Every painting is a voyage into a sacred harbour.
The train from Venice to Padua has a distinctly 1970s aesthetic – bright blue, angular seating with a hint of the space age. It feels sad to be leaving Venice, but exciting to be heading for the very first time to historic Padua, the home of the Scrovegni Chapel in which Giotto’s famous biblical frescoes cover the entire interior. It is also the home of the magnificent St Anthony’s Basilica which is currently celebrating 750 years of the incorrupt tongue of its saint, the University of Padua where Galileo taught for a number of years, and the Prato della valle, a huge elliptical square that is encircled by 78 statues of historical figures. And it has the world’s first botanical garden, established by the University of Padua in 1545, which is still operating as a significant botanical research centre and is now a UNESCO heritage site. Gerard and I become completely charmed by the city and shortly after our arrival are already talking about a return visit.
We are staying in a wonderful little hotel, the Belludi 37, which is just down from the entrance to the square of St Anthony’s Basilica. Our room has two balconies, one with a lovely view that looks directly towards the basilica, the other overlooking the main street which is lined with shops, cafes and little souvenir carts selling all kinds of trinkets associated with St Anthony. It is a wonderful room, the hotel staff are extraordinarily helpful and kind, and we feel so happy we wish we were staying for longer than two days.
St Anthony’s Basilica is so magical and so overwhelming it stirs something strangely religious within me. I am moved by the superb paintings, the altar pieces, the frescoes, the mosaics, the golden embellishments and the tomb of St Anthony himself, where I line up with others to place my hand on the cool marble exterior for a moment of deep contemplation. But most of all, I am fascinated by the extraordinary display of St Anthony’s relics of which his tongue and vocal chords are the most celebrated – tiny, dark, shrivelled organs, floating in stunning bejewelled reliquaries which are in turn displayed within elaborate cabinets which are guarded by puffed up little putti, ribbons, gold and all things rococo. Apparently, when the saint’s body was exhumed some thirty years after his death in 1231, his tongue – and presumably also his vocal chords – were found intact and glistening amongst his otherwise dusty remains, reinforcing the saintliness of his incorrupt tongue. (Click here to see images of the interior.)
We are in the courtyard of the basilica complex when the bells start ringing. It is a wondrous sound, not at all like the bells of St David’s in Hobart which I am so used to – much sweeter and gentler and much more heavenly. If there is a heaven, it’s doorway is definitely located somewhere in Central Europe and the main entrance must surely be somewhere directly above Italy.
Next door to St Anthony’s are two small buildings, a school and a small chapel, both filled with intensely beautiful art works. The school building has a superb renaissance ceiling and the walls are completely covered with extraordinary frescoes by a number of different Italian artists (including Titian), so the style varies from image to image. We spend ages in here, struggling with a closely typewritten information sheet that lists all the frescoes and artists but not in any logical order, so it is a great task trying to work out who painted which scene. Photography is not permitted in here – or indeed, in most of the historic and religious places we visit in Padua. This is both disappointing and something of a relief – it means engaging with the work face to face here and now, rather than constantly mediating the experience through a camera lens.
At night, we wander about the huge square where hundreds of people have gathered, some watching an African rap group, others milling around the central fountain, and lots of couples sitting in the less lit up areas near the sculptures that form a type of fence around everything. It is a wonderful, balmy night and Padua shows itself off effortlessly. Along the main street there are lots of little bars and restaurants, specialist shops and gelato stalls. People have emerged from their siesta to eat, drink, walk their dogs and their children in the cool of the evening, or simply to parade up and down.
On our second day, we take a guided tour of the University of Padua in the morning. Founded in 1222, it is the second oldest university in Italy and one of the most renowned in the world, particularly in terms of its contribution to medicine and the study of the human body. This is where Galileo taught for 18 very happy years, appointed as professor of mathematics in 1592. On the tour, we see a strange wooden structure from which he gave his lectures, a type of movable pulpit or stage, which was built especially for him because he was so short. We see the magnificent old lecture theatre where graduations now take place and we are also shown the oldest permanent anatomical theatre in the world. As there are only six of us on the tour, we get to stand right in the tiny stage area where the body was wheeled in from underground rooms. Looming vertiginously above us is the extraordinary, wooden elliptical amphitheatre, where all the students had to stand upright, cramped closely together, to see what was happening below.
Outside, there are two courtyards, one reflecting the stark architectural style of Italy’s fascist era, but with a superb sculpture by Janis Kounellis in one corner; the other harking back to the university’s establishment, heavily and beautifully decorated with the family crests of past students. There is also a wonderful mural just inside the main entrance. The visit to the university is one of my favourite experiences in Padua.
We then walk down the main street until we reach the Scrovegni chapel – a little confusing to find on a first visit – and have a coffee while we wait for our pre-booked viewing time. The chapel is so delicate, and receives so many visitors every day, that a regimented booking system has been set in place to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Tickets must be purchased at least 24 hours in advance for specified times that are based around fifteen minute cycles. So about fifteen minutes before our allotted time, we are allowed into a garden area just outside a modern extension to the chapel. Here we sit and wait before being lead into a climate-controlled room to watch a fifteen minute video before we are allowed into the chapel itself for fifteen minutes. It was built by a wealthy merchant, named Enrico Scrovegni who, it has been suggested was trying to appease God and the church for the sins of his family business which included money-lending.
It is difficult to describe what a wondrous thing it is to enter this modestly sized, simple building and see, for the very first time, with my very own eyes, images that have been shown to me by teachers since I was in school, images that I have been instructed are some of the most significant in the history of all western art and which I have only ever seen in reproduction. And here they are, larger than life, almost surreal in their otherwordliness, completely covering the walls and ceiling of this little chapel, The Kiss of Judas, The Lamentation of Christ, The Last Supper, and the frightening Last Judgement, which covers the far end wall. When I was at school, I really had no conception of how extraordinary these images are – their early experimentation with perspective, the use of light and shade to create a sense of three dimensionality and, most remarkable of all most, Giotto’s mastery in conveying depth of emotion and tenderness. There is no photography allowed, so I try to absorb as much as I can and hope that the vision – for it truly is a vision – won’t fade too quickly.
Afterwards, we stroll through the vast corridors of seemingly endless art in the museum associated with the chapel – it is all too much and I wander about zombie-like, struggling to retain the freshness of the experience of seeing the frescoes while trying to get some sense of the collection.
Padua deserves much more time than we are able to give it. We wander through the market, the charming little streets of the Jewish quarter, through three beautiful squares, and visit another stunning church, the Padua Cathedral, which has a small chapel adjacent to the main building with more simply wondrous frescoes and mosaics by Giusto de’ Menabuoi. The exterior of the cathedral, used as a gathering place for young people, completely belies its magnificent interior.
We also visit the botanical gardens, not far from our hotel and just behind St Anthony’s, formally set out like a diagram in an antique etching, where we see herb gardens, giant water lily pads, a conservatorium of poisonous and flesh eating plants, giant decorative urns, fountains set in circular ponds, and exotic plants and flowers of all descriptions.
And just as we begin to get our bearings in lovely Padua, it is time to leave and head for our next destination. We walk to the bus depot from the hotel, enveloped by the quiet magic of early morning, only the sound of our suitcases rattling about behind us on the cobbled streets and footpaths. We just make the airport bus in time. Next stop Athens.