This painting by Josse Lieferinxe
depicts an outbreak of the plague in 7th-century Pavia, Italy.
The Walters Art Museum.
Dating back to pre-Roman times, the town of Pavia, then known as Ticinum, was a municipality and an important military site (a castrum) under the Roman Empire. It was said by Pliny the Elder to have been founded by the Laevi and Marici, two Ligurian tribes, while Ptolemy attributes it to the Insubres. The Roman city most likely began as a small military camp, built by the consul Publius Cornelius Scipio in 218 BC to guard a wooden bridge he had built over the river Ticinum, on his way to search for Hannibal, who was rumoured to have managed to lead an army over the Alps and into Italy. The forces of Rome and Carthage ran into each other soon thereafter, and the Romans suffered the first of many crushing defeats at the hands of Hannibal, with the consul himself almost losing his life. The bridge was destroyed, but the fortified camp, which at the time was the most forward Roman military outpost in the Po Valley, somehow survived the long Second Punic War, and gradually evolved into a garrison town.
Its importance grew with the extension of the Via Aemilia from Ariminum (Rimini) to the Po River (187 BC), which it crossed at Placentia (Piacenza) and there forked, one branch going to Mediolanum (Milan) and the other to Ticinum, and thence to Laumellum where it divided once more, one branch going to Vercellae - and thence to Eporedia and Augusta Praetoria - and the other to Valentia - and thence to Augusta Taurinorum (Turin).
It was at Pavia in 476 AD that the reign of Romulus Augustulus (r. 475-476), the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire ended and Roman rule ceased in Italy. Romulus Augustulus, while considered the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, was actually a usurper of the imperial throne; his father Flavius Orestes having dethroned the previous emperor, Julius Nepos, and raised the young Romulus Augustulus to the imperial throne at Ravenna in 475. Though being the emperor, Romulus Augustulus was simply the mouthpiece for his father Orestes, who was the person who actually exercised power and governed Italy during Romulus Augustulus’s short reign. Ten months after Romulus Augustulus’s reign began, Orestes’s soldiers under the command of one of his officers named Odoacer, rebelled and killed Orestes in the city of Pavia in 476. The rioting that took place as part of Odoacer’s uprising against Orestes sparked fires that burnt much of Pavia to the point that Odoacer, as the new king of Italy, had to suspend the taxes for the city for five years so that it could finance its recovery. Without his father, Romulus Augustulus was powerless. Instead of killing Romulus Augustulus, Odoacer pensioned him off at 6,000 solidi a year before declaring the end of the Western Roman Empire and himself king of the new Kingdom of Italy.
Odoacer’s reign as king of Italy did not last long, because in 488 the Ostrogothic peoples led by their king Theoderic invaded Italy and waged war against Odoacer. After fighting for 5 years, Theoderic defeated Odoacer and on March 15, 493, assassinated Odoacer at a banquet meant to negotiate a peace between the two rulers. With the establishment of the Ostrogoth kingdom based in northern Italy, Theoderic began his vast program of public building. Pavia was among several cities that Theodoric chose to restore and expand. He began the construction of the vast palace complex that would eventually become the residence of Lombard monarchs several decades later. Theoderic also commissioned the building of the Roman-styled amphitheatre and bath complex in Pavia; in the 7th century these would be among the few still functioning bath complexes in Europe outside of the Eastern Roman Empire. Near the end of Theoderic’s reign the Christian philosopher Boethius was imprisoned in one of Pavia’s churches from 522 to 525 before his execution for treason. It was during Boethius’s captivity in Pavia that he wrote his seminal work the Consolation of Philosophy.
Pavia played an important role in the war between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ostrogoths that began in 535. After the Eastern Roman general Belisarius’s victory over the Ostrogothic leader Wittigis in 540 and the loss of most of the Ostrogoth lands in Italy, Pavia was among the last centres of Ostrogothic resistance that continued the war and opposed Eastern Roman rule. After the capitulation of the Ostrogothic leadership in 540 more than a thousand men remained garrisoned in Pavia and Verona dedicated to opposing Eastern Roman rule. The resilience of Ostrogoth strongholds like Pavia against invading forces allowed pockets of Ostrogothic rule to limp along until finally being defeated in 561.
Pavia and the peninsula of Italy didn’t remain long under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire, for in 568, a new people invaded Italy. This new invading people in 568 were the Lombards (otherwise called the Longobards). In their invasion of Italy in 568, the Lombards were led by their king Alboin (r. 560-572), who would become the first Lombard king of Italy. Alboin captured much of northern Italy in 568 but his progress was halted in 569 by the fortified city of Pavia. Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards written more than a hundred years after the Siege of Ticinum provides one of the few records of this period: “The city of Ticinum (Pavia) at this time held out bravely, withstanding a siege more than three years, while the army of the Langobards remained close at hand on the western side. Meanwhile Alboin, after driving out the soldiers, took possession of everything as far as Tuscany except Rome and Ravenna and some other fortified places which were situated on the shore of the sea.” The Siege of Ticinum finally ended with the Lombards capturing the city of Pavia in 572. Pavia’s strategic location and the Ostrogoth palaces located within it would make Pavia by the 620s the main capital of the Lombards’ Kingdom of Pavia and the main residence for the Lombard rulers.
