Two old friends experience a renaissance in northern Italy

In early winter I travel with my good friend Aggie Gund along my favorite northern Italian route. This is where I came as a child with my parents, who went to their homeland to reencounter their beginnings. It is with this in mind that I return during a difficult time, after separating from my husband. My life has made an abrupt turn, and to reorient myself I go to a region where renewal is inherent in the landscape and culture. Aggie and I undertake the task of indulging ourselves in the distinct and complex pleasures of the region. We were graduate students in art history together, and have often accompanied each other on trips to Italy. We look forward to rediscovering this area, which developed an artistic style all its own, characterized by an unconventional delight in the fantastic and the free play of the imagination. These fertile plains give way to prosperous and energetic towns where extraordinary artists—Andrea Mantegna, Giulio Romano, Leon Battista Alberti—flourished throughout the Renaissance, sponsored by powerful patrons such as Isabella d'Este. It is the abundant drama of the region that seduces us, and makes us feel we are connecting our lives to a bigger story. This is the perfect place to be with a good friend who is helping me draw my life's current balance sheet. Everything seems easier here, far from New York's crowded restaurants where we usually share rushed meals. Here, against a backdrop of rich history, everyday reality loses some of its edge.

Our itinerary takes us to Sabbioneta and Mantua, then Parma, three places full of art and legend where a troubled but glorious past continues to impose itself. In Milan we rent a car for a week. As we make our way along the well-traveled route, fog typical of the season envelops us in surreal grayness. The tiny Renaissance town of Sabbioneta emerges unexpectedly and discreetly from the plain of the river Po. Known at its inception as "Little Athens," Sabbioneta is an ideal fortified town, an extraordinary example of urban planning. It is hexagonal in shape, with no main thoroughfare. Its streets form a labyrinth of harmonious and well-proportioned buildings. In the twenties Aldous Huxley wandered here, reveling in its desolation. We walk the silent, almost empty streets—the morning mist adds to their mystery. I try to populate the village in my imagination, to bring it to life, yet the buildings only stare, as if to withhold the secrets of their history.

We've left our belongings in Mantua, just a 30-minute drive away, at the elegant and cozy Rechigi Hotel. There are no first-rate hotels in Sabbioneta, but there is a handful of small cafés in which to have a basic Italian lunch. To understand Sabbioneta is to learn the story of Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna, who came to this little-known dukedom in 1550, after the death of his father. He demolished the original medieval village and built this Mannerist jewel of a city. Vespasiano was a condottiere—a merchant of war—and one of the prominent businessmen of the time. He decorated his palaces with portraits and busts of himself and the rest of the Gonzaga family. Vespasiano's muses were figures from ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and to set the tone of his small empire he selected Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare, as the patron of the city, erecting a column in her honor in the center of town.

What frames Sabbioneta as surely as its walls is the tragic tyranny of its creator. The story goes that Vespasiano, suspecting his wife of adultery, held her prisoner in the palace dungeon and slowly poisoned her to death, then murdered her supposed lover. Later, his only son also died at his hands, though no one living in Sabbioneta could tell us just how. But everyone agrees that it was to assuage his guilt that Vespasiano built a church, Chiesa dell'Incoronata. Small wonder that this domineering, tyrannical man had to issue a proclamation to force his subjects to reside in his town. In an age when fear and violence ruled, it is ironic that so much beauty could prevail.

There is something about Sabbioneta that makes us see it as if for the first time—though we've both been here before. Ironically, the site that most inspires this feeling of novelty is Teatro Olimpico, a small classical theater completed in 1590. It was used as a military barracks in the 19th century but has been beautifully restored. In its original splendor, this was indeed a place where reality became fantasy. During performances, spectacular effects were created with torchlight passed through glass balls full of colored water. We find the theater in some disarray, functioning as a set for a low-budget film. Cheaply made props hang from the ceiling and rest against the walls. Everyone in the small film crew seems to be smoking. As I get ready to take a photograph, the guide warns me that the camera flash will damage the artwork. Aggie and I look at all that is going on around us and smile at the incongruousness of this remark.

For dinner we drive 30 minutes beyond Mantua to one of the best restaurants in this region of great cooking. Dining at Dal Pescatore is a momentous experience: the tables are spaced far apart in the elegant, well-lit, modern room, and resplendent with beautiful silver and flowers. We decide on a soup of snails and fragrant porcini mushrooms, followed by duck breast in a sauce made with balsamic vinegar and fruit mustard. Dessert is a hot strawberry crostata.

Sipping an extraordinary Brunello di Montalcino, our conversation turns to the hold that Italy seems to have always had on us, and we wonder what it would be like to live part of the year here. I have known Italy through the stories of my parents and through visits to Italian relatives. I come here searching for an explanation of why my parents left their homeland, where they had secure lives built on strong traditions, to move to faraway Peru. I think about what it means to my own sense of place and identity. Aggie wonders what daily life would be like in a place so saturated with its past.

The next morning, we sense that our mood has shifted. Aldous Huxley's description in his collection of travel essays Along the Road begins to make sense to us: "I have seen great cities dead or in decay.…But over none, it seemed to me, did there brood so profound a melancholy as over Mantua." For Mantua is dark, with narrow streets, almost empty piazzas, unrestored palaces, and forgotten churches. It was once a city resplendent with art. In Mantua, the Gonzaga family—not unlike the Medicis of Florence—built extravagant palaces and sponsored the eccentric genius of Mantegna, Alberti, and Romano, among others, to create masterpieces of incredible force. As the family fortunes dissipated, many of Mantua's treasures were dispersed among the world's greatest museums.

The Palazzo del Tè, on the southern edge of Mantua's old town, is worthy of a leisurely visit, and we go early. Built by Giulio Romano as an extravagant summer palace for the Gonzaga family, it is now a veritable showcase of Romano's quirky genius—exemplified in the paintings of the sun and moon in the Camera del Sole. Its other artworks range from Egyptian painted objects to a numismatic collection to Italian modern paintings.

This was a palace dedicated to the senses. Appropriately, its walls are celebrations of the Gonzagas' favorite things—horses, astrology, and mythology. The Sala dei Cavalli, with its exquisite and detailed portraits of horses, is among my favorite of Mantua's treasures. Hugely dramatic murals in the Sala dei Giganti, based on designs by Romano and executed by Rinaldo Mantovano, show the fall of the giants crushed by thunderbolts hurled from Olympus by Jupiter. The Sala di Psiche, by Romano, is saturated with vibrantly colored murals of grotesque, rollicking, oversize men and women engrossed in earthy pleasures.

On a tour, we come across the Frutteria, which has been converted into a temporary exhibition space, and we learn of the local interest in bringing back to Mantua its lost masterpieces. "Such a show is impossible—we would have to borrow so much, and we don't have much to lend in return," says Professor Ugo Bazotta, the museum director. The murals that populate the peeling walls of the somber palace remain, thank God, and are slowly being restored. Aggie, who has championed many young, unconventional artists, wonders whether there might be a similar diaspora of New York City artwork, which is so often bought up by foreign collectors and corporations.

In contrast to Romano and his hearty sensibility is the finely tuned Mantegna, who painted frescoes in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale. His fanciful Camera degli Sposi, formerly known as the Camera Picta, is a watershed in Renaissance imagination, and widely considered to be the most beautiful chamber in the world. A delicate and tender group portrait of the Gonzagas, with delightful additions of hunting dogs, putti, and a peacock, transforms the closed room in a damp tower into a magic place of serene, airy beauty.

Recently, Isabella d'Este's diminutive chambers in the Palazzo Ducale were beautifully restored. A passageway leads to an interior garden that has the same distinctive decorative spirit that permeates this city. Mantua's importance in the art world is a result of the marriage of Isabella d'Este, one of the most brilliant women of her time, to Francesco Gonzaga. The marriage brought her to this city, and I am convinced that without her, the artists who gathered here to enlarge their vision would never have flourished so.

We rush on to visit one of Mantua's great triumphs, the jewel-like Teatro Scientifico, by the little known architect Antonio Bibiena. Today, the theater is filled with sales representatives from a large cosmetics company, all being trained for the launch of a new scent. The delicate interior is disturbed by an abundance of hot-pink decorations, and the shimmery light is as artificial as the scent that permeates the air. I try to imagine this place the night that Mozart played here, at the age of 13, and wonder if the performance was attended by men in frock coats and women in long gowns, their jewelry sparkling in the candlelight.

Late in the afternoon we visit the Palazzo d'Arco, and we are in luck: we have a chance to see the Sala dello Zodiaco, a place rarely open to the public. It is fabulously jammed with images of the zodiac, painted in the early 16th century by Giovanni Maria Falconetti, which celebrate the Mantuan obsession with astrology.

Dinner that night is at Aquila Nigra, a very formal restaurant near the center of town. The dining room is quiet and sparse, with a black-and-white-tiled floor and walls of a beautiful yellowish tone. My risotto with white truffles is deliciously flavored and adorned with zucchini flowers.

The next day we pass under the dark arcades of the Palazzo della Ragione to reach the Piazza delle Erbe. It is market day and we walk among the little stands, watching women as they carefully peruse the lush vegetables, pinching and sniffing to find the perfect ones. Most are seasonal: parsnips, cauliflower, cardoons, mushrooms, tenderly displayed in their winter monotones. I think of the supermarkets in New York, where it is impossible to tell what season it is from the selection available, leading us to easily forget the joys of seasonal cuisine. We try a few marrons glacés (chestnuts boiled in syrup and covered in a thin crackly coat of sugar) then make our way to the old Pasticceria Caravatti for an aperitif.

The flat landscape on the road to Parma is wrapped in the wet grayness of winter. Parma makes a stark contrast to the silence of Mantua. This is a university town, with streets and cafés full at all times of the day. As we arrive at our hotel Aggie receives the news of the birth of a granddaughter. Our first stop is the spectacular Duomo, where, in the cupola of the church, under Correggio's magnificent Assumption, we light a candle in honor of a new life. The large, Romanesque Baptistry to the right of the Duomo is perhaps my favorite building in Italy; its octagonal shape creates a series of pale-rose stone façades along which streams a sculptural frieze, like chapters in a book.

Today is a religious holiday and we attend mass at the grand Church of the Madonna della Steccata. The glorious edifice was built from a plan conceived by Donato Bramante, with tempera paintings and frescoes by Parmigianino and Bernardino Gatti. It is crowded with people who in their devotion seem oblivious to the masterpieces surrounding them. When mass is over, worshipers light candles at the feet of their favorite saints, and I think of my Italian relatives who seem to have a dictionary of saints to pray to for every possible need. We manage to persuade a priest to show us the sacristy, built in 1670 and bursting with remarkable oversize wood carvings.

That night we treat ourselves to dinner at La Greppia, a trattoria housed in a former stable. Here we savor a special variety of prosciutto called culatello, made from cured pork shoulder and so delicate it's almost sweet. Our next course is pasta shells stuffed with vegetables, typical of the area; we finish with slices of aged Parmesan.

It is truffle season in northern Italy, and Parma is widely known for this delicacy. During our stay we sample a range of dishes, from a simple one of baked eggs sprinkled with truffle shavings to a delicate truffle risotto.

The last stop on our drive back to Milan is a visit to a small but precious private collection in Mamiano di Traversetolo. Recently opened to the public, in a villa set among wandering peacocks on the grounds of a beautiful park, is the collection of Luigi Magnani, a wealthy merchant. He has put together an unusual selection of works. Among them is a rare group portrait by Goya, a fantastic Cézanne watercolor of bathers, a Virgin and Child by Titian, and a room with 17 paintings by Giorgio Morandi. The art is displayed in a perfect setting of carefully chosen decorative pieces, such as a table by Piranesi. For lunch at the villa's small restaurant, which is run by the caretaker's family, we eat delicious baked gnocchi with large quantities of cream and Parmesan.

Virginia Woolf once wrote: "The human soul it seems to me orients itself afresh now and then." Our week is up and no momentous decisions have been reached, no complete balance sheet has been drawn. But the trip has given me the sense of tranquillity and renewal that comes from having been with a friend, from pondering the continuing story of our lives and enjoying the simple pleasures of a well-cooked meal. We have rediscovered the healing power of Italy and art.