The origins of Carpi, an important and beautiful town in the Romagna region of central Italy with about 70,000 inhabitants, date back to the 6th century AD.
It is very probable that the name Carpi derives from Carpinus, a type of tree, which suggests that in ancient times, the area was wooded with this type of tree.
Around the 10th century Carpi was founded as an imposing castle which was the seat of the Counts of the Canossa dynasty - the family included Countess Matilda of Canossa (1046-1115) who defended herself here against the troops of the Emperor.
After the death of Matilda, Carpi Castle was incorporated into the Church State but became the centre of fierce struggles among the feudal lords of Romagna until it was won by the family of the Pio. Manfredo Pio appropriated Carpi around 1352, creating a lordship that lasted until the end of the 15th century.
The Pio Seigniory was very important for Carpi because the family began a building programme of extraordinary urban and artistic interest.
The city centre was inside the castle walls, where the most important civil and religious buildings were also located.
An overview of Carpi buildings & town layout
The main street in Carpi runs from north to south across the town and is entered by two main gates and to the west was the Fortress of the Pio family. Outside the walls, near the two gates, there were several villages and monasteries. To the north was the 'Upper Village' while to the south stood the Lower Village, called Borgoforte.
Inside the Citadel the Pio built several notable monuments, such as Castelvecchio and the so-called Torrione (Big Tower) in 1450. The Pio family also contributed to the foundation of numerous monasteries such as the Convents of St. Augustine, St. Nicholas and Santa Clara.
Alberto III Pio (1475-1531) was a lover of literature and the arts and made a significant contribution to the development of the town in a pure Renaissance style with the palace of Alberto III, the Collegiate Church of the Assumption and the Loggia of the grain market.
This 15th-16th century phase of construction work halted when the Pio lost the city to the Dukes of Ferrara.
The city had a new building momentum in the 19th century when the first industrial settlements were built. Unfortunately this involved substantial losses of the Renaissance artefacts, especially in the suburbs where a part of the walls was knocked down.
The old town-centre, however, was not involved in this process of modernization, and it has preserved its medieval and Renaissance features.
Carpi: The City of the Pio Family
Your visit to Carpi can start in the old town-centre, with its medieval and Renaissance palaces. Start exploring in Piazza Re Astolfo where you can see the simultaneous presence of both styles. Here you can see the Church of Santa Maria, called “La Sagra” ("The Feast"): this is an ancient church, the construction of which dates back to the early 12th century, at that time built on the site of a pre-existing church of the 8th century.
The church was completely rebuilt in the early 16th century by Alberto Pio, who gave the project for the façade to Baldassarre Peruzzi. Inside, the church contains works of considerable artistic merit such as the cycle of frescoes by Antonio Alberti da Ferrara and the magnificent sarcophagus of Manfredo Pio by Sibillino from Caprara (1351).
Next to the church there is the slim and beautiful bell tower with mullioned windows and marble top.
The castle is near this church and through the courtyard you reach the square called Piazza dei Martiri , the principal square in Carpi and where you can find the most important artistic artefacts in the city. Among these is Carpi Cathedral, built to a plan by Balsassarre Peruzzi and with a mighty dome. The cathedral interior has three naves and retains many 17th century paintings.
In the same square many beautiful Renaissance buildings can be seen, especially the so-called “Long Portico”, with its succession of arches, and the Pio Palace, called “The Castle” and the Clock Tower. You can also see the Civic Museum, the Library and Historical Archives.
The area outside the historic centre of Carpi is also rich in artefacts and works of art worthy of a visit - churches in particular. Starting from Piazza Garibaldi and heading along Via San Francesco you reach the Church of Saint Francis, which dates back to the 13th century, although it was rebuilt in the late 17th century.
The façade of the church is incomplete, but the outside is notable for the baroque style bell tower. Inside it has one nave and two beautiful sarcophagi of the Pio Family, of which one (of Marco Pio [died in 1494]) is attributed to the School of Jacopo della Quercia (1374-1438).
Next to the Church of Saint Francis in Carpi are the Church of Saint Bernardino from Siena (17th century, with gilded wooden altars), the Church of the Holy Crucifix (18th century, rococo-style) and the church of St. Nicholas (15th century, with work by Baldassarre Peruzzi and numerous paintings of the 17th-18th centuries).
After the convent of the Observant Monks, in the Corso Fanti, you can see some beautiful buildings constructed by the local nobility, then the Santa Chiara Church (XV century) and Church of St. Ignatius (17th century).
Continuing towards the Corso Cobassi, you see more interesting buildings from the medieval epoch to the 19th century, and the beautiful baroque style 16th century Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
There is more to Carpi than history, art and culture, and the town also has a taste for good food and wine. There are several restaurants in the city and surrounding areas where you can taste the typical dishes of the area: we suggest you sample the local pasta dishes based around tortellini, tagliatelle, maltagliati and tortelloni.
Among other typical products of the region we should mention the Quartirolo, a soft cheese, the Parmigiano Reggiana; and a draught of Nocino, an excellent digestive. Among wines, of course you can enjoy the famous Lambrusco.
Map of Carpi sightseeing & popular sights
Selected places to visit near Carpi, Italy
See the Emilia-Romagna guide for more travel ideas...