The train / traffic bridge to Venice and the train to Padua
But it was mighty convenient for us. The absolute highlight of this whole trip for ME was the visit to the Chapel of the Scrovegni family, the private chapel painted entirely by Giotto in 1303-05. I had waited 50 years for this.
Irony upon irony that this priceless work came about because, according to the history given by the introduction to the chapel itself, Reginaldo Scrovegni was an alleged usurer, called out as such by Dante in his poem “Inferno.” Reginaldo’s son Enrico, inheriting great wealth and adding to it, felt the need to rescue his father’s soul, a doctrine most believed in at the time. And, of course, provide a proper place for the family tombs.
Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto
Giotto de Bondone, known like a rock star by his first name, is reckoned as the precursor to the Renaissance rebirth of representational art. I’m sure many of you would argue that his teacher, Cimabue, taught Giotto everything, but I disagree. I do like to say “chim-a-BOO-eh.” I do agree that Giotto burst upon his scene like a comet. He actually depicted Halley’s comet as the Star of Bethlehem.
We had purchased tickets online for the chapel and had a time to check in. The train was quite nice and ran on time, despite the absence of Mussolini. There is a McDonald’s right at the train station, where a coke might be purchased for half the usual cost.
Despite Le Ricche we bought only coke
Since we were plenty early, we had time for a stroll about town and a light lunch. I had my first of many “Caprese” sandwiches / salads; Caprese is the divine marriage of mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and fresh basil. There was a lovely drizzly rain and it turned out to be the coolest day of the whole trip.
Padua is a very wet town like Venice, and has fewer canals and bridges, but still quite a few. It would impress you, if you had not seen Venice first. It does have cars and Vespas, but since it is not a tourist hot-spot, but a working town, there were only modest crowds.
The river Brenta and an unused canal lock
We went down the wrong lane to get to the chapel, as did most everyone else; signage is not the Italian strong suit. But we found it, got checked in and waited. Padua has arrived at a marvelous way to conserve the frescoes and yet let people see them. You sit and wait in an air-conditioned room, drying out. Only about 20 people go in at a time. Sliding glass door keep the sweaty newcomers from mixing with those who are purified.
And then it was our turn. The chapel is described as a “jewel-box”, but it was much larger than I expected. It took my breath away. The cycle of frescoes tells the story of Mary in the topmost tier, including her apocryphal “immaculate conception” and early life. The frescoes run rather like a comic book, with each scene telling part of the story. Over the altar is the Annunciation, tying in the mid-level tier of frescoes to tell the story of Jesus. Interspersed are painted “architectural” details and faux statues representing the Vices and Virtues. [This technique is called grisaille when an artist uses trompe l’oeil to make the viewer think there is a 3D statue, usually in a painted niche].
We had 15 minutes; I could have stayed for hours, staring at each scene. It made me cry. The paintings are so sensitive that YOU WERE THERE when they crucified our Lord; when they laid him in the ground; and when He arose!
In many ways, Giotto’s painting style is like a graphic novel of today. Architecture is important, though not rendered in perfect perspective; rather it is used to set the scene and buildings are repeated to emphasize events. For example, the Temple in Jerusalem is repeated almost exactly in several scenes. Faces are steeped in emotion, gripping the viewer. The color palette is now muted with age and damage, but would have been as vibrant and garish as in modern graphic novels. The colors are symbolic in both cases, with the symbolism perhaps unrecognized consciously by the viewer, but effective nonetheless.
The Kiss-- Judas' yellow cloak indicates he is a liar
And finally, I saw the perfectly rendered “statue” of Despair, a Vice, reminding me that we are given life and must treasure it despite pain and depression.
Never give up
I bought a beautifully printed book of the paintings; the book I already had was the Jesus cycle, but did not include the Mary story. We toured the museum next door, which included Roman and Medieval artifacts dug out of Paduan tombs, before making our way to the train, the waterbus and some Chinese take-out for dinner. From the sublime to the ridiculous, as life usually is.