Day 21: Padova day trip

I have long wanted to see the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova (or Padua in English) because of its importance to art history.

Padova is on the same river as Vicenza, Bacchilglione and on the Brenta River on the northern edge. With a population of over 200,000 it sits 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Venice and 29 km (18 miles) southeast of Vicenza. It merits two mentions on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list because of its botanical garden and because of the frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel.

It claims to be one of the oldest cities in Northern Italy, founded by a Trojan prince. Later, it became part of the Roman Republic. In late Antiquity, it was invaded by the Huns and its inhabitants were among those who fled to the Venetian Lagoon. During the 14th century it was ruled by the Carraresi family, who were constantly at war. In 1405, it came under the rule of the Venetian Republic.

It is also known as “the city of the three withouts” as it is home to the Cafe without doors (Pedrocchi Café, as it never closed), the meadow without grass (Prato della Valle, in ancient time a bog, now one of the biggest squares in Europe) and the Saint without a name (St. Anthony called by the Paduani simply “il Santo” or “the Saint”)

I also wanted to see Donatello’s works in Padova. Donatello born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (c. 1386 – 13 December 1466) and amongst the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles group — Leonardo (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520) — he was the oldest and probably now the least famous.

He associated with the great figures of early Renaissance as he trained briefly in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti and went to Rome with the older Filippo Brunelleschi to study ancient Roman architectural ruins. But until I started pursuing art history, I did not appreciate how significant he was to the development of Renaissance style. His bronze David, now in the Bargello Museum, was the first free standing nude since antiquity. He invented rilievo schiacciato, low or flattened relief sculpture. He was producing works which showed an understanding of vanishing point perspective shortly after Brunelleschi discovered its principles in 1415 and before Alberti wrote about in around 1435. Much of his work is in Florence but he also worked in Rome, Prato, Venice, Siena and Padua which spread his influence onto subsequent artists. Florence held an exhibition of his work in 2022 and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London has one from February to June 2023. I looked forward to seeing for the first time his works in Padova but was warned they aren’t easy to see.

The Pontifical Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua (in Italian: Basilica Pontificia di Sant’Antonio di Padova) is a Catholic church and minor basilica dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua.

Although the basilica is visited as a place of pilgrimage by people from all over the world, it is not the cathedral of the city, that title belongs to the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Mary of Padua. Saint Anthony of Padua was canonized in 1232, less than a year after his death which makes his canonization one of the shortest after death. Only St. Francis of Assisi had a similarly brief period between death and becoming a saint.

Queue to go to the tomb

Donatello moved to Padova in 1453 to produce statues for the church. The high altar area features the bronze Madonna with Child and six statues of Saints by Donatello, who also executed four reliefs with episodes of life of St. Anthony. Sadly, you cannot get close to them.

To add to Scott’s joy of going into a church, we waited for a funeral mass to end before we could approach the high altar. There’s a lot more than the church itself on this site but after sitting through the end of the mass, we did not want to spend more time there.

Donatello’s Gattamelata in the piazza is a bronze statue of the condottiero Erasmo da Narni, known as “Gattamelata”, who served mostly the Republic of Venice, which ruled Padua in the Renaissance. It is the first full-size equestrian statue of the Italian Renaissance. Donatello was inspired by the Marcus Aurelius classical Roman statue. But it is being restored so I could not see it!

Going to see Giotto is significant for my art history education. Italian Renaissance painting is most often divided into four periods: the Proto-Renaissance (1300–1425), the Early Renaissance (1425–1495), the High Renaissance (1495–1520), and Late Renaissance and/or Mannerism (1520–1600). The dates describe the overall trend in Italian painting and do not cover all individual artists and their personal styles, many of which overlapped these periods.

