When visitors gaze at the ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, they often suddenly fall silent. Above are painted the golden stars and the enchanting blue sky of a paradise imagined by Renaissance artist Giotto di Bondone. But an equally sublime story, in the midst of the Christmas season, can be found when they turn to the frescoed walls.
Unveiled in 1305, the still-living panels recount the life of Mary and Jesus, in a style that revolutionized the world of Western art. “Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel is a pillar, the beginning of the Renaissance,” says tour guide and art historian Cecilia Martini. âAnd you have to see it to really appreciate what was painted 200 years later: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. This marked the height of the Renaissance. Both are milestones.
But while Rome’s Sistine Chapel, with all its vibrant drama, receives seven million visitors a year, Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel, with its powerful simplicity, has only recently started to surface on travelers’ routes. Just half an hour by train from the too touristy Venice, the historic center of Padua showcases Giotto’s influence. In the 14th century, his frescoes caused such a sensation that artists flocked to Padua to follow in the master’s footsteps, painting centuries-old churches and buildings, and earned the city its nickname: Urbs Picta, Painted 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 center, including the Scrovegni Chapel, which collectively “gave birth to a new image of the city”.
âThe UNESCO designation has already attracted more visitors to Padua and helps them discover often overlooked places,â says Federica Millozzi, director of Padova Urbs Picta, the city-led coalition that proposed the sites for the UNESCO registration. 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
The Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, a place of pilgrimage since its founding in the 13th century, is one of the most popular frescoed buildings listed by UNESCO. It was Giotto’s first order in Padua. He was working there when a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni, hired the artist to paint his family chapel.
(Explore 20 of Europe’s most extraordinary cathedrals.)
Many believe that Enrico hired the most famous painter of the time to restore his family’s reputation. Reginaldo, Enrico’s father, was a notorious loan shark, so despised by the church that he was refused a Catholic funeral. Dante put Reginaldo in the HellThe Seventh Circle of Hell, condemned to sit on hot sand, crushing flames for eternity.
Enrico’s attempt to win the favor of the citizens of Padua consisted of staging a pious show, adding an impressive chapel to his villa, and dedicating it to Our Lady of Charity. Ultimately, the plan failed. Brothers from the monastery next door complained that the chapel was “vain” and the bells 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 has 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 had lavish funding from Enrico to pull off such stunning hits 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 precious and expensive pigment at the time.” The color came from lapis lazuli, more expensive than gold, arriving by boat from what is now Afghanistan to Venice, where it was carefully transported to artists in Florence, Milan and Padua. At that time, the tradition of representing the Blessed Virgin Mary in blue, symbolizing her precious divinity, was established.
In addition to the bewitching colors, Giotto’s mastery of humble details adds charm to the panels, as he mixes the everyday with the divine. There is laundry flapping in the wind in her âAnnunciation,â where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she must give birth to the Savior. In the âMarriage of Canaâ, while Jesus performs his miracle of turning water into wine, a pot-bellied emcee drinks. For centuries, astronomers have studied Giotto’s Epiphany panel, 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 the eyes of every character, like the Nativity scene, as Mary tenderly hovers over her newborn son. In each panel, vivid colors, lifelike figures and powerful emotions shattered the static and formal style of the Middle Ages, making way for a new era.
(This is how tThe painter behind “Birth of Venus” invented a new kind of art.)
There is a calm and unified power of the cycle until the shaking of “The Last Judgment”, Who covers the back wall, with twisted tortured figures and a horrible horned Lucifer engulfing a human.
Comparing Giotto’s “Last Judgment” with Michelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel is one way to clearly see how Renaissance painting evolved over the centuries. While it is not known whether Michelangelo ever visited the Scrovegni Chapel, he was most certainly influenced by Giotto, like all Renaissance artists, Martini says. During his early artistic studies, he copied Giotto’s work in Florence and made a point of saving the drawings he made.
While both depictions of the “Last Judgment” are gruesome, Michelangelo’s is a supercharged leap from Giotto, celebrating the Renaissance ideal of the divine form of humanity, with many swirling nude figures. By contrast, Giotto’s nudes are doomed suffering sinners, and his paradise is peacefully balanced with golden halos.
As dazzling as Padua’s interiors are, the beauty of the city’s squares entices travelers to stroll through the pedestrian-only historic center. The University of Padua, flourishing since 1222, attracts a large international student body, with many occupying outdoor tables, drinking spritzes. The markets are full of vintage clothing, antiques and crafts, supported by pretty arcades. Typically an accordionist will play “O Sole Mio”.
A popular destination for a drink is the elegant Pedrocchi CaffÃ¨, a Padua institution since 1831. Here, their signature coffee, enhanced with mint creme, can be enjoyed seated on a velvet bench. 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.