Among the rice fields around 40km south of Milan, one of the most extravagant monasteries in Europe, the Certosa di Pavia (Charterhouse of Pavia), was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo II Visconti in 1396 as the family mausoleum. Visconti intended the church here to resemble Milan’s late-Gothic cathedral and the same architects and craftsmen worked on the construction. It took a century to build; by the time it was finished tastes had changed (and the Viscontis had been replaced by the Sforzas). As a work of art the monastery is one of the most important testimonies to the transformation from late-Gothic to Renaissance and Mannerist styles, but it also affords a wonderful insight into the lives and beliefs of the Carthusian monks.

You can see the church unaccompanied, but to visit the rest of the monastery you need to join a guided tour of just under an hour (free but contributions welcomed), led by one of the monks released from the strict vow of silence. Tours run regularly – basically when enough people have gathered. They’re in Italian, but well worth doing – even if you don’t understand a word – as it allows you to visit the best parts of the monastery complex.

The church

The monastery lies at the end of a tree-lined avenue, part of a former Visconti hunting range that stretched all the way from Pavia’s castello. Encircled by a high wall, the complex is entered through a central gateway bearing a motif that recurs throughout the monastery – “GRA-CAR” or “Gratiarum Carthusiae”, a reference to the fact that the Carthusian monastery is dedicated to Santa Maria delle Grazie, who appears in numerous works of art in the church. Beyond the gateway is a gracious courtyard, with the seventeenth-century Ducal Palace on the right-hand side and outbuildings along the left. Rising up before you is the fantastical facade of the church, festooned with inlaid marble, twisted columns, statues and friezes. Despite more than a century’s work by leading architects, the facade remains unfinished: the tympanum was never added, giving the church its stocky, truncated look.

The interior

Inside, the Gothic design of the church was a deliberate reference to Milan’s Duomo, but it has a lighter, more joyous feel, with its painted ceiling, and light streaming in through the one hundred windows high up in the walls. The elaborate seventeenth-century gates to the transept and highly decorated altar, at the far end, are opened when a tour is about to start.

The sculptural highlights of the church lie in the two wings of the transept. In the centre of the north transept lies the stone funerary monument of the greatest of the dukes of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, and his wife Beatrice d’Este, neither of whom is actually buried here. The exquisite detail of the statue is an important document of sixteenth-century fashions with its tasselled latticework dress and glam-rock platform shoes. The south transept contains the magnificent mausoleum of the founder of the monastery, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, by Cristoforo Romano, including a carving of Gian Galeazzo presenting a model of the Certosa to the Virgin. Both he and his wife, Isabella di Valois, are buried here.

The monastery

Opposite the mausoleum is the door to the delightful small cloister, with fine terracotta decoration and a geometric garden around a fountain where monks shared the communal part of their lives, meeting here to pace the courtyard during their weekly ration of talking time. In the adjacent refectory, the monks would eat together in silence on Sundays and holy days; the Bible was read throughout the meal from the pulpit (with a hidden entrance in the panelling). The dining room is divided by a blind wall, which allowed the monastery to feed lay workers and guest pilgrims without compromising the rules of their closed order. Further on, the great cloister is stunning for its size and tranquillity. It is surrounded on three sides by the monks’ houses, each consisting of two rooms, a chapel, a garden and a loggia, with a bedroom above. The hatches to the side of the entrances were designed to enable food to be passed through without any communication. The final call is the Certosa shop, stocked with honey, chocolate, souvenirs and the famous Chartreuse liqueur.