These frescoes broke the conventions of Italian art
When visitors look up at the ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, they are often suddenly silent. Above are painted the golden stars and the enchanting blue sky of a paradise imagined by the Renaissance artist Giotto di Bondone. But an equally sublime story – one at the heart of the Christmas season – can be found when they turn to the frescoed walls.
Unveiled in 1305, the still-living panels tell of the lives of Mary and Jesus, in a style that revolutionized the Western art world. “Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel is a pillar, the early Renaissance,” says Cecilia Martini, tour guide and art historian. “And you have to see it to truly appreciate what was painted 200 years later: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. This marked the height of the Renaissance. Both are milestones.
But whereas Rome’s Sistine Chapel, with all its dynamic drama, receives seven million visitors a year, Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel, with its powerful simplicity, has only recently begun to surface on travelers’ itineraries. Only half an hour by train from the very touristy Venice, the historic center of Padua bears witness to the influence of Giotto. In the 14th century, his frescoes caused such a sensation that artists flocked to Padua to follow in the footsteps of the master, painting churches and secular buildings, and earned the city its nickname: Urbs PictaPainted City.
In July, UNESCO added Padua’s 14th-century fresco cycles to its World Heritage List. The proclamation recognized eight frescoed buildings in the historic centre, including the Scrovegni Chapel, which collectively “gave birth to a new image of the city”.
“The UNESCO designation has already brought more visitors to Padua and helps them discover places that are often overlooked,” says Federica Millozzi, director of Padova Urbs Picta, the city-led coalition that proposed the sites for the registration with UNESCO. For travelers, the organization offers an all-inclusive ticket to see the frescoes and an app to explore the art in depth.
The chapel of a wealthy family
Among the most popular frescoed buildings listed by UNESCO is the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, a place of pilgrimage since its founding in the 13th century. It was Giotto’s first commission from Padua. He was working there when a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni, hired the artist to paint his family’s chapel.
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Many believe that Enrico hired the most famous painter of the time to repair his family’s reputation. Reginaldo, Enrico’s father, had been a notorious loan shark, so despised by the church that he was denied a Catholic burial. Dante put Reginaldo in the Hell‘s Seventh Circle of Hell, doomed to sit on hot sand, crushing flames for eternity.
Enrico’s attempt to curry favor with the citizens of Padua consisted of organizing a show of piety, adding an impressive chapel to his villa and dedicating it to Our Lady of Charity. Ultimately, the plan failed. Friars from the nearby monastery complained that the chapel was “vain” and that the bells were too loud. To top it off, Enrico, like his father, fell into bad business. He died in exile on the island of Murano, and the tainted legacy of the Scrovegni family remained forever.
But for Giotto, the Scrovegni Chapel goes down in history as his greatest triumph. Part of his success is certainly due to the fact that he benefited from the lavish financing of Enrico to pull off such amazing shots as the extravagant use of the color blue, which casts a mystical atmosphere throughout the space.
According to art historian Susan Steer, “blue was the most valuable and expensive pigment at this time”. The color came from lapis lazuli, more expensive than gold, which arrived by ship from what is now Afghanistan to Venice, where it was carefully transported to artists in Florence, Milan and Padua. At this time, the tradition of depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary in blue, symbolizing her precious divinity, was established.
In addition to mesmerizing colors, Giotto’s mastery of humble detail adds charm to the panels as he blends the everyday with the Divine. There is linen flapping in the breeze in his “Annunciation”, where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she must bear the Saviour. In the “Wedding at Cana”, while Jesus performs his miracle of turning water into wine, a pot-bellied master of ceremonies drinks. Astronomers have studied for centuries Giotto’s panel of Epiphany, with kings bringing gifts to Christ’s manger, for above them he painted Halley’s Comet, which he had seen a few years before the completion of the chapel.
Giotto’s innovations can be seen in each character’s eyes, such as the Nativity scene, as Mary hovers tenderly over her newborn son. In each panel, vibrant colors, realistic characters and powerful emotions broke through the static and formal style of the Middle Ages, ushering in a new era.
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There is a silent, unified power in the cycle until the jolt of “The Last Judgment”, Who covers the back wall, with twisted tortured figures and a gruesome horned Lucifer engulfing a human.
Comparing Giotto’s “Last Judgment” to Michelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel is one way to clearly see how Renaissance painting evolved over the centuries. Although it’s unclear if Michelangelo ever visited the Scrovegni Chapel, he was most certainly influenced by Giotto, like all Renaissance artists, says Martini. During his first artistic studies, he copied the work of Giotto in Florence and made a point of keeping the drawings he made.
While both ‘Last Judgment’ depictions are gruesome, Michelangelo’s is a leap over Giotto’s, celebrating the Renaissance ideal of the divine form of humanity, with many nude figures swirling. By contrast, Giotto’s nudes are of sinners doomed to suffer, and his paradise is peacefully balanced by golden halos.
As dazzling as the interiors of Padua are, the beauty of the city squares entice travelers to stroll through the pedestrian-only historic center. The University of Padua, thriving since 1222, attracts a large international student population, and many occupy outdoor tables, drinking spritzes. There are markets brimming with vintage clothing, antiques and crafts, backed by pretty archways. Typically an accordionist will play “O Sole Mio”.
A popular destination for a drink is the elegant Pedrocchi Caffè, a Padua institution since 1831. Here, their signature coffee, complete with mint cream, can be enjoyed while seated on a velvet banquette. It is a perfect place to settle down and reflect on the rich images of the painted city – its enchanting colors, powerful images and golden stars.