Pavia: landscape and urban environment


Indeed, the city has been raised so much by high churches, tall buildings, and numerous high towers that, although it is located on a plain, it may nonetheless be seen from a full day’s journey away (Opicino).

Medieval Pavia’s urban landscape evolved to reflect an ever changing leadership, inhabitants, religion, and regional position. Three major factors that shaped its identity and thus urban landscape, were its location at the confluence of the rivers Po and Ticino, its churches, and its walls. The rivers made the city an important stop along the trading and communication route from the Alps to Ravenna [2]. The city’s regional location also made it a good host for Catholic synods and many churches were constructed by visiting and resident bishops [3]. And the walls helped the city become a military bastion and created a limit for new development, which led to a layered history of land politics and reused space [1]. Pavia was frequently reinventing itself and constantly demolishing and replacing earlier versions. While this destroyed a lot of the evidence of medieval urban landscapes, it also created an interesting record of winners in land disputes. The three most prominent changes in Pavia’s urban landscape coincide with major leadership changes, thus we will cover in order: Roman Pavia (Ticinensis), Ostrogothic Pavia, Lombard Pavia, and Carolingian and Post-Carolingian Pavia.

Roman Ticinensis (c.89-489)

Pavia was built along the River Ticino, five miles north of the Po and alongside a smaller tributary called the Galvone. It was founded by the Romans as a garrison town [2]. The first wall created a 3,100 m, trapezoidal boundary around approximately 55 acres [1,2]. The wall was 7 to 12 meters tall and included several original bastions and later fortifying additions. (Pavia was a frequent stationing point for Roman armies fighting against the Goths and the city was invaded by the Huns in 452 and Odoacer in 476) [2]. Dating the the construction of the first wall is contested, but more recent estimates based on the materials it reused and its curves, place it somewhere in the first through third century [1]. By defining the city or “urb” the wall simultaneously created suburbs and outskirts. The surrounding area of twenty miles or more in all cardinal directions fell primarily under Pavia’s influence. Opicino praised the wider area for its vineyards, forests, and fertile fields [1].

This is a map constructed by Opincino in 1330, reconstructed by R. G. Salomon and edited by A. Perino. The corners of the first wall are indicated by the letters A, B, C, D.

Pavia was constructed on a Roman-style rectilinear street plan. Below the streets ran an extensive sewer system of arched tunnels, which, due to Pavia’s location on a sloped border of the river Ticino, was flushed with groundwater during the rainy season [2,3]. At the center of the city was an open square, the Commune Curia, that could accommodate all Pavia’s residents twice daily for announcements or criminal proceedings. Residents also used the Commune and the Atrium, a similar piazza in front of a twin cathedral church, as markets. Market traders would bring up goods from Venice, Milan, Monferrato, and Genoa from ports in the Ticino. In addition to goods, Pavia was a port for communication and travel. When the Roman imperial capital transferred to Ravenna, Pavia’s proximity to the Ticino and the Po gave it a direct link to the capital [2].

Pavia was a grand city. In Wickham’s words, “If not modelled on Constantinople, it was certainly modelled on a conception of it, or more directly, on Ravenna” [5]. In a archeological local history written in 1330, Opicino describes a city skyline that could be seen from a day’s journey away [3]. He attributes this to density of churches and monasteries, almost all of which had vaulted ceilings and bell towers. The vast majority of the land in the city was owned by the church, and rented for secular buildings including large public works such as the amphitheater and bathhouses. These amenities were highly sought after by the Roman army [1,2].

