The Colli Euganei are quite a sight. The Veneto is mostly flat as Holland, but here we suddenly find gently rolling and lush green hills. The Euganean Hills are the result of volcanic activity more than 40 million years ago. Beautiful villages and towns can be found here, among them Monselice and Este. One of the loveliest of the villages is Arquà Petrarca. The area of Arquà has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, but the village we see today seems to have sprung up around a castle that was built in the tenth or eleventh century by one Rodolfo Normanno, a vassal of the ruler of nearby Este. The village was known as Arquata – ‘arched’ or ‘bow-shaped’ – in Latin, which later became Arquada in Italian and was ultimately shortened to Arquà. The name was changed to Arquà Petrarca in 1868, in honour of the famous Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), who spent the final years of his life in the village.
Rodolfo’s castle disappeared long ago. It was destroyed in1322, at a time when Arquà and many other towns and villages of the Veneto were mere pawns in the larger conflict between the Della Scalas of Verona and the Da Carraras of Padova. When Padova was taken by Venetian troops on 22 November 1405 and the last scions of the Da Carrara dynasty were strangled in a Venetian prison in early 1406, Arquà became part of Venice’s terra firma, the Serenissima’s mainland possessions. Venetian domination ushered in an era of peace and prosperity for Arquà, as trade boomed and many noble families from Venice and Padova built luxurious country houses in and around the village. Nowadays the village is counted among Italy’s most beautiful villages (“I borghi più belli d’Italia”). Most people come here to visit the Casa del Petrarca, the lovely country house where Petrarca lived from 1370 until 1374. The poet’s tomb can be found just outside the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta, a church that is almost a millennium old and is also worth a visit.
Casa del Petrarca
It has been speculated that the Colli Euganei reminded Petrarca of the hills of Tuscany, the region where he had been born (in Arezzo to be exact, where his house can still be visited), and that this was the reason he chose to settle in Arquà in 1370. The previous year, the ruler of Padova, Francesco I da Carrara, had granted him a plot of land in the village. After restoring the modest house that was already on this spot, the poet moved to Arquà and lived a quiet life there until his death four years later.
The Casa del Petrarca that we see today is mostly the result of drastic changes made in the sixteenth century, initiated by one Paolo Valdezocco, who wanted to turn the house into a museum honouring the poet. The external staircase and the lovely balcony were added by Valdezocco, and these are therefore not original. Valdezocco also had the rooms frescoed with scenes inspired by Petrarca’s work. These frescoes are hardly breath-taking and neither are the busts and statues inside, but a visit to the Casa del Petrarca is nonetheless highly recommended. The place is lovely, and the poet must have been fortunate to be able to spend four joyful years here, reading, studying and working in the vegetable garden.
On the ground floor, the visitor can watch a short movie (ca. 15 minutes) in the film room. The mummy of Petrarca’s beloved cat can also be found here. It is encased in a small monument on the wall, with a text in Latin by Antonio Quarenghi (1547-1633).
Santa Maria Assunta
The first records of this picturesque Romanesque church date from 1026, so the Santa Maria Assunta may be close to a thousand years old. The church was enlarged in 1677 and underwent further renovations in 1874 and 1926. The church interior is very simple, but quite charming nonetheless. The Santa Maria Assunta has a single nave, a slightly boring chessboard floor and walls that are sparsely decorated. High up on the wall above the main altar is a painting of the Assumption of Mary by the Venetian artist Palma il Giovane (ca. 1548-1632). During the 1926 restoration, remains of eleventh or twelfth century frescoes in the Venetian-Byzantine style were discovered. More frescoes dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth century were uncovered later. The frescoes are now on display on the side walls.
The Santa Maria Assunta is most famous because it was here that Petrarca’s funeral was held after his death in 1374. The poet’s body was initially buried in the church itself, but moved to a larger tomb outside the church six years later. This Tomba del Petrarca is indeed a more fitting monument. It is made of red marble from Verona and based on both classical Roman sarcophagi and the so-called ‘Tomb of Antenor’, who was a Trojan and the mythical founder of Padova. The tomb was commissioned by Francescuolo da Brossano, Petrarca’s son-in-law, who was married to the poet’s daughter Francesca. On the monument is a Latin text, presumably dictated by Petrarca himself:
FRIGIDA FRANCISCI LAPIS HIC TEGIT OSSA PETRARCE,
SVSCIPE VIRGO PARENS ANIMAM, SATE VIRGINE PARCE,
FESSAQ IAM TERRIS CELI REQVIESCAT IN ARCE.
(“This stone covers the cold skeleton of Franciscus Petrarca, receive, Mother Virgin, his soul, and, you who are sprung from the Virgin (i.e. Christ), spare it (i.e. the soul) and let it, which was already wearied on earth, now rest in the citadel of Heaven”)
The text is followed by Petrarca’s year of death 1374 and the date 19 July, the day on which he died. The foot of the monument mentions Francescuolo da Brossano’s name.
Note that every line of the rhyme quoted above ends in ‘arce’, no doubt a pun on Arquà, and also on the tomb itself, which has the shape of an arch (or an ark). There is some debate about whether the tomb really contains the ‘cold skeleton’ of the poet himself. One thing is certain: the skull inside the tomb is not his. Genetic tests carried out in 2004 established beyond doubt that the skull belongs to a woman who lived in the thirteenth century. The rest of the bones may indeed be Petrarca’s, but the disappearance of the skull is a grand mystery. It may have been stolen by a worshipper ages ago, but no one knows, and up until this day, no one has stepped forward to return the skull.
This post is based on information from the Euganean Hills website and from Italian Wikipedia. Additional information came from my Trotter travel guide to Northeast Italy. For the Santa Maria Assunta, see this website.