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A Brief History of Padua

From foundation to the fall of the Romans

There is a well known legend about the foundation of Padova, by a mythical Trojan warrior, Antenore, leader of the Paflagonians, that in recent times has been proved not to be completely a legend. Homer as well as the paduan historian Tito Livio, who was a good friend of Emperor Augustus and the tutor of young Claudius, write about the Enetoi or Venetoi from Paflagonia, their alliance with Troy against the Greeks and their escape, after the defeat, along the Dalmatian coast to the mouth of river Brenta. According to the story, they sailed up the river along an area already inhabited by the Euganei, who where living by some volcanic hills enjoying the warm water springing from the spa. The Venetoi stopped north from the Euganei territory and founded their village, named Padus, probably from the ancient greek word meaning "marsh", referring to the tight net of little rivers and branches of Brenta and Bacchiglione, the two rivers that still cross the town. In the Eremitani Archaeological Museum there is a rich section dedicated to the Paleo-Veneti (ancient Veneti) and the Euganei civilization.
Padus, later named Patavium, became allied of the Romans and grew rich thanks to the easy way of transport provided by the rivers, the ability of the Veneti to breed and tame horses and the production of wool. In the Augustus age it was the third city of the whole Roman Empire, after Rome itself and Cadiz in Spain.
Regio XAlthough the city was walled and protected by the roman army, at the fall of the Empire was attacked, robbed and set on fire several times, by the Huns, the Goths and the Longobards. In 601 the city was razed to the ground by King Agilulf and then again in the year 800 by the Huns. After that the city was almost abandoned: some moved to the countryside, others to the better defended city of Monselice, by the hills, other sailed to the little island of the lagoon to newborn Venice.

The Middle Age and the Renaissance

All Italy was devastated by the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent raids of different population coming from Northern and Eastern Europe. In Northern Italy the Longobards took power all over the Padana Plane and completely changed the social structure. They introduced the feudal system and appointed landlords who run the land and set rules and lows over it and over all inhabitants of their territory. The governments were abroad so the only local organizations actually working for the people were religious congregations. Monasteries were built first in the countryside and attracted people to work the land and to start craftsman activities again. Along with the growing political power of the Catholic Church, the Bishops were given land and towns as well as some families of Frank origin such as the Este, the Camposampiero, the Da Romano, traditionally closer to the Emperor. On the 8th century Padova had a new Bishop and the city started slowly to live again. A new cathedral and many monasteries started to be built into town, so people started to came back from the countryside. Only after the year 1000 Padova achieved a substantial growth in wealth and power, reconstructing religious and civil buildings, such as the Cathedral, the Commune Palaces, towers and defensive walls. Moreover, up until the 11th century, the city had never enough quietness to actually flourish: a series of natural events such as earthquakes, floods and fires destructed each time a part of the town. Rebuilding houses, palaces and churches kept the economy running and the wealth started to spread to the workers and the craftsmen. They started to associate in guilds ("fraglie") and to hold their meetings and ceremonies into the church dedicated to their Patron Saint. The growing power of the guilds and of new urban families, sometimes without any land ownership, changed again the political form of Padova.
In the 12th century it became a Commune, managed by a Council, like many other cities in Italy at that time. Some other cities were still governed by bishops and the growing debate between Emperors and the Pope about the origin of political power generated a new season of wars. It all started when Frederick Redbeard declared, against all previous convictions, that the Pope should rule over the souls and not over the lands. His belief was more probably generated by his interest in some territories under the Pope's authority than by philosophical thoughts, but it set up the fight between two different groups the "Guelfi", supporting the Pope and the "Ghibellini", sustaining the Emperor. Cities started to fight one against the other and so did families inside the Councils. Padova changed party several times, according to who had the power in town.
The families who determined the most relevant events for the city were the Carraresi, the Camposampiero and the Este on the Guelfi side and the Da Romano on the Emperor's one. The Da Romano was a powerful family who owned a large land north of Padova, between Vicenza and Treviso. Ezzelino the 1st , the Monk, Ezzelino the 2nd the Stutterer and Ezzelino the 3rd, the Terrible, were the ones who tried to expand their territory against neighbouring Communes. They fought against the Camposampiero family and their ally, Padova, for the control of central Veneto. Ezzelino the 3rd finally succeeded to conquer town in 1234 and his regime was so cruel and bloody that it has been remembered for centuries. Saint Anthony, who spent his last months of living in Padova and was highly regarded by riches and poor, tried to obtain some moderation from him, without results. Ezzelino was defeated by a Crusade set by the Pope and leaded by Tiso da Camposampiero. Padova was freed at last and the Commune era lasted in favour of the new political system of the Seigneury that will give power to the Medici in Florence, the Sforza in Milano the Della Scala in Verona and the Estensi in Ferrara and Mantova.
Padua in 1300Padova's cultural Renaissance, though, begun a little before the 1300, when the peace and the growing wealth of the town allowed a new age of building and thinking. In 1222 the free University was set. It was slightly different from Bologna's (appointed a few years before) and from other schools since it wasn't overseen and ruled by the Bishop, but by the students themselves. From its foundation and all through its existence its main characteristic was to welcome all sorts of thinking and students from all Countries and confessions, allowing the debate standards always to be very high. It was the only University in Europe to accept Jewish students and in 1306 it appointed as a Professor Pietro d'Abano, who brought, from his long staying in Constantinople, the innovative thinking of the Islamic medicine, mathematics and philosophy masters Averroè and Avicenna.
During the same years, art flourished in Padova too. Giotto, one of the most influential painters of all times, lived here for about 6 years painting his masterpiece, the Scrovegni Chapel, and frescoing the Palazzo della Ragione with astrological themes, probably inspired by the holistic theories elaborated by Pietro d'Abano. While the Scrovegni Chapel is now perfectly preserved, the Palazzo della Ragione frescos were destroyed by a fire after about a century. Giotto wasn't the only master artist in town: a whole school of painters such as Giusto De' Menabuoi who frescoed the Baptistry, Jacopo d'Avanzo, Altichiero, Guariento and later Jacopo da Verona, lived and worked under the Carraresi Seigneury, as well as writers such as Petrarca, who, being a friend of the Carraresi and finding here a peaceful yet stimulating environment, decided to spend here his last years. But the growing power of Venezia that was expanding to the mainland made it very difficult for Padova to stay independent and neither the ability of the Carraresi to change alliances according to the city's interests could do much against the will of one of the most powerful countries of that time.

