Venice offers such an embarrassment of riches that the thought of taking a daytrip away from the Serenissima had always struck me as absurd. And so, a mere 30-minute train ride westward in Padua (Padova in Italian), the Scrovegni Chapel remained high on my “someday” list. Until now.
The Chapel of Atonement
The chapel, originally adjacent to a luxurious palace built by affluent Paduan banker Enrico Scrovegni, was to serve as the family’s private oratory and funeral monument. And, so historians assure us, it was intended to atone for the sins of his father (Reginaldo Scrovegni), a moneylender with practices so vile they had landed him a part in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as one of the souls consigned to the Seventh Circle of Hell.
While the building itself, all that remains of the original estate, is an unremarkable rectangular gothic structure, the younger Scrovegni commissioned the great Tuscan master Giotto di Bondone to decorate the interior. It is there that Giotto at the height of his career, from 1303 to 1305, created a cycle of frescoes that became widely recognized as one of the most important milestones in the evolution of Western art.
The Birth of Western Art
Under the vault of an intense blue sky sprinkled with golden stars and medallion portraits of the Evangelists, the story of the redemption of man unfolds through the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged in three tiers along the lateral walls. The story of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of the Virgin, is told on the upper right tier, Mary’s own early life is recorded on the upper left tier. The early life of Jesus and his miracles are depicted throughout the center tier, while the bottom one is dedicated to the Passions of Christ.
On the wall opposite the altar, the entire pictorial space is covered by the grandiose Universal Judgement. While these themes were pervasive in sacred art at the time, Giotto’s interpretation marks a radical departure from the stylized, elongated figures of the Byzantine tradition. Now the scene becomes three-dimensional, alive with the faces and gestures of living subjects. Gone are the formalized draperies; here the characters are clothed in garments that hang naturally and follow their movements. Some face inward, back turned to the viewer, creating a spatial illusion. For the first time, human emotions are shown in a realistic way, including one of the earliest representations of a kiss in Western art (The meeting of St Joachim and St. Anne at the Golden Gate).
This new style is so revolutionary that it is not fully understood until Masaccio’s paints the Brancacci Chapel in Florence a century later. And it is the Scrovegni Chapel that influences Michelangelo’s own Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel (circa 1536). It is not known whether the chapel was able to make up for the sins of the father, but there can be no doubt that these dazzling frescoes paved the way for the great masters of the Renaissance.
The Monastery Next Door
The Scrovegni Chapel is now enclosed within the City Museums (Musei Civici) complex housed on the grounds of what was once a monastery for Ereminati (hermit) monks located nearby. Both are accessed through the serene gardens of the cloister, and admission to the museum is included with the chapel entrance fee.
Since I hadn’t given any thought to this side visit prior to the trip, the ground floor Archeological Museum is an unexpected treat. Its wealth of artifacts from local excavations and private collections provide an interesting illustration of the archeological and historical development the area, from the Paeloveneti who inhabited the area between the 10th to 4th century BCE to Roman times. There are also a number of bronze and ceramic funerary items from the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, near Rome. But it is the collection donated to the museum in 1994 by Professor Calogero Casuccio that takes my breath away. Of the 170 items of Greek and Italot (Greek colony in ancient Italy, i.e. Apulia) in the Casuccio Collection, many are remarkable pieces both in terracotta and painted pottery. The most important are a group of Apulian “figured” vases, including a stunning phiale (drinking vessel) and a spectacular crater (wine urn), both attributed to eminent 4th century BCE painters.
Upstairs, the rambling Museum of Medieval and Modern Arts collection does include a few interesting works by the greats of Italian painters from the 1300s to 1800s, Bellini, Gorgione, Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Veronese among them. The highlight of the collection is the Crucifix by Giotto that was originally located on the altar of the Scrovegni Chapel.
Good to Know
- Getting There – The train ride from Venice Santa Lucia to Padua takes 30 to 45 minutes via regional train or 25 minutes with FrecciaRossa (High Speed Train). The difference between the two on the 40 kilometer (25 mile) route is not so much one of time than cost. One-way fare on the regional train is approximately €6 versus €16 with FrecciaRossa. Once in Padua, it’s a 10-minute walk straight down the Corso del Popolo, which about half-way becomes the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, to the Piazza Eremitani and the Scrovegni Chapel.
- Visiting – The Scrovegni Chapel, Piazza Eremitani 6, Padua, is open all year from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, except January 1, May 1 and December 25-26. The Musems of Archology and Medieval and Modern Art are also closed on Monday. Note – For reasons of preservation of the artwork, visit of the Scrovegni Chapel is strictly regulated and advanced booking is imperative. Booking is through the website. Visitors must collect their pre-booked tickets at the box office at least one hour before the visit. After checking their bags at the free cloakroom of the main museum building, they are expected to arrive for admission a few minutes before their allotted time. They then sit through a 15-minute audiovisual presentation in a climate-controlled air-locked chamber to allow their body humidity to be lowered and dust pollution filtered. This is to protect the frescoes from moisture and mold. Finally, the group (25 people maximum) is ushered into the chapel for 15 minutes to view the artwork.