Under Lombard rule many monasteries, nunneries, and churches were built at Pavia by the devout Christian Lombard monarchs. Even though the first Lombard kings were Arian Christians, sources from the period such as Paul the Deacon have recorded that the Arian Lombards were very tolerant of their Catholic subjects’ faith and that up to the 690s Arian and Catholic cathedrals coexisted in Pavia. Lombard kings, queens, and nobles would engage in building churches, monasteries, and nunneries as a method to demonstrate their piety and their wealth by extravagantly decorating these structures which in many cases would become the site of that person’s tomb, as in the case of Grimoald (r. 662-671) who built San Ambrogio in Pavia and buried there after his death in 671. Perctarit (r. 661-662, 672-688) and his son Cunicpert (r.679-700) built a nunnery and a church at Pavia during their reigns. Lombard churches were sometimes named after those who commissioned their construction, such as San Maria Theodota in Pavia. The monastery of San Michele alla Pusterla located at Pavia was the royal monastery of the Lombard kings.
One of the most famous churches built by a Lombard king in Pavia is the church San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro. This famous church was commissioned by king Liutprand (r. 712-744) and it would become the site of his tomb as well as two other famous Christian figures. In building San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro the unit of measurement used by the builders was the length of Liutprand’s royal foot. The first important Christian figure interred at San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro was the previously mentioned philosopher Boethius, author of the Consolation of Philosophy, who is located in the cathedral’s crypt. The third and largest tomb of the three located in San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro contains the remains of St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine is the early 5th-century Christian writer from Roman North Africa whose works such as On Christian Doctrine revolutionized the way in which the Christian scripture is interpreted and understood. On October 1, 1695, artisans working in San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro rediscovered St. Augustine’s remains after lifting up some of the paving stones that compose the cathedral’s floor. Liutprand was a very devout Christian and like many of the Lombard kings was zealous about collecting relics of saints. Liutprand paid a great deal to have the relics removed from Cagliari and brought to Pavia so that they would be out of the reach and safe from the Saracens on Sardinia where St. Augustine’s remains had been resting. Very little of Liutprand’s original church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro consecrated by Pope Zacharias in 743 remains today. Originally the roof of its apse was decorated with mosaics, making San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro the first instance of mosaics being used to decorate a Lombard church. It is now a modern church with the only significant link to its antiquity being its round apse. The Lombards built their churches in a very Romanesque style, with the best example of Lombard churches from the period of Lombardic rule being the Basilica of San Michele still intact at Pavia.
As the kingdom’s capital, Pavia in the late 7th century also became one of the central locations of the Lombards' efforts to mint their own coinage. The bust of the Lombard king would have been etched on the coins as a symbolic gesture so that those who used the coins, mostly Lombard nobles, would understand that king had the ultimate power and control of wealth in the Kingdom of Pavia.
The city of Pavia played a key role in the war between the Lombard Kingdom of Pavia and the Franks led by Charlemagne. In 773, Charlemagne king of the Franks declared war and invaded across the Alps into northern Italy defeating the Lombard army commanded by king Desiderius (r. 757-774). Between the autumn of 773 and June of 774 Charlemagne laid siege to Pavia first and then Verona, capturing the seat of Lombard power and quickly crushing any resistance from the northern Lombard fortified cities.
Pavia had been the official capital of the Lombards since the 620s, but it was also the place upon where the Lombard Kingdom in Italy ended. Upon entering Pavia in triumph, Charlemagne crowned himself king of the lands of the former Kingdom of Pavia. The Lombard kingdom and its northern territories from then onwards were a sub-kingdom of the Frankish Empire, while the Lombard southern duchy of Benevento persisted for several centuries longer with relative independence and autonomy.
Coat of Arms of the county of Pavia under the Visconti Dinasty
In 924, the Hungarians- led by the deposed Lombard king, Berengar I, sacked and destroyed the city. Pavia remained the capital of the Italian Kingdom and the centre of royal coronations until the diminution of imperial authority there in the 12th century. In 1004 Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor bloodily suppressed a revolt of the citizens of Pavia, who disputed his recent crowning as King of Italy.
In the 12th century Pavia acquired the status of a self-governing commune. In the political division between Guelphs and Ghibellines that characterized the Italian Middle Ages, Pavia was traditionally Ghibelline, a position that was as much supported by the rivalry with Milan as it was a mark of the defiance of the Emperor that led the Lombard League against the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who was attempting to reassert long-dormant Imperial influence over Italy. The city also had a reputation as a place to have a "good time," as witness the Archpoet's famous comments of 1163.
In the following centuries Pavia was an important and active town.
Under the Treaty of Pavia, Emperor Louis IV granted during his stay in Italy the Electorate of the Palatinate to his brother Duke Rudolph's descendants. Pavia held out against the domination of Milan, finally yielding to the Visconti family, rulers of that city in 1359; under the Visconti Pavia became an intellectual and artistic centre, being the seat from 1361 of the University of Pavia founded around the nucleus of the old school of law, which attracted students from many countries.
The Battle of Pavia (1525) marks a watershed in the city's fortunes, since by that time, the former cleft between the supporters of the Pope and those of the Holy Roman Emperor had shifted to one between a French party (allied with the Pope) and a party supporting the Emperor and King of Spain Charles V. Thus during the Valois-Habsburg Italian Wars, Pavia was naturally on the Imperial (and Spanish) side. The defeat and capture of king Francis I of France during the battle ushered in a period of Spanish occupation which lasted until 1713 at the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession. Pavia was then ruled by the Austrians until 1796, when it was occupied by the French army under Napoleon. During this Austrian period the University was greatly supported by Maria Theresa of Austria and oversaw a culturally rich period due to the presence of leading scientists and humanists like Ugo Foscolo, Alessandro Volta, Lazzaro Spallanzani, and Camillo Golgi among others.
In 1815, it again came under Austrian administration until the Second War of Italian Independence (1859) and the unification of Italy one year later.