The train ride from Milan to Pavia takes less than 30 minutes but seems to span centuries. Italy’s most modern city and the ancient university town of 75,000 hardly seem like rivals. Yet it was Pavia – not Milan – which spent nearly 500 years as the capital of Italy. It wasn’t until the end of the Renaissance that Pavia’s development slowed, while Milan continued hurtling towards the future. Factories and skyscrapers now engulf older landmarks in the bigger city, while Pavia preserves much of its historic fabric. Towers, churches, and a castle all cluster within walking distance of the Ticino River. In the farmlands just outside of town, the Certosa di Pavia rises like amarble jewel.
Pavia’s proximity to Milan makes an easy day trip. The Certosa di Pavia lies 8 km (5 miles) north of town, with its own train stop. To save time and avoid the site’s mid-day closure, we recommend visiting the monastery on the way into or out of Pavia. All sites are marked on our Google map.
The town of Pavia owes its existence to the river. During the wars with Hannibal around 218 BCE, ancient Romans built a military camp to defend a bridge. They named the settlement Ticinum, after the river. After several restorations, a 1351 rebuild gave the bridge its current appearance as well as a new name: Ponte Coperto, or Covered Bridge. Originally, it had defensive towers on either end, but the small chapel in the middle remains. Heavy bombing in World War II required extensive repairs.
Piazza della Vittoria
Two Roman contributions remain in Pavia. One is invisible: a sewer system used continuously until 1970. The other is the street grid. Today, Pavia remains centered at the crossroads of Corso Cavour and Corso di Strada Nuova, with the site of the ancient Forum now holding the Piazza della Vittoria. The elegant expanse stretches for four blocks, with plenty of cafés to sit and soak up the atmosphere.
Pavia came into its own after the Roman Empire collapsed. The invading Lombards made it their new capital in 554 as they swept down the peninsula. Charlemagne defeated them in 774, but his new Holy Roman Empire kept Pavia as the capital of Italy. As a result, the city stayed loyal to the Emperor even in the 11th century when many city-states began to declare independence.
San Pietro in Ciel D’Oro
The Basilica di San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro takes its name from the mosaic in its apse, depicting Saint Peter in a golden sky. From 720 to 725, King Liutprand rebuilt a sixth-century church to house the recently-acquired remains of St. Augustine; most of the church we see today dates to 1132. An elaborate white marble “ark” from the 14th century holds the sacred tomb. The church also holds the remains of Boethius, another Christian philosopher-martyr. Open 8:30-12 & 3:30-7 daily; see website for more information.
Lombard kings received their ‘Iron Crown’ at Pavia’s Basilica di San Michele Maggiore, a church founded in the 660’s. The coronation tradition continued with Holy Roman Emperors such as Frederick Barbarossa in 1155.
Like many churches in the region, San Michele was rebuilt around 1100. But a somewhat severe sandstone façade makes it stand out from the typical Lombard brick structures. The effect is softened by Romanesque carvings, many weathered to abstraction. Inside, the better-preserved capitals showcase medieval creativity at its best: flora and fauna tangle with saints, devils, and mythological creatures.
While the main entrance is on Via S. Michele, the transept extends from the altar to a separate façade on the Piazzetta Azzani. Visiting hours: Monday 8:30-12 & 2:30-7, Tuesday-Saturday 8:30-5, Sundays/holidays 11:30-5.
Basilica di San Teodoro
Founded in 752 and rebuilt in 1117, the Basilica di San Teodoro followed the same general timeline as the San Michele. However, it served the local community of fishermen rather than royalty which might account for the simple lines and absence of ornamentation.
Besides the beautifully pure Romanesque style, this church is worth visiting for the frescoes – especially the large-scale view of Pavia from above. The 1525 painting contains surprising details like a church façade incorporating a brothel. Open Monday-Friday 8-12:30 & 3:30-7, weekends/holidays 8-7.
