallen branch of a little state that found itself squeezed between the respective dominions of the Gonzaga and the Farnese families. An ancient Roman military road passed through here and, being at a miraculous equidistance from the powers that sandwiched it, it was able to hold its own throughout the long life of its patron. The duke had a precise design in mind: it was to be the ideal city of its age, with a forbidding fortress-like aspect belying the bounty and culture within. The support of the Spanish Habsburgs went a long way too, providing guarantees and safeguards for the little duchy.


Within its walls, Sabbioneta soon became not so much a jewel as a diadem, abounding in breathtaking beauty. It confounds the sense of proportions that govern scale models: this city is perfectly proportioned, just not in miniature. One striking example, which any visit to the place must include, is the Teatro all’Antica, also known as the Teatro Olimpico, an example of both classicism and modernity. This little building is one of the earliest examples of a genuinely purpose-built theatre. Its delightful frescos, trompes-l’oeil and welcoming entrance hall are even more interesting when one considers what it really was, a stable theatre before the concept was invented.


Sadly, the Duke enjoyed the theatre only sporadically, as he lavished his attention on the spaces of his pleasure garden or his Ducal Palace. The latter contains a celebrated antiques gallery, with a precious collection of marble statues and other artworks adding up to another of the Duke’s legacies.


It's not all that easy to get lost among the streets of this tiny city in the Po valley. Within a few steps, you’ve reached the other side of its defenses. But walk slowly, cast your gaze around, and let the robust local cuisine fill your nostrils with heady smells. Pair it with a glass – or, more aptly, a goblet – of the heavy Lambrusco that these parts produce: dark, fizzy, blood-like, it nevertheless offers a hint of sweetness on the tongue. Almost the polar opposite of this place, where beauty, though presented with taste and judgement, seems almost unlimited.