Veneto: Monselice

The Mastio Federicano on the summit of the hill.

The picturesque town of Monselice has a lot in store for casual tourists and seasoned travellers alike. The ruins of an old fortress (Mastio) on top of a hill, beautiful villas, lovely streets, many interesting religious buildings and good food. Moreover, the town has excellent rail connections to cities like Padova, Venice and Bologna. A trip to Venice by train takes just 50 minutes, provided that you take the express train (regionale veloce). Monselice is usually a very quiet town, but that changes drastically during the local festivals. We attended the July 2017 Notte del Fuoco (‘Night of the Fire’) festival, when many hundreds of people were strolling through the streets. This was a wonderful experience, and everybody seemed to be having a great time.

Early history

The name of the town derives from two Latin words: mons, which means mountain, and silicis, which is the genitive of silex, a word that means ‘flint’. Although the area of Monselice has been inhabited since at least the bronze age, it is best to place the birth of Monselice in the fifth or sixth century CE, when defensive structures were built on the mons silicis, the hill now called the colle della Rocca. In this period, Italy suffered from invasions by various foreign tribes, such as the Visigoths, the Huns, the Ostrogoths and finally the Longobards. One possibility – although I concede there is no concrete evidence to back up this theory – is that the first fortifications were built by the Eastern Roman Empire after it had taken Italy back from the Ostrogoths during the prolonged conflict known as the Gothic War (535-554). The fortress of Monselice certainly existed when the Longobards under their King Alboin (ca. 560-572) invaded Italy in 568, and the Roman garrison stationed there managed to hold out against Longobard forces until the town was finally taken by King Agilulf (591-616) in 602.

The Castello Cini di Monselice.

As happens so often with fortresses – like Roman castra and castella – over time civilian settlements tend to pop up around them. Monselice was no exception. The population grew significantly, and by the twelfth century, Monselice had acquired the status of a commune, a municipality with its own administration. During the struggle between the Guelphs – who supported the Pope – and the Ghibellines – who supported the Holy Roman Emperor – Monselice fell under the jurisdiction of the vicarius Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259). Ezzelino was an important lieutenant of the emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. And while Frederick (1194-1250) was an exceptionally cultured man who spoke multiple languages fluently, Ezzelino was a typical ruffian, who was known for his cruelty. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that he was a capable commander as well. Ezzelino had become ruler of Padova in 1237 after taking the city from its Venetian podestà Pietro Tiepolo. He controlled Vicenza, Verona and Treviso as well. His marriage to the emperor’s natural daughter had obviously cemented his position at the imperial court.

However, things started to go downhill quickly after Frederick’s death in 1250. John Julius Norwich asserts that “Ezzelino by his inhuman brutality had earned himself the reputation of an ogre, detested and feared throughout Lombardy, Friuli and the Marches”.[1] In 1254, his reputation also earned him an excommunication from Pope Innocentius IV, who subsequently launched a crusade against the vicarius. Now perhaps we need to take all the stories of blinded prisoners and mutilated children that the Pope used to justify this crusade with a pinch of salt. The picture of Ezzelino’s life is based on sources that are almost without exception hostile to him. He may certainly have been a monster and a tyrant, and no one would have wanted him as a neighbour. However, when he was finally defeated and killed in 1259, a city like Venice celebrated his death above all because of the disappearance of “a ruler who had kept back the rents that were legally due to Venetian churches from their properties on the mainland”.[2]

Torre Civica and part of Monselice’s walls.

In spite of his horrible reputation, Ezzelino da Romano was important for Monselice. He first of all surrounded the town with a system of walls, greatly strengthening Monselice’s defences. Ordered to do so by the emperor, he also built the present fortress on top of the hill, which is named the Mastio Federicano after Frederick. Ezzelino was furthermore responsible for the Torre Civica in the centre of the town, and for the construction of the Palazzo di Ezzelino, a large tower that is now part of the Castello di Monselice. After the death of Ezzelino, Monselice fell under the influence of Padova, until it was taken by Cangrande I della Scala, ruler of Verona, in late 1317. The emperor Louis IV the Bavarian made Cangrande the imperial vicarius of Monselice in 1327, but less than ten years after his death (which was in 1329), the town was retaken by Ubertino da Carrara of Padova.