Towers of Pavia
In the 11th century a wave of local uprisings led to the rise of independent city governments. Plenty of shifting alliances and infighting ensued, prompting construction of myriad towers. The tower trend began as a way for urban factions to control streets and neighborhoods. Eventually their size became associated with dominance, and competition drove them up to almost absurd heights. Even with wall thickness decreasing towards the top, most towers toppled eventually.
On the left, rubble from the collapsed bell tower by the Duomo. On the right, an antique etching of the Torri di Pavia near the university.
The Torri di Pavia refers to the dramatic cluster of three towers around the Piazza di Leonardo da Vinci. Historians estimate that Pavia held about 65 such structures during their peak in the 12th century, but few survive today. The Civic Tower next to the Duomo collapsed in 1989, raising awareness of (and funding for) precarious Italian landmarks.
After several messy centuries, a handful of Italy’s independent city-states emerged as dominant. Milan sealed its place among the major powers with a final defeat of its neighbor Pavia in 1359. After such a takeover, most towns would shuffle off to history’s sidelines – instead, Pavia’s fortunes went up. Milan’s ruling dynasty, the ruthless Viscontis, wanted to revive the Lombard dream of a united Italian peninsula ruled by a local family. Where better to base their new empire than Pavia, the historic capital?
Visconti Castle & Civic Museums
The Viscontis started by building a new castle in Pavia in 1360. Constructed as a residence rather than a stronghold, the elegant structure took less than six years to complete. Today the castle houses Pavia’s Civic Museums. Highlights include the Pinacoteca Malaspina with works by Bellini, Luini, Correggio, Veronese as well as a large wooden model of the Duomo from 1497. See website for visiting information.
University of Pavia
The Viscontis’ most lasting effect on Pavia turned out to be the university. It was founded in 1361 by the Duke of Milan to promote the city as an intellectual and cultural center. Today it’s one of Italy’s most prestigious universities and houses an eclectic series of specialty museums: from alumnus Alessandro Volta’s cabinet of batteries to life-size anatomical wax models and the head of scientist Antonio Scarpa preserved in formaldehyde. Most of the museums have limited opening hours: check the website for details.
Cathedral (Duomo di Pavia)
The Visconti dynasty lost control of Milan in the 15th century, but the equally-aggressive Sforzas lost no time in seizing power for themselves. By now the Renaissance was in full swing, and Milan’s wealth enabled Ludovico Sforza to entice the likes of Leonardo da Vinci to the duchy. The duke’s brother, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, commissioned an ambitious project in 1488: replacing the existing twin cathedrals with a single grand structure.
Several architects worked on the project, most notably Donato Bramante and (probably) his friend Leonardo da Vinci. The latter’s influence is harder to discern since his interest in architecture remained theoretical. The cathedral includesa massive dome – at the time, only Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore surpassed it in size. The plan and dome of Pavia’s Duomo paved the way for Bramante’s design of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Construction dragged on into the 19th century, and the façade never got its planned marble sheathing.
The Visconti Castle’s hunting grounds once stretched for 8 km (5 miles) north of Pavia. On the other side, the Certosa di Pavia grew into one of the most exquisite building complexes of the Renaissance, albeit a rather paradoxical one. The opulent monastery for reclusive Carthusian monks was founded by the wealthiest and least scrupulous man of his day.
It all started when the Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti realized he wouldn’t be able to use Milan’s cathedral as a family mausoleum. The resourceful tyrant took his project to Pavia, where he gifted land for a new community of monks. Naturally their church would honor the Visconti properly, with splendid tombs and monuments.
To ensure control over the monastery’s design, the Duke worked with the Carthusians, one of the Church’s humblest orders. The hermetic monks focused on inner contemplation rather than the appearance of their new home. Their most prominent contribution may have been the property’s name: Certosa, or Charterhouse, which refers to the order’s origins in Chartreuse, France.
Certosa di Pavia: Exterior
Visconti didn’t just provide construction funds, he also granted the monks a not-inconsiderable amount of land – along with a contract requiring them to spend a certain proportion of their income on the physical compound. The use of marble illustrates the project’s ambitions. Not just any marble would do:the monastery had Carrara’s renowned stone shipped all the way around Italy and up the Po River to Pavia. It arrived in such quantities that the Certosa spawned a side business as a regional marble distributor. For accents, exotic marbles sourced from ancient Roman ruins provided touches of deep red and green.