Under the Venetian Republic

In 1405 Venice took power over Padova and from then, up to the arrival of Napoleon, the history of the city was tied to the Serenissima Republic. The 15th century continued the Renaissance that begun a century before and Padova became one of the most interesting artistic centres in Italy. Donatello, the most popular sculpturer of the beginning of 1400, was hired by the son and the widow of one of the leading generals of Venice's army, Erasmo da Narni, known as "Gattamelata" (litteraly "HoneyCat", for his ability to be smooth and quick in battle). They wanted the most beautiful and outstanding monument representing their relative, in order to celebrate his memory. Donatello arrived in town from Firenze attracted by the lively artistic scene grown around the studio of Squarcione and spent several years here working in the St. Anthony Basilica area, making the stunning equestrian monument to Gattamelata, the Crucifix and the High Altar of the Basilica. The most talented trainee in the Squarcione workshop of 137 apprentices was the young son of a poor carpenter from a little village north from town, Andrea Mantegna who later became one of the greatest painters of the 15th century and that left in town some of his juvenile masterpieces, such as the Cappella Ovetari in the Eremitani Church. Padova was so well known all over Europe for the wealthy wool market and its lively cultural environment that Shakespeare set here one of his most famous plays, "The taming of the shrew".
Padova nel SeicentoThe 16th century opens with war again. The Cambrai League, an alliance between the Pope, France, Austria and Spain to contrast the overpowering growth of Venice and take over their rich territories, after a series of victories, put Padova under siege in 1509, destroying most of the Borgomagno area (the actual area around the railway station) with some innovative war machines called "cats". The town resisted the assaults, protected by the large and solid ring of walls, rebuilt during the Middle Age following the Roman marks and enlarged during the Carraresi Seigneury, and people started to mock Emperor Maximilian, his army and their machines showing mewing cats from the top of the bulkwarks.
This defeat put a bias on the League that soon retired, leaving Venice even stronger than before. To avoid new problems, though, the venetians decided to reinforce Padova's defensive system with a new set of walls, strongholds and fortified doors, the same that we can now see all around the city centre, establishing the definitive urban shape. New buildings and churches rise up, great architects and artists come to town (Sansovino, Titian), while the University goes through a period of great splendour. Astronomy and medicine had some of the most notorious and innovative schools. Kopernic, studied here at the end of the 15th century, in 1543 the first Botanical Garden of the World was founded. In 1592 a new professor of Physics and Mathematics was appointed, coming from Pisa: Galileo Galilei. He spent 18 years in Padova teaching, studying, writing and developing most of his ground-breaking theories about planet's revolution. Here he built the telescope that allowed him to observe the Moon surface, the Milky Way and, in 1610, to detect for the first time Jupiter's satellites.
Il territorio padovano nel 1650The following two centuries see Padova carry on being the cultural centre of Venice Republic, thanks to the University still attracting talented students and innovative professors. In 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia is the first woman to get a degree, although she couldn't study medicine as she wished, because the University Council decided Philosophy would be more of a female subject.
But the decline of Venice sets the decline of Padova as well: the renewal of Prato della Valle, turned from a muddy marketplace into one of the largest and most beautiful squares in Europe, at the end of the 18th century, marks the end of four centuries of Venetian domination.