Later history

Padova itself subsequently fell under Venetian rule in late 1405, and therefore Monselice also became part of Venice’s mainland possessions, or terra firma. Venetian domination ushered in a new era or wealth and prosperity for Monselice. Although it was attacked one more time, in 1509, by troops from the League of Cambrai, the town quickly lost its military importance and started to focus on trade instead. Soon money started to pour in. In the fifteenth century, many Venetians from important families started to build impressive villas in and around Monselice, many of which survive. The Marcello family for instance acquired the former Palazzo di Ezzelino, enlarged it and turned it into a luxurious residence called the Ca’ Marcello. The residence later became the property of Count Vittorio Cini (1885-1977), who thoroughly restored it in 1935. The Castello of Monselice is now often called the Castello Cini after him. Note that the Castello can be visited by tourists, but only with a guide (“Le visite sono solo guidate”, according to the Castello’s website). In fact, contrary to what some travel guides claim, the remains of the Mastio Federicano can also be visited, again only with a guide.

View of Monselice.

Pieve di Santa Giustina.

In the nineteenth century, the old walls of the town proved to be an obstacle for further urban development. As a result, large parts of the walls, the town gate and several towers were demolished. Since then, Monselice has expanded well beyond the traditional borders of the town. It is now a sizeable and modern municipality of over 17.000 citizens. Sections of the medieval wall can, however, still be seen along the Via Argine Destro. Combined with the Torre Civica and the Mastio Federicano, they are among the most important remnants of medieval Monselice.

The old Duomo

Monselice’s new Duomo, built in the twentieth century and dedicated to San Giuseppe, is not very interesting. A visit to the old Duomo, the pieve of Santa Giustina, is, however, highly recommended. A pieve is basically a rural church with a baptistery, and in this case the church is dedicated to Santa Giustina, an early martyr from Padova, killed in 303 or 304. The church can be found on the slopes of the colle della Rocca, along the Via del Santuario and the Via Sette Chiese. Originally, there seems to have been a church on the summit of the hill itself, but this was demolished in 1239 to clear the way for the Mastio Federicano. Construction of a new church, further downhill, started somewhere between 1239 and 1256, when the Santa Giustina was consecrated, although it took several more years to actually complete it.

Polyptych of Santa Giustina.

Fresco in the Santa Giustina.

The exterior of the church is very simple, but quite charming. It is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic elements. The facade is divided into five sections, and we see a rose window, two mullioned windows and an elegant loggia with a pointed arch over the main entrance. Inside, the simplicity continues, and so does the charm. The Santa Giustina has a single nave and its walls are mostly undecorated, apart from a few paintings which are not that interesting. The best piece of art can be found on the high altar in the central apse. It is a fifteenth century polyptych by an unknown master of the Venetian school (see the image above). The altarpiece shows Saint Justina in the centre, with a palm leave in her one hand and a book in the other. She is flanked by three male saints on either side. On the left we see Saint John the Baptist (with a scroll), Saint Michael the Archangel (with scales) and Saint Prosdocimus (with a jug), the first bishop of Padova. On the right are Saint Peter, Saint Philip the Apostle and Saint Paul. The walls of the central apse furthermore have some damaged frescoes, presumably fifteenth century, of which the colours have been fairly well preserved (image on the right).

Sette Chiesette

Continuing our way up the hill, we follow the Via Sette Chiese and go through the Porta Romana gate. The gate was constructed in 1651 and features a Latin text which reads:

ROMANIS BASILICIS PARES

Porta Romana or Porta Santa.