All of this may not prepare visitors for the monastery’s incredible façade. Simple circles and squares mingle with stylized reliefs and fully-representational three-dimensional carvings. Several generations of architects contributed to the design, reworking it along the way to keep it as modern as possible. Although the façade was not considered finished, work paused in the 16th century. Subsequent designs never inspired enough enthusiasm to galvanize more construction. The community instead focused on converting the old summer palace (to the right as one approaches the main church) into posh accommodations and a museum for visiting dignitaries.
Certosa di Pavia: Interior
Moving inside the church and into the rest of the monastery takes one back in time to earlier architectural styles. The main church began with Milan’s Gothic Duomo as a model – but while that building can seem dark and heavy, the Certosa’s interior glows with color and pattern. Its walls hold the largest fresco cycle in 15th-century Italy, with work by Perugino and Bernardino Luini. The most esteemed piece of art might be the panel carved in 1409 by the Embriachi workshop of Florence. The astonishingly intricate triptych – among the finest ever made – was carved for the Visconti from “ivory” hippo teeth. A gang of art thieves stole the piece in 1985 but police recovered it within a year.
On the left, a trompe l’oeil monk peering down demonstrates the Renaissance tendency to play with the relationship between painting and architecture. The refectory is on the right.
For all the Duke’s success in ensuring funding and prestige for the Certosa di Pavia, it never did fulfill its original purpose as a family mausoleum. Only Gian Galeazzo Visconti himself and his first wife are buried here; the rest of the family lie elsewhere. There is an empty monument to the duchy’s most famous ruler, Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza, and his equally-legendary wife Beatrice d’Este – which the monks got at a bargain price after the French took over Milan. Centuries later, a pair of monks hid the stolen corpse of Benito Mussolini at the monastery.
Certosa di Pavia: Cloisters
Like all Carthusian monasteries, the Certosa di Pavia has not one but two cloisters. Communal spaces such as the Sacristy and Refectory cluster around the Small Cloister, while the Large Cloister holds 24 detached living spaces.
Independent wealth and a pastoral location insulated the Certosa from the outside world for centuries. But towards the end of the 18th century religious reforms expelled the Carthusians. Italy’s new government requisitioned the property in the 1860’s, and the next century saw alternating periods of abandonment with efforts to repair and revive the monastery. Since 1968, the Certosa has been home to a group of Cistercian monks who, like the Carthusians, live ascetic lives in near-complete silence.
Visiting the Certosa di Pavia
The Certosa di Pavia is open Tuesday-Sunday, from 9-11:30 and afternoons beginning at 2:30. For seasonal closing times and travel information, see the website.
The main church and museum are open to the public, with a modest dress code (no bare shoulders or knees). To access the rest of the monastery, visitors can take an Italian-language tour led by one of the monks. Tours generally start whenever enough people have gathered, rather than according to a fixed schedule. Arriving at around ten, we had just the right amount of time to explore the church before picking up a tour. Instead of fixed-price ticketing, the monastery requests a donation; visitors can also purchase honey, soap, and other products made on-site at a shop by the museum.
Getting to Pavia and the Certosa di Pavia
Frequent trains run between Pavia and Milan, many of which stop at the Certosa di Pavia station en route.
Pavia’s train station lies about 13 minutes’ walk from the Piazza della Vittoria.
The Certosa di Pavia lies 8 km (5 miles) north of the city of Pavia, with its own small train station on the line from Pavia to Milan. At the edge of a parking area, signs guide visitors through the farmlands to the monastery visible in the distance. The 1.5 km (1 mile) walk takes about 20 minutes.
A word of caution when using digital maps: several locations go by the name “Certosa di Pavia” including the monastery itself, the train station (1.5 km east), and a village (1.6 km west). Be sure to verify the location on the map itself before getting directions; our map indicates the monastery and train station.