Padua, Italy

The History and Attractions of Padua By Marco Stojanovik Padua city is an intellectual, artistic, and economic centre in northern Italy, situated on the River Bacchiglione, west of Venice. The city has a long history…

10 Jul 21 · 6 mins read

The History and Attractions of Padua

By Marco Stojanovik

Padua city is an intellectual, artistic, and economic centre in northern Italy, situated on the River Bacchiglione, west of Venice. The city has a long history – according to legend being the oldest in all of Italy – dating back to the 12th century BCE. During Roman times, strategically placed at the hub of the empire’s road network, it prospered as an important trading city but suffered under the subsequent Barbarian invasions. It was only with the rise of the Venetian Empire that the city’s fortunes were really revived, since growing into an important economic and cultural city host to numerous significant pieces of religious and civic art and architecture.

Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Padua as part of our 22-day long Heritage Italy tour. We stay in the city for five nights experiencing the local cuisine and highlights, including its impressive Basilica and Scrovegni Chapel, shown to us by a local guide. Using the city has a base we also take day trips to nearby locations of Venice and Vicenza for a walking tour. This article explores the history and attractions of Padua to assist your guided tour.

View on Basilica of Saint Giustina from Prato della Valle square in the evening, Padua, Italy

Padua’s Ancient History

Padua is thought to be one of the oldest cities in Italy. According to legend, it was founded in 1183 BCE by the Trojan prince Antenor, who is said to have escaped from the fall of Troy and led the Veneti people from Paphlagonia (northern Turkey) to Italy.

By the fourth century BCE the area had developed into the main centre of the Venetians – and in 302BC the town was powerful enough to defeat the armies of the Spartan king Cleonymus.

About 150 years later, following the ‘Great Gaellic War’, allied links were made with the Romans. This culminated in 43 BCE with the recognition of the Veneti as ‘civies’ (Roman citizens) and the transformation of Padua into a municipium (Roman town). During this period the city quickly developed into one of the most important and richest trading cities in the Roman Empire due to its geographical positioning and excellent roads.

Barbarian Invasion & Padua’s Renewal

As the Roman Empire declined, Padua, like the rest of north-east Italy, suffered the onslaught of numerous Barbarian invasions by the Huns, Goths, and finally Lombards who burnt down the city in 602 CE. The city recovered only very slowly after this, first incorporated into the Frankish and later Holy Roman Empire.

In the 11th century a constitution was established by the citizens. It was composed of a general council or legislative assembly and a credenza or executive body. But, although it gained its independence, it was assigned a Podesta (chief magistrate) by the emperor. The successions of podestas quickly became a problem for the city as they, especially the house of Ezzelino Romano III, oppressed the city with their tyranny.

Ezzeliono was unseated in 1256, thanks to Pope Alexander IV, and the city enjoyed a a period of calm and prosperity. Eventually, in 1318, the Carrara family came to rule Padua as lords of the city expanding the city’s influence. But as the Carrara family declined politically, so did Padua as an independent city, falling to Venice and the powerful Visconti family in 1405.

Piazza delle Erbe, a medieval town square in Padua. On the left, the Palazzo della Ragione. In the background, the town hall.

Venetian & Austrian Rule

Under Venetian rule, Padua was fortified with new walls with a series of six gates (porte) or monumental arches still standing today. Cultural development continued with grand art works from illustrious names such as Mantegna, Titian, Falconetto and Donatello. The University developed into one of the best in Europe hosting famous scholars such as Galileo Galilei. Plus, the first Anatomical theatre and Botanical Gardens in Europe were inaugurated here.

In 1797, the city was liberated by Napoleon Bonaparte, but was soon ceded to Austria following the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1813. A very unstable period followed with continuous changes between the two invaders until Napoleon’s fall in 1814, when the city became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia under the Austrian Empire.

