AMONG THE MOST imposing monastic complexes in southern Italy is the Certosa di San Lorenzo at Padula. Founded in 1306 by a loyal servant of the Angevins,
Tomaso Sanseverino, Count of Marsico, this was largely reconstructed in the baroque period, and offers a remarkable sense of the power and pretension of the Church at the time.
The Carthusians were expelled by the French, who used the certosa as a barracks for 20,000 soldiers, but returned after 1815.
The monastery was finally suppressed in 1866, and served as a prison in both world wars; Allied soldiers captured in North Africa were held there before being transported to northern Italy when the Germans retreated in 1944.
Padula only came to more general notice after a major programme of restoration was underway in the 1980s. For two or three years almost every Italian seemed to have just been to or to be on his way to Padula, which is in easy reach of the autostrada and in a beautiful open setting.
The rectangular atrium precedes an elegant façade of 1718,
the corridor beyond leading to the west side of the small Renaissance courtyard, from which the church is reached, and continuing past the main monastic rooms on the right to the west loggia of the spectacular Chiostro Grande with a double arcade projected in 1680.
The corridor ends with the celebrated elliptical staircase built by the little-known Neapolitan Gaetano Barba in 1761–3.
Twin flights curl upwards to the top floor. One treads on air, so beautifully does the clear sunlight filter though the structure. Grand but not ponderous – as, say, the Bourbons’ Caserta is – the staircase is in many ways akin to theatrical projects of the period.
The Soprintendenza of the Campania has done splendidly at Padula, and space has been found in the monastic buildings for the Museo Archeologico della Lucania Occidentale and also to display pictures from the area.