A SHORT HISTORY OF PAVIA
Pavia is situated in the Po plane, by the Ticino
banks, at only 5-6 km from the confluence of the two rivers and 35 km
from Milan. The Civic Tower, the city centre, was more or less at 45˚ 11’
N and 009˚ 09’ E of Greenwich. The town was founded as a Roman colony in
the first century B.C. in a land populated by Ligurians and Celts (the Levi and Marici tribes),
in a strategic place for the waterway traffic. At
the beginning it was called Ticinum,
by the name of its river. What is left of the Roman town is the chess‑board
street plan and the brick vaulted sewerage system.
The tradition tells of another town (Papia vegia) situated a little bit upstream by the boundaries of the Ticino valley, near Santa Sofia. Its inhabitants were however forced by misterious facts to leave it and a dove showed them where to found the new town, in the same place where afterward was built a church to St. Thomas. The legend says that were spirits and ghosts to destroy the walls and the buildings of Papia vegia. Maybe the tradition recalled a dispute among several tribes, put to an end by the Roman conquest.
Ticinum became municipium, with the right of Roman citizenship, and was enclosed in the Papiria tribe in 43 B.C.. Vitellius was proclaimed emperor in Ticinum in 69 A.D. In 268 M. Aurelius Claudius made the town his headquarters in the war against his rival Aureolus Aurelianus, and in 271 nearby the town he defeated the first invasion of German peoples (Suevs, Sarmats and Markmans). The emperor Honorius was in Ticinum in 408, when the rebellion led by Stilicon blew out. During the Roman Empire the town was one of the key places for the control of the Po plain; placed south of Mediolanum it was the last port for the waterway traffic going upstream the Po and the Ticino; there was a Mint and an arm factory. A stone bridge over the river Ticino was built in the last period of the empire and it withstood till the 14th century. In 452 the Huns sacked Ticinum and Mediolanum. In 476, at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Horestes sought refuge here and was defeated by Odoacre. The small town was sacked and burnt by the Heruli who deposed the last Roman Emperor. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric made Ticinum one of his favourite towns together with Ravenna and Verona and he built a royal palace, an amphitheatre and the thermal baths. The town became the head of the Gothic war against the Byzantine Empire and maybe this is why in this period it was being called Papia or “the city of the palace”.
From 553 to 568 Pavia remained under the Byzantine rule and its fortifications were renewed. In 572, after three years of siege, it became the capital of the Longobard kingdom. The tradition says that the Longobard king’s horse kneeled down within the city walls and stood up again only after the conquering king Alboin promised not to harm the people who opposed him for such a long time. Then, as a sign of peace, a woman made up and gave him a cake shaped as the Easter Dove. The Longobard nobles and warriors settled themselves by the old walls in the north‑east of the town, in the place behind the present Mezzabarba Residence. During Queen Theudelinda times the Longobards were converted from Arianism to Roman Catholicism. Kings and Queens built several churches which we can still see although through their reconstruction. At the end of the Longobard kingdom, Pavia held for nine months the siege of Charlemagne and his Frankish warriors who had the help, as the legend tells, of Bishop St. Theodore’s miracles. During the following Carolingian and Saxon Empires Pavia was still capital of Italy and several kings were crowned in St. Michael’s Basilica. Merchants from Pavia were granted special privileges and almost all Feudal‑Bishops had their representatives in the town that was also the seat of the Palace Law ‑ Court and Administration. The waterway traffic from the East to Central Europe made the town rich and the presence of the Royal Court attracted streams of valued goods.
The plain around Pavia, reclaimed and improved by the Romans through the “centuriatio” (a regular-meshed net of drainage and irrigation canals), degraded during the Barbaric period due to an irregular water distribution. Nevertheless the medieval monastic orders took care of it replacing the old net with a new one, while several orders of knighthood gave protection from brigands and plunderers to the pilgrims travelling toward Rome and the Holy Land (in the 10th cent. invasions of Saracen pirates frequently arrived to the Alps). In 983 Peter Canepanova from Pavia became Pope with the name of John XIV, but he lasted only few months. Some years later the Roman people turned out the German Pope Gregory V who took refuge nearby Pavia for a year before going back to Rome supported by the imperial army to get his own revenge on his rival the antipope. In the 11th cent. Pavia became a free town (a commune). During the fights between the Emperor and the Pope it supported the Emperor against the Lombard League. Frederick I (Barbarossa) was generous toward the capital of the Italian Kingdom and he helped to restore and rebuild many churches. The Twin Cathedrals, St. Michael’s, St. Peter’s, St. John’s and other churches were rebuilt during the 12th cent. giving Pavia a unique Romanesque outlook. In that time Pavia was told to be a licentious town due to the University students. In the 12th cent. the Archipoet from Cologne sang:
Who is the one who won’t burn once put into the fire? Who is the one who will be able to remain chaste although living in Pavia, where Venus catches young men with her finger, chains them with her sight and conquers them with her presence? Every road lead to Venus’ beds, among many towers the missing one is the Virtue’s.
