Hemmed in by the sprawl that has accompanied its development as the most important economic centre of the Veneto, Padua (Padova) is not immediately the most alluring city in northern Italy. It is, however, one of the most ancient, and plentiful evidence remains of its impressive lineage. A large student population creates a young, vibrant atmosphere, and yet in spite of having two big attractions – the Giotto frescoes and the Basilica of St Antony – Padua has the feel of a town that is just getting on with its own business.
A Roman municipium from 45 BC, the city thrived until the barbarian onslaughts and the subsequent Lombard invasion at the start of the seventh century. Recovery was slow, but by the middle of the twelfth century, when it became a free commune, Padua was prosperous once again. Italy’s second oldest university was founded here in 1221, and a decade later the city became a place of pilgrimage following the death here of St Antony.
In 1337 the Da Carrara family established control. Under their domination, Padua’s cultural eminence was secured – Giotto, Dante and Petrarch were among those attracted here – but Carraresi territorial ambitions led to conflict with Venice, and in 1405 the city’s independence ended with its conquest by the neighbouring republic. Though politically nullified, Padua remained an artistic and intellectual centre: Donatello and Mantegna both worked here, and in the seventeenth century Galileo researched at the university, where the medical faculty was one of the most ambitious in Europe. With the fall of the Venetian Republic the city passed to Napoleon and then to the Austrians, who ruled until Padua was annexed to Italy in 1866. Bombed several times by the Allies in World War II, the city has been extensively restored.
The Cappella degli Scrovegni was commissioned in 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni in atonement for his father’s usury, which was so vicious that he was denied a Christian burial. Giotto was commissioned to cover the walls with illustrations of the life of Mary, the life of Jesus and the story of the Passion, and the finished fresco cycle is one of the high points in the development of European art – a marvellous demonstration of Giotto’s innovative attention to the inner nature of his subjects. In terms of sheer physical presence and the relationships between the figures and their environment, Giotto’s work takes the first important strides towards realism and humanism.
The Joachim series on the top row of the north wall (facing you as you walk in) is particularly powerful – note the exchange of looks between the two shepherds in the Arrival of Joachim. Beneath the main pictures are shown the Vices and Virtues in human (usually female) form, while on the wall above the door is a Last Judgement – in rather poor condition and thought to be only partly by Giotto. At the bottom is a portrait of Scrovegni presenting the chapel; his tomb is at the far end, behind the altar with its statues by Giovanni Pisano.
Top image: Cityscape image of Padua, Italy with Prato della Valle © Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock