Its peculiarity is the fact that it made to keep its own independence, not political, but surely cultural.
Even though it has been found trace of Etruscan and Roman establishments, the first document actually mentioning the “guard post” Wartstall is dating back to the Medieval Age: in 864 the Carolingian emperor Ludovico II the Young gave to his wife the outpost that the Longobard fortified for defence against the Byzantine located in Mantua. The name of the town is actually coming from the longobard words wart – to guard – and stall – station. During time, it changed in Wardastalla and eventually in Guastalla.
The city faced many ownership transfers, until it became part of the reign of Canossa in 1100: the place where it rose is strategic for military purposes and is very fertile. It is located on the south shore of the Big River Po, where there is a crossing point. When Mathilde of Canossa decided to leave it to the land of Piacenza in 1102, it began a new cycle of transfer of ownership, until it became part of the Land of Milan in 1402.
In 1428 the Torelli, a feudatory family of the Visconti of Milan, transformed the territory in a county and reset the city’s urban and architectural plan: It was build the main square, a palace, a fortress and many churches. This way, Guastalla changed its aspect of medieval fortification into a real Renaissance city.
It is understood that the great advantages of this land were clear to the most powerful family of the zone: the Gonzaga of Mantua. Ferrante I Gonzaga was actually very interested in the city, and he decided to buy it from the Torelli, who accepted the offer in 1539. Changing owner, Guastalla become part of the Holy Roman Empire, completely independent from the municipality of Mantua. However, Ferrante I’s project was more ambitious: he wanted to create a new branch of the family that would become the Gonzaga of Guastalla, independent from the family of Mantua. Only his second successor, Ferrante II, made it: in 1621 the city of Guastalla became capital of the new Land of Guastalla that included the towns of Reggiolo, Desolo and Luzzara.
In the first century of the Gonzaga sovereign the Land lived a golden age. It became one of the most important fortified city of the time. The streets were all taking to the square where the Cathedral of Saint Peter Apostle (the Dome) was built. The Ducal Palace It was restructured and completed, and were invited there many artist, some notorious one like Guercino, the Carracci brothers and Torquato Tasso. It was also established a Mint, active until 1746.
However, starting from 1689, Guastalla was attacked many times: first the Spanish invaded it, destroying part of the walls and then the Austrian occupied and ransacked it. It began a season of decadence culminating with the collapse of the dynasty of the Gonzaga of Guastalla in 1735. The lands turned back to be just a military strategic zone: in a first time they were transferred to Carlo Emanuele III Savoia and then to the Borbone of Parma. In 1806, Guastalla, Luzzara and Reggiolo turned into an independent Land again, under the sovereign of Paolina Bonaparte, and at my arrival, in 1814, they were annexed to my ownership as an exclave, creating the Land of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla. On my death, all the Land became part of the Land of Modena and then it was transferred to the Kingdom of Sardinia. Eventually, in 1861, with the Unità d’Italia (the time that Italy became one nation), Guastalla, Luzzara and Reggiolo became part of the province of Reggio-Emilia, as they still be today.
Visiting Guastalla you immediately realize you are not walking in a small village: its aspect leaks out its great past. You can see it in the majesty of its Renaissance palaces, churches and road network.
In the main square, Mazzini Square, there is the Ducal Palace, with its bright red walls, the Dome of Saint Peter Apostle, and the city hall. In the middle of the square there is a monument created by the sixteenth-century sculptor Leone Leoni called “Ferrante I Gonzaga dominating the Envy”.
The church of the Dome was commissioned by Cesare Gonzaga in 1569, but the structure was modified many times. The most evident restoration is in the façade, on which today you can admire an eighteenth-century Baroque style.
The Town Hall Palace construction started under the Torelli sovereign and was completed under the Gonzaga’s one, same as the Ducal Palace was. Francesco Capriani designed this last project: this architect, called Volterra, had been very active in the city as he designed also the Cathedral and part of the roads network.
Actually, there is an intersection in Guastalla called “The Volterra Cross”: he, together with the architect Giunti, planned a new symmetrical net, making of this crossing the centre of the Renaissance city (which is not the current one). Its four branches are oriented to the four compass point, and take to four churches: the Dome heading north, the church of Saint Mary of the Servants heading east, the church of Saint Charles heading south and the church of the Holy Crucifix, or “of the Capuchin”, heading west. This last one is located in Garibaldi Square, which is surrounded by other significant buildings for the story of the city, like Frattini’s Palace, the Mount of Mercy and the octagonal church of the Blessed Virgin of the Conception. This square rise on a side of Corso Garibaldi, the oldest street of Guastalla, testifying the old medieval borough: it was connecting the fortress to the village and to the Jewish ghetto. There are two important building located on this street: the Maldotti Library, founded in 1801, which collects a 100.000 books and many archives, and the Church of the Saint Cross, also known as “The Death Church”, which crypt is part of the original medieval church.
Going south from Garibaldi Square you can see the Civic Tower: this was built in 1723 in the site where was established the fortress before the destruction of Spanish invasion in 1690. The people from Guastalla call it Campanon.
Eventually, leaving Garibaldi Square on via Verdi you will reach the Municipal Theatre, built in 1671, but restored many times because of many fires.
It is worth mentioning the dialect spoke by the people from Guastalla. Truth is that in Italy, almost any town has its own dialect, quite different from the one of town next to, but the Guastalla’s one is very peculiar, because of the many influences it had. That’s why you can hear sounds very similar to the Mantua dialect, like the ö and the ü from Lombardia, and other very Parmisan sounds, like the turning of the i in é. It is completely different from the dialect from Reggio and it can be considered part of the Mantua-Ferrara dialects group.
To finish your Guastalla visit in the best way and do not miss any of the characteristics part of the city, the best thing you can do is to go on the river shore of the Po, where pubs and restaurants increase even more the charm of the sunset on the Big River.