The Proto-Renaissance generally begins with the painter Giotto. The Early Renaissance style usually starts with the painter Masaccio, and includes Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Sandro Botticelli, Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Giovanni Bellini. Except for della Francesca and Bellini, the focus is Florentine. The High Renaissance period is dominated by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, but also includes Andrea del Sarto, Correggio, Giorgione, the latter works of Giovanni Bellini, Titian and Veronese. Late Renaissance and Mannerist period (I will describe it further elsewhere) includes the latter works of Michelangelo, as well as Pontormo, Parmigianino, Bronzino and Tintoretto.

Giotto (ca 1267-1337) or Giotto di Bondone’s life is not well documented which gives rise to disputes about what works are by him or by his followers. Whether the Saint Francis frescoes in Assisi are by him or not is highly disputed.

He is one of the most important artists in the development of Western art as his paintings brought together religious antiquity and the developing idea of Renaissance Humanism.

His exploration of the possibilities of perspective and pictorial space brought a sense of realism to his religious parables not seen in Medieval art. His interest in humanism connected biblical iconography and the everyday existence of lay worshippers, making art more relevant to ordinary people’s experience. His figures display an emotional quality not seen to that point in art, as his characters think, act, and are moved in ways that we can still relate to over 700 years later.

His architectural settings, while not as mathematically precise as developed in the Renaissance, nevertheless show proportion and perspective.

There is no dispute that the Scrovegni Chapel was by Giotto, who was commissioned by the banker Enrico Scrovegni to fresco the chapel next to his palace, which was demolished in the 19th century.

Scrovegni’s father appears in Dante’s seventh circle of hell because, as a banker, he was guilty of the sin of usury. One theory suggests the Chapel was built to atone for the sin. Sometimes called the Arena Chapel, it is next to a site of a Roman amphitheatre or arena.

The chapel interior is entirely covered in frescoes. The largest element are cycles showing the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin Mary.

The two cycles are noteworthy for the easily read narrative depicted.

Giotto shows innovative ideas such as parts of bodies moving beyond the edge of the frame:

And depicting movement in a narrative fashion almost like stop motion as in the man on the bottom right depicted three times to show him removing his cloak to lay under Jesus:

The wall at the rear of the church has a large Last Judgment. The depictions of Hell are particularly terrifying.

There are also panels in grisaille (monochrome to create the illusion of marble) showing the Vices and Virtues. According to Medieval Christian theology, there are three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity; and four Cardinal virtues: Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance. Their opposites, the seven vices (not the traditional seven deadly sins, but rather vices that directly correspond to the virtues opposite in a dualistic schema): Foolishness, Inconstancy, Wrath, Injustice, Infidelity, Envy and Desperation.

Booking in advance is probably essential. We saw people turned away who thought they could get in on the same day. You book 15 minute slots; we booked two successive times. This was a brilliant recommendation I received and must pass it on. It gives you a brief moment in the chapel alone.

Church of the Eremitani, next door to Scrovegni, is best known for the Ovetari Chapel (Italian: Cappella Ovetari) frescoed by Mantegna, who painted from 1448 to 1457. The cycle was destroyed by an Allied bombing in 1944.


The scenes are known from black-and-white photographs. The fresco cycle was dedicated to Saints James and Christopher.

Even these fragments display the brilliance of Mantegna’s ability to depict perspective. It breaks the heart to think the originals were destroyed by bombs.

The Scrovegni Chapel complex includes a garden, an art gallery and archaeological museum. We only briefly looked at those as it was already late afternoon. The time seemed to disappear even though we only had a light lunch in a small place where everyone spoke Italian to us.

It was after 6 pm by the time we returned and rather than go to our apartment, we decided to take advantage of happy hour at the restaurant in Campo Santo Stefano where we earlier enjoyed a lunch.

Spritz with Select, instead of Aperol
Branzino or sea bass

We tried two different Lugana wines at lunch and dinner. The grapes grow around Lago Garda. For dessert, Scott was disappointed with the mousse of the day but my fruit sorbetti were refreshing.

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