Changes Under Ostrogothic Rule (c.489-572)

Under the rule of Theodoric, Pavia continued patronage of public works, a practice which had largely ended elsewhere in the region by the fifth century [2]. When Theodoric chose Ravenna as his capital, Pavia became once again an important subsidiary capital and Theodoric invested in large-scale building and refurbishing campaigns of the amphitheatre, royal baths, and the royal palace (palatium). It is debated whether Theodoric constructed the palace or heavily remodeled an existing public office [1]. Repurposing an existing building would not be incongruent with Theodoric’s ideology and he is reported in the Variae as having encouraged the use of “spolia” [4]. But he may also have demolished existing structures in order to make space for a much larger building. It was a prominent and radical structure, as indicated by the writings of a visiting bishop Agnellus of Ravenna and by the apparent disruption of the grid plan where it stood [1]. However, since the palace was burned down by the residents of Pavia in 1024, and no archeological record of the design remains [1].

The Lombard Capital (c.572–774)

The Lombards gained control of Pavia after a three year siege. Though they chose to make it their capital, the architectural contributions of the Lombard leading class were less extravagant than their Roman predecessors (though they retained the palatium). Single-family homes were referred to as “casa” and likely made out of wood. A “solarium” was a particular type of two-story house with the primary living space on the second floor or a single-story building with an internal balcony [1]. In the pattern of many cities in the region, Pavia began to transition settlement land for agricultural purposes during the Lombard reign. However, in Pavia, this transition was coupled with building higher and more densely in adjacent areas so the population is not believed to have changed significantly [2]. Some of the streets closest to the wall became repurposed as building space. This likely was a public decision as streets were still under royal control and generally respected as a public right of way [2].

The conversion of the Lombards from Arianism to Catholicism in the second half of the seventh century began a period of new church building. Among those constructed were the San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (723) and San Nazario E Celso. The double cathedral cathedral of Santa Maria and Sata Stefano, one of the most prominent buildings in the urban landscape, was enlarged [2].

Carolingian (c. 774-875 )

Charlemagne took control of Pavia in 774. During the Carolingian period the seat of power transitioned to Ravenna and Milan. However, Lothar I and Louis II maintained residences in Pavia as did several widowed queens who were known for funding ecclesiastical construction [2].

The second wall was built by Bishop John of Pavia of whom little is known except that he died in 813 [3]. Therefore, the second wall was built in the late 8th century or early 9th century. The construction of the second wall provided security to a greater area, encapsulating inhabitants and buildings while also creating more desirable, protected land especially on the East side of the city [1].

This is a map of Pavia constructed by G. B. Claretian in 1585. The three walls of Pavia are depicted along with major buildings. The  depicts the three walls of Pavia. The Ticino river is located at the bottom of the map.


Under the Carolingians, the palatium remained a royal residence, and seat of justice, as well as a warehouse and workshop center. Pavia was becoming home to increasingly wealthy judges and ecclesiastical officials. Its river port was a thriving hub for traders and merchants could also lease small “stationes” inside town to negotiate from [1]. Evidence from these leases can be found in church documents, since the episcopal church was still one of the primary land owners in Pavia [1,5].

The fifty years after Louis II death were an unstable period in Pavia, and the urban landscape changed as the city sought to better fortify itself [2]. In 915 private houses were demolished to rebuild sections of the wall to better protect from the Magyars [1]. Nevertheless, in 924, the Magyars successfully burned most of the city (forty-four churches were reportedly destroyed). Despite the extensive destruction the city is said to have rebuilt quickly [2].


[1] Bullough, David. Urban Change in Early Medieval Italy: The Example of Pavia. Papers of the British School of Rome, Vol 34. 1966. p 82-130
[2] Morse, Victoria. “Pavia” in Medieval Italy; an encyclopedia, 2004, p 862
[3] Opicino de Canistris. Book of the Praises of Pavia. Avignon, France. 1330. Translated by Victoria and William North.
[4] Ward-Perkins, Bryan. From Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press. 1984
[5] Wickham, Chris. Early Medieval Italy: Central Power and Local Society, 400-1000.


  1. adlert2

    Fiona and Tim Meeting

    To Do: Upload images from Bill (Bullough source)

    Tim: Look into Roman period and Carolingian periods

    Fiona: Affects of river on Pavia, Osthrogoths and Lombard periods

    Read up on encyclopedias


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