Discovering Monselice

by Iryna Venco on 6 November 2018

The piazza Mazzini, Monselice (PD)

Monselice, one of those renowned medieval walled towns of the Veneto region, is situated in a strategic position where the Euganean Hills meet a vast plain with inland waterways that originally led straight to the Adriatic Sea. There is almost nothing left now of its 14th-century town walls, which fell into ruin after losing their military function. Nevertheless, many other historic buildings still remain and bear witness to the town’s long and fabulous history.

Archaeological finds confirm that the area around Monselice had already been visited and settled by nomadic people by the third millennium BC. Historians suggest, however, that the town itself was only established in Roman times and developed during the Byzantine period, when the first fortification was built. Paolo Diacono, the ancient historian and writer of Lombard origin, first named Monselice in his work “The History of the Lombards”. Later the town fell under the control of the rulers of Padua - Ezzelino da Romano and the Carraresi family - who built important fortifications there, including the Mastio Federiciano (the keep of Emperor Frederick II of Swabia), the castle, the Civic Tower and a system of concentric town walls. After this, during the 1400s, Monselice fell under the domination of the Venetian Republic (or Serenissima as it was known) and would remain controlled by it for the four centuries that followed.

Vivid and dynamic, modern Monselice offers visitors a great deal. From exciting sightseeing to stunning countryside, from local gastronomic delights to amazing cultural festivals, Monselice has it all.

To explore Monselice’s major landmarks, The Piazza Mazzini, the hub of the ancient town, provides a good starting point. The square is named after an eminent Italian politician, Giuseppe Mazzini, who fought to make Italy united and independent.

The western side of the square is bound by a large stretch of the ancient town walls, crowned with Guelph battlements, and the tall Civic Tower. These were built by Ezzelino da Romano during the 13th century. The tower bears the town’s coat of arms, situated beneath a clock and a triple arcade loggia in its upper level houses a valuable Gothic bell, cast in bronze in the 15th century. Should you climb the 89 steps to the top, you will see the clock mechanism at work and profit from a stunning view of the town.

On the east side of the square stand important historic buildings, including an elegant 15th-century palace - Palazzo della Loggetta, the famous fountain of Mario Botta and the Monumental Complex of San Paolo. The Palazzo della Loggetta once housed the local Monte di Pietà (a charity that loaned money to the poor) and one of its notable features is its 17th-century "loggia", or open corridors, decorated with Doric columns. The ancient church of San Paolo today holds archaeological artefacts from Monselice and its surrounding area spanning the period from prehistory to the early Middle Ages as well as a fresco depicting San Francesco d’Assisi, considered to be the most ancient painting of him found in the whole of Veneto.

The church of San Paolo, Monselice (PD)

Just a short way from the church is the Castle of Monselice. This defensive fortification, the origins of which go back to the early Middle Ages, has a long history of reconstruction and transformation. At the end of the 15th century, the castle was bought by the Marcello, a noble Venetian family, who transformed it into a residence, still impacting on the appearance of the building today. The castle became a museum in 1942 and has since held a remarkable collection of weapons and furnishings. Viewing this collection gives visitors a fascinating insight into the life and atmosphere of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in the town. On the ground floor of the castle library is situated the Antiquarium Longobardo Museum, which collects artefacts from Lombard tombs discovered on the hillside of Rocca Hill.

Continuing your walk along the cobbled Via Santuario, you will glimpse the 16th-century Villa Nani, enclosed by an eight-foot stone wall that is beautifully decorated with statues of dwarves. Further up the street is the parish church of San Justina, one of the oldest churches in Monselice, better known as the Duomo Vecchio (Old Duomo). Construction of this church began in 1256 and finished around twenty years later. Built of trachyte and fired bricks, it provides a fine example of the Romanesque style with certain decorative Gothic elements having been added.

A little further on is the Roman gate to the Jubilee Sanctuary of the Seven Churches. Designed by the architect Vicenzo Scamozzi, the sanctuary comprises the Oratory of San Giorgio and six chapels which gracefully line a cobbled path that leads to the exedra of San Francesco and the 16th-century Villa Duodo. This holy place is also known as the “small, sacred Rome of Monselice”, since in 1605, Pope Paolo V issued a papal bull granting to this sanctuary the same indulgences given to devotees on a pilgrimage to the seven major basilicas in Rome.

The Oratory of San Giorgio, Monselice (PD)

From the left side of the exedra, the steps lead up to the Mastio Federiciano, one of the most important historic sights of Monselice. Standing alone at the top of Rocca Hill, this strong keep overlooks the old town. Initially built in 1239 by Ezzelino da Romano on the base of the 10th-century church of St Justina, it was extended considerably by the Carraresi family. The inner part of the keep has recently been transformed into a small museum to house artefacts from the site, while its upper part, containing a panoramic terrace, offers a stunning view of the Euganean Hills and the vast plain that stretches up to Venice. It is even said that on a clear day, the Piazza San Marco of Venice becomes visible.

To find out more about Monselice’s ancient past and traditions as well as to discover the life and the spirit of modern-day Monselicensi, visit the major festivals of the town. These include the Giostra della Rocca, the Festa di San Valentino, the Rocca in Fiore and the Fiera dei Santi.

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