From Napoleon to present time

In 1797 Napoleon conquered all Northern Italy, to lose it to Austria just about a year after, managed to regain it in 1805 and finally gave it away in 1813. Those years were quite hard: at every change of power, there were new taxes to finance the European wars and the youth of the town was forcedly conscripted. A young and poor teenager from the humble area of Portello (the port to Venice), Giovanbattista Belzoni, run initially to Rome and then to Spain, Holland and England, becoming "the Great Belzoni", holding shows as the Strongest Man of the World. At the top of his popularity decided to go to Egypt to sell to the local Caliph his engineering abilities learned at home and in The Nederlands. He didn't succeed, but turned himself into an explorer and an archaeologist, discovering the Abu Simbel's temple, the city of Berenice, exploring the King's Valley, finding the tomb of Sethy the 1st and the way to access Chefren's Pyramid.
Regno Lombardo-VenetoAfter Napoleon's fall, for 53 years, the Veneto region stayed under the government of the Augsburgs, "the invaders". Along all this time of restoration several rebellions exploded all over Italy, that, at the time was still divided in many small states. The most notorious were the Uprisings of 1848 that forced most part of the governments to grant some rights to the people. In Padova it all started a little in advance than in the rest of Italy because of the growing popularity of the ideals of Mazzini and Cavour about a united Italy, maybe even a Republic of Italy. As a result, many students and professors of the University, as well as several intellectuals, were very resentful against the Austrian and convinced that a popular insurrection could lead to independence and to a democratic government. They used to meet in some study rooms inside the University or at Caffè Pedrocchi that, at the time, used to be open day and night. The 8th of February the revolt started in town, the prisons of the Castle assaulted and some prisoners freed. The insurrection lasted only a few months but it spread all over Italy and moved the King of Piedmont, Carl Albert of Savoy, and his government to start working to create a Kingdom of Italy. It happened around in 1860 when general Garibaldi led an expedition to free southern Italy and people from Toscana and Emilia Romagna managed to force their governments to officially request to become part of it. Still the Lombardo-Veneto region was under the Austrians and central Italy under the Pope. The war of 1866 saw the Kingdom of Italy opposed to Austrian Empire and Lombardia and Veneto were annexed to it. Four years after all Italy was united except the border regions of Trentino Alto Adige at north and Venezia Giulia at east. It took the 1st World War to conquer those areas too. Padova had a very important role in this war, initially because the Supreme Command was moved here, and, at the end of the war, because the armistice between Austria, Germany and Italy was signed in Villa Giusti, at the outskirts of town.
Corso del Popolo. Anno 1916During the first 50 years as part of Italy the urban structure and the social environment of Padova changed: from a city of commerce, craftsmanship and professionals, it started to become more and more industrial, attracting people from the countryside and enlarging residential areas outside the borders of the Venetian walls. But the city centre stayed almost intact until the Fascist Government decided to turn down the poor medieval area of Santa Lucia to replace it with new buildings for offices, around what it is now the area of Piazza Insurrezione. The 2nd Warld War saw another major change in town because of the extensive bombing around the railway area that almost destroyed one of treasures of the Renaissance, the Eremitani Church with Mantegna's frescos. The Scrovegni Chapel was saved by the people of Padova, covering it completely with sacs filled up with sand. Many other private palaces were seriously damaged, but the structure of the walled city remained intact. Now Padova still keeps its aptitude to craftsmanship, commerce and professional activities, preserving the memory of all its long history in the architecture and the artistic treasures that holds. But it also holds its lively and innovative cultural environment, making a staying in town far more than a simple touristy experience.