After two centuries the chronicler Petrus Azarius expressed a similar opinion concerning the way of life in Pavia during the Visconti Age:
Pavia became a house of ill fame for corrupted women, who were many, and for the great number of corrupted young men. Neither God nor the Saints were honoured. Merry making, dances, sing‑songs and musical instruments resounded everywhere. As the old traditions said, during the religious vigils, men and women lay together to enjoy carnal pleasures. (Chronicon Petri Azarii)
During those centuries bitter fights took place against Milan to gain the economic and political power until Pavia, conquered by the Visconti once in 1315 and definetively in 1359, remained chained to the rival town under the same Lordship.
The Visconti conquest strenghtened the political and economic supremacy of Milan, but offered Pavia a new season of artistic and cultural blossoming. The “Studium” founded by Lotarius in the 10th cent., became officialy a University. The Visconti took care of the town image since they wanted to leave an indelible mark as sign of their power. They built the Castle after demolishing a whole district; they widened Strada Nuova (the old kardo maximus) making it the new town axis; they opened Piazza Grande, the square seat of the Town Hall (the present Piazza della Vittoria) and they rebuilt the bridge over the Ticino river once destroyed after a huge flood. As for some other medieval irregular winding bridges, also the one in Pavia was told to have been built by the Devil during just one night, in exchange of the soul of the first man who would have crossed it. However the legend says that the Podestà made a dog cross the bridge before him, thus cheating the Devil.
A wide hunting park north of the Castle reached the Certosa delle Grazie Sanctuary which was intended to be the family mausoleum . In the same years St. Mary’s (Carmine) and St. Thomas’ churches were built.
In 1447 Filippo Maria Visconti died without heirs, therefore Pavia and Milan proclaimed themselves republics. However soon the towns fell under the Sforza rule (Pavia after only 33 days). The last one of them Lodovico il Moro was a patron and friend of Bramante, Leonardo da Vinci and many other artists. The new Cathedral works began during these years (but did not finish) and the University settled in the present place. In 1525, under the town walls, was fought the important battle between Spain and France, during which the French king Francis I was captured. Among the episodes of this battle, the death of Lord from La Palice is the one remembered by generations of students with the sentence «fifteen minutes before dying he was still alive». A poetical play upon words made by soldiers or students made the word “lapalissian” synonim of everything obvious.
The victory of the Spanish imperial army led to a wave of strict Catholic rule, with many trials against heretics and witches and the expulsion of the Jewish bankers (here in Pavia, some decades before, preached the blessed Bernard from Feltre who founded the pawnshops and legalized the banking system in the catholic society). From the 16th to the 19th cent. the town was under the French, Spanish and then Austrian rule. Its economic and cultural preminence declined little by little. The Counter‑Reformation gave Pavia one of the first seminars (settled in St. Andrew’s church whose foundations can still be seen in Via Cavallotti under a modern block of flats) and the two University colleges Ghislieri e Borromeo for University students. During the Baroque period almost every church within the town was restored and enriched with stuccoes. Sometimes, recently, the removal of the stuccoes in the effort to bring to light traces of Middle Ages damaged several works of art without, however, getting back the features of older ages. From the 18th cent. we have inherited some aristocratic residences (Mezzabarba, Olevano, Vistarino) and the Four Knights’ Theatre, designed by Bibbiena brothers, then renamed after the tenor Fraschini. In the middle of the 18th cent. the large scale introduction of rice farming improved the population nourishment but worsened the until then salubrious climatic conditions. The extension of the artificial damp areas made the foggy days more and more frequent and in addition spread malarial fever. During the Austrian Empire, Maria Theresa refounded and rebuilt the University; Joseph II nationalized the Seminar rebuilding it into St. Thomas’ church and supressed all monastries which became part of the state property. Only afterward, between the 19th and the 20th cent. some monuments were restored (St. Peter’s church is the most important example, but there are also St. Salvatore and St. Mauro). By the national independence wars, Pavia was under the Savoyard kingdom and regained the territory which was severed during the 17th cent. wars. The present “Provincia” (the land under the present administration) has more or less the same boundaries of the old principality. We are used to define “historical centre” the town within the old walls, the ones demolished partly at the end of the 19th cent. and partly after the First World War. Nevertheless, the town has old monuments outside the walls too and, in addition, some buildings of our age can be considered as “monuments” too. Therefore, the idea of “historical centre” is useful to recall that the whole town environment, with its streets, its buildings, even the less important, represents the historical and cultural evidence to study, preserve and restore.
The widest extension of the pre‑industrial town kept itself within an area of 220 hectares closed into the medieval walls reinforced by the 16th cent. bastions. The Roman town numbered 8,000 inhabitants and developed to 40,000 in the first century after year 1000. Then wars, epidemics and economic decay, made the population decrease to 18,000 units. In 1815 there were 22,000 people, but the beginning of industrialization caused a growth attracting manpower from the country.
In 1901 Pavia reached 39,000 people. Today the town, after having reached 89,000 people, hosts more or less 75,000 people excluding the University students (who are more than 23,000, considering both the local ones and those coming from outside the town). The built area is nowadays considerably wider than the “historical centre” enclosed into the old town walls.