Located in the very middle of the Italian countryside, somewhere between the university town of Pavia, and the bustling city of Milan, you’ll see it. Rising out of the landscape; ornate architecture and beautiful façades in an area known as Lombardy (or ‘Lombardia’ in Italian). Nestled in the heart of rice fields, Certosa di Pavia is a centuries-old monastery, and may well be one of the most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings in Europe, if not the world…
A Brief History of Certosa di Pavia Monastery
First built as a family mausoleum and monastery for Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the First Duke of Milan, Certosa di Pavia was constructed in the family’s hunting grounds in the Western part of Lombardy. Although work started as early as 1396, the building was such an undertaking the construction did not end until 1507.
The first architect was Bernardo da Venezia (who also designed nearby Pavia Castle) and the interior was designed to mimic that of iconic (and closeby) Milan Cathedral. The entire complex of buildings included monks for the cells (each cell has its own gardens), two sets of cloisters, a pharmacy (the shop still sells a large array of herbal teas today), and cellars. Apart from rice, the surrounding countryside is filled with vineyards and farmland.
The first inhabitants of the Certosa (Charterhouse in English, Chartreuse in French) were an order of Carthusian monks. They lived in the maze of complex buildings until 1782 when they were forced to leave under the orders of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. Other orders of Monks lived in the buildings until the Cistercian order arrived in the 1960s. The monks still live and work onsite to this day.
Things to see at Certosa di Pavia
The Church Interior & Façade
Of course, the main reason that people make the 8km trip north of the university city of Pavia is to see this beautiful church! While construction started at the end of the late Gothic era, completion was in the Renaissance era.
This means that when you head to the site, you can expect to enjoy a beautiful blend of the Gothic meeting one of the most renowned and beautiful examples of Renaissance architecture in all of Italy, altogether making the building even more enchanting.
On the front façade of the church, you’ll see carvings and reliefs, all intricately detailed and all worth stopping to admire. To the interior, ornately painted frescoes, wood carvings and small chapels are abundant. One central nave is the main focus of the church, and a wander down its aisles is quite literally akin to stepping back in time.
Rest of the Monastery
The only way you can see the rest of the monastery is by guided tour. Although tours only run in Italian, they’re totally worth your time as they take you to see some of the complex’s hidden treasures. These include a fresco by Bergognone in the church transept, the choir’s wood carving, and the two cloisters decorated with terracotta detailing and are filled with blooming flowers in the summer months.
Museo della Certosa di Pavia (Museum & Art Gallery)
Due to its rich history, the monastery has picked up a fair few paintings, frescoes and sculptures over the years. Many of the Certosa’s impressive pieces are displayed in the free art gallery and museum and it’s totally worth a wander around. See plaster casts of friezes from the church’s façade, learn about the history of the area, and see religious paintings by some of the greatest artists of the middle ages.
Before leaving the complex, you should make sure to wander into the shop selling plenty of produce made by the monks that live at the monastery. There is a huge array of herbal teas, alcoholic beverages, soaps, and honey to name but a few things on offer.
Practical Advice and Tips for Visiting Certosa di Pavia
A trip to Certosa di Pavia is made that much simpler by the fact that there is a train station very nearby! Just a 1.5km walk from the monastery, along flat pathways, you’ll find a station by the name of Certosa di Pavia. Trains between Pavia and Milan stop regularly at this station and so you’ll find trains running multiple times a day.
Before actually boarding a train, check that it actually stops at this small station because many don’t! Aim to sit at the centre of the train as the platforms are short, the train stop is quick and if you’re not near a door when the train arrives in the station, you may well not make it to the exit in time…
Tickets cost just a few euro each way, and a visit inside the monastery itself is free (though, of course, donations are always welcome!) Photography and filming isn’t allowed anywhere inside the monastic buildings and your clothing must cover your shoulders and knees (this is especially important to remember during the incredibly hot summer months!)
The monastery is open every day apart from Monday and makes for an easy day trip from Pavia or Milan. Be warned that like many Italian establishments, the monastery is closed between the hours of 12:00 and 14:30. If you want to see more of the monastery (read the cloisters and plenty of the best stuff), then you must wait for a monk to allow you to pass through the iron gates at the front of the church.
Although the Cistercian order is a silent order of Monks, some brothers have been released from their vow for the sole purpose of giving guided tours. Although guided tours are in Italian only, tagging along on a tour is well worth it, if only to see more of the exquisite building!