The Sette Chiese of Monselice
Monselice is a picturesque little town in the northeastern Veneto region of Italy. It is located at the edge of the Euganean Hills in the Province of Padua. Since the town is strategically clustered around an easily-defendable hill, its origins go back a long way. Monselice is an attractive historic destination for a short daytrip or a stop on a tour of this pleasant area of Italy. Visitors must not miss the town’s main attraction, the Sette Chiese, or Seven Churches.
The town dates back to the Bronze Age and also was an important settlement of ancient Rome, yet Monselice’s most important manifestation began under the Lombards and Franks when it was a stronghold ruling over a large area. After a spell as a Medieval city-state, the town was conquered in the 13th century by Ezzelino III da Romano, who ruled under the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Its next rulers were the Carrara family of Padua, before the town was taken by the Venetians. In the 18th century, stone from the surrounding hills was extracted to pave St. Mark’s Square in Venice.
Modern Monselice sprawls somewhat over the surrounding plain and there is a faint rumble of traffic passing on the busy roads nearby, but the heart of town is still full of historical atmosphere. It is easy to spend pleasant hours wandering around the cobbled streets and seeing the principal buildings of the town.
There is plenty of history to be discovered, beginning with the ruined castle on top of the town’s little hill. Nearby is the Villa Pisani, an attractive Palladian building, to the right of which is a stretch of Monselice’s defensive town wall.
The town’s main square, Piazza Mazzini, is a large open space with views up to the Rocca. It contains the Torre Civica, a clock tower and the Biblioteca Comunale. The former Church of San Paolo has been adapted as an exhibition space; inside are fragments of fresco and the exposed foundations of an earlier Romanesque church.
Just a few yards uphill along Via del Santuario is the entrance to the Castello, the castle. This complex of buildings date back in part to the 11th century and later became the stronghold of Ezzelino da Romano. It was converted into a less warlike residence by the Venetian Marcello family and is also known, after them, as Ca’ Marcello. Inside the castle is the Museo Antiquarium Longobardo which contains Lombard artifacts found nearby.
Continuing along Via del Santuario, the next sight is Villa Nani Mocenigo, a 16th century villa. It is private property, but tourists can admire the dwarf statues along the wall (a reference to the name of the first owners; nani means dwarves) and peer through the gate at the elegant garden stairway. The lane continues uphill to the Pieve di Santa Giustina, also known as the Duomo Vecchio, or Old Cathedral.
Just past the church is a small panoramic area with benches. Nearby is a street that serves as both the approach to an elegant villa and a pilgrimage route. The Duodo family who owned the building, naturally called Villa Duodo, erected a series of chapels along the route, the Sette Chiese, which hold an interesting history.
In the early 17th century, religious visitors unable to make the pilgrimage to Rome were offered the chance to visit the Sette chiesette or “Seven Little Churches” of Monselice instead of the seven main basilicas of Rome, in order to pave their entry to heaven. Each of the seven basilicas is represented in Monselice on a smaller scale, with paintings representing key saints and their stories. But perhaps most interesting is the last church found at the road’s end, the chapel connected to the Villa Duodo, which houses a macabre display of relics.
Upon first entry, the Chiesa di San Giorgio appears to be like any other 18th century chapel, rich with pastel frescos, gem-toned stained glass and an intricately carved marble altar and floor. But once inside this first chapel, something strange becomes apparent – this is in fact not one chapel, but two.
The second chapel is entered by a small doorway on the right. Passing by the caretaker’s shop and desk, one enters this shrine to the dead with the light of the first chapel still to the left and shelves of human bones to the right. Each skull sits above a beautifully dressed mannequin, with clothes of silk in dark greens, blues and reds, white gloves and a golden chalice bearing the inscription “symbolum martyrii.” It is this inscription, along with the plaques in each glass display case denoting the bones’ place of origin that reveals clues as to the beginnings of these mysterious relics.
As the story goes, the bones seen here were bought from the catacomb of San Callixto in Rome at a time when the remains of early Christian martyrs were highly valued and considered holy. The catacomb of San Callixto was in use from the 2nd to 4th centuries and the bodies found at Monselice have undergone carbon dating to confirm they originate from this time period as well. Fifty martyrs were buried at the crypt of San Callixto, 25 of which have found their final resting spot here in Monselice.