However, the Austrians were not very popular in progressive circles in northern Italy with their rule greatly contested by the student world especially. This culminated with a student revolt during the revolutions of 1848. On February 8, the University and Caffè Pedrocchi were transformed into battlegrounds as students and the common man fought side by side.

Although the revolt only lasted a few months, it spurred Italian patriots to start working to oppose the Austrian Empire. Finally, on July 11 1866, at the end of the Third War of Independence, Padua was set free and annexed to the recently united Kingdom of Italy.

Padua’s Modern History

During World War I, Padua became the headquarters of the Supreme Command and at the end the war, the Armistice was signed on the outskirts of the town at Villa Guisti. In the interwar years, the city grew outside its historical boundaries with new buildings built in the typical fascist architectural style. Examples are the buildings round Piazza Insurrezione (once Piazza Spalato), the railway station, the new part of the town hall, and part of the Palazzo del Bo, hosting the University.

Having endured many bombings during World War II, the city quickly recovered developing from one of the poorest regions in northern Italy to one of the richest and most active in modern Italy.

Tourist Attractions of Padua

Padua has an extraordinary heritage of religious and civic landmarks. The Basilica of St. Antonio, a majestic church built in 1232, contains the tomb of the saint and holds numerous highly valued masterpieces, most notably by Donatello. Recognised by the Holy See as one of the eight international shrines, it is visited as a place of pilgrimage by people from all over the world.

The 13th century Augustinian Church of Eremitani includes wonderful illustrations by famous artists like Guariento and Ansuino da Forli as well as the tombs of local lords. And the Scrovegni Chapel contains the best-preserved frescoes by famous artist Giotto completed around 1305. An important artistic legacy, it depicts the story of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Winter view of the Scrovegni Chapel, where Giotto’s masterpiece is.

The city also has many important palaces and buildings. The Palazzo della Ragione, built in 1218, is a breath-taking town hall and palace of justice building of grand proportions – the biggest public building of the Middle Ages.

The University of Padua, founded in 1222, is one of the oldest in the world and the second in Italy after Bologna University. The historic 16th-17th century Bo Palazzo which forms the nucleus of the university, as well as the Capitno Palazzo (1532), now the university library, are extremely impressive. Even more so is the world’s oldest anatomical theatre built in 1594 – a funnel-like theatre put in place for students to watch bodies being cut open.

Padua’s Botanical Garden, built in 1545, is the oldest academic botanical garden in its original location. Covering about 22,000 square metres, it hosts upwards of six thousand types of plants and is inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List thanks to its contribution to the development of many modern scientific disciplines.

The Orto Botanico di Padova is a botanical garden in Padua, in the northeastern part of Italy.

Padua also has many beautiful squares such as “Piazza della Frutta e delle Erbe”, “Piazza dei Signori” and the wonderful “Prato della Valle” – the largest in Italy, and one of the largest in all of Europe.

Tour of Padua

Odyssey Traveller visits Padua as part of our 22-day long Heritage Italy tour. Examining the heritage, history, and culture of Italy, our tour takes you from the eternal city of Rome into the rolling terracotta countryside of Tuscany with its hilltop towns and on to the olive-clad slopes of the Paduan Hills. We stay in the green and craggy landscape of Umbria and spend 5 days at Castelammare di Stabbio on the Bay of Naples where we have the chance to view the breath-taking scenery of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Amalfi Coast, with its whitewashed villages tumble into azure blue seas.

Our fully escorted small group tour of Italy features guided walks through the best of the Italian countryside. We also take in many of Italy’s major cities. These include viewing the Renaissance cities of Florence, Pisa, and Lucca. We also visit the Umbrian medieval cities of Perugia, Gubbio, and St Francis’ Assisi. In the north of Italy, we visit the ancient university seats of Verona and Padua. We take in the stunningly beautiful Venice. Meanwhile, in the south, we visit the spectacularly cosmopolitan city of Naples, the Roman remains of Pompeii and the island retreat of Capri.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

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