In other words, beyond the gate are things that are “equal to the Roman basilicas”. Those things are six chapels and the oratory of San Giorgio. Together these seven religious edifices form the Santuario Giubilare delle Sette Chiese. There is a pretty good story to this. In 1605, a Venetian nobleman named Pietro Duodo, who had already built a villa for his family a little further up the hill, obtained permission from Pope Paulus V (1605-1621) to construct six chapels here. What is more, the Pope issued a papal bull that stipulated that a visit to these six chapels and to the oratory of San Giorgio (the seventh chiesetta) provided pilgrims with the same indulgences as a pilgrimage to the seven traditional Pilgrim Churches of Rome. Imagine that: while a pilgrim in Rome would have to traverse the entire city and walk for miles and miles and miles, a pilgrim in Monselice could get a full pardon for all his sins by walking less than 200 metres!

The six chapels were designed and built by Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616), an architect from Vicenza. Inside the chapels are works by the Venetian painter Iacopo Negretti, nicknamed Palma il Giovane (ca. 1548-1632). Note that while there were seven Roman Pilgrim Churches in the seventeenth century[3], there are just six chapels and a sanctuary dedicated to Saint George, who does not have a church among the seven Roman churches. One of the six chapels is actually co-dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, who have their own separate basilicas in Rome. I guess the visit to the San Giorgio is a bit of an extra, although it is apparently compulsory in order to get a full indulgence. The San Giorgio has some frescoes by Tommaso Sandrini (ca. 1580-1630), but the oratory is not so interesting from an artistic point of view (and to be honest, Palma’s frescoes in the chapels are not his masterpieces either). It does have a large amount of relics of martyrs, so from a religious perspective, it is likely to be very important.

The six chapels of the Santuario Giubilare delle Sette Chiese

Just to the east of the San Giorgio is the charming Villa Duodo, built for the Venetian Duodo family by Scamozzi in the late sixteenth century. Scamozzi actually only built the southern wing of the villa. The eastern wing was constructed in 1740 and certainly looks a lot newer and fresher. It is apparently not possible to visit the Villa Duodo, although it does have a public function: it is currently in use by the University of Padova.

Villa Duodo (left) and oratory of San Giorgio (right).

Other attractions

Image of Saint Franciscus (ca. 1250).

During our trip to Monselice, we also visited the Museo San Paolo, the town museum which is housed in a deconsecrated church. The museum is basically divided into two parts and two separate “tours”. The first percorso takes the visitors through the ruins of the former church of San Paolo and provides a lot of information about the transformation of the building over the centuries. While the remains of the church itself are not that interesting, one of the frescoes that can be found down here is of extreme cultural and religious interest: a thirteenth century fresco of Saint Franciscus of Assisi in the crypt. The saint died in 1226, and the fresco was executed ca. 1250, making it the oldest surviving image of Franciscus in the Veneto. The fresco is regretfully somewhat damaged and part of the saint’s face and body are missing. Nevertheless, a fresco that was executed just 25 years after the death of one of the most renowned and influential saints in the history of the Roman Catholic Church is a rare piece of art indeed.

Jupiter, in the guise of an eagle, abducting Ganymedes.

The second percorso of the museum provides visitors with a lot of information about the history of Monselice. Various items found during excavations are on display, including items from the Roman era. This shows that, although Monselice as a town had not yet been founded, the area was certainly inhabited. The collection of the Museo is hardly exceptional, but it does give a good idea of the various stages in Monselice’s history.

We happened to be in the vicinity again when the second edition of the Notte del Fuoco (‘Night of the Fire’) festival was held in Monselice. The usually quiet town was now absolutely sizzling with activity. Actors were walking around in medieval clothing, carrying bows and arrows with them or walking on stilts wearing silly face masks. Almost all of the activities involved fire shows, with several performers showing off their skills with spectacular stunts, dances and duels. Although it was already late in the evening, it was still close to thirty degrees Celsius outside and the fire shows only added to the intense heat. Ice cream sellers were definitely having an excellent night!

Notte del Fuoco.

This post was based on information from the Euganean Hills website and from Italian Wikipedia. Additional information came from my Trotter travel guide to Northeast Italy and from John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’.

Notes

[1] ‘A History of Venice’, p. 158.

[2] Dixit John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice, p. 159.

[3] Saint Peter’s Basilica, San Paolo fuori le Mura, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and San Sebastiano fuori le Mura. The latter was replaced by the Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore in 2000.

 

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