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In the city of the three “withouts” Rich in history, art and traditions, Padua is a “must” due to some of its gems, like the Cappella degli Scrovegni (1302), completely frescoed by Giotto, and the University Botanic Garden, founded in 1545 by Dario C. Nicoli
Padua. The Basilica of Santa Giustina in Prato della Valle. Photo by Dario C. Nicoli
City with a doorless café, a grass-free “lawn” (Prato) and a nameless Saint. Three hundred thousand inhabitants, beating heart of Veneto, Padua lets the myths say it was founded by Antenore, the hero who fled with Enea after the destruction of Troy, and who, having gone up the Adriatic coast, found his new home here. His sarcophagus dominates the piazza in front of the Prefettura and it little matters that it is said that inside it there are the remains of a gigantic Hungarian warrior: the myth nestles in the heart of the citizens and will stay there in future centuries.
Like they will never let go of the old saying of the three “withouts”: the Pedrocchi café without doors that Giuseppe Jappelli built in 1831 as a place to offer hospitality to anyone who wanted to rest after a walk in the city centre and that still offers the “green room” with no obligation to order anything if your wish is simply to read a newspaper in peace and quiet, eat a packed lunch or, like many college students, revise their notes before sitting an exam in the nearby Bò University Building. The Prato della Valle, is without grass, an area of almost ninety thousand square meters of what was once a swamp, wonderfully reorganized in 1767 thanks to Andrea Memmo, who made it one of the largest and loveliest squares in Europe. The nameless Antonio, Saint par excellence. So well-known that he has no need to be called “Sant’Antonio” and is simply “the Saint”. And his greatness lies in this. Everything in Padua is called after him: “Via del Santo”, “Piazza del Santo”, the city of the Saint, the Basilica of the Saint, etc. First Augustinian, then Franciscan, born in Lisbon in about 1200, he died in Padua only just into his 30’s and is venerated all over the world. Worthy preacher, raised to the ranks of Father of the Church, known for his miracles, he was canonized less than a year before his death, from illness, in a convent in the Arcella district on the edge of town, where he had been taken because of the serious nature of his illness. His tomb and his relics, in particular his tongue and vocal apparatus which are miraculously still intact, are the destination of pilgrimages undertaken every year by millions of the faithful.
But there are still two gems in Padua that make the city a must on a visitor’s itinerary in Veneto: the first is the University Botanic Gardens, founded in 1545 by a deliberation of the Senate of the Republic, making it the oldest university botanic gardens in the world; the second is the chapel that Enrico degli Scrovegni, lord of Padua, had built in 1302 near the ancient Roman arena, to redeem from the sin of usury the soul of his father Reginaldo, relegated by Dante into the seventh circle of Hell. Completely covered in frescoes by Giotto, the little Paduan Sistine chapel (almost 21 metres long, 13 high and less than 9 wide), it has been the subject of a long and delicate work of restoration, that gave it back to the public in all its stunning beauty in 2002. These days, to visit Giotto’s Chapel you have to book in advance, be ready to enter in groups of 20 people at a time, and accept that the visit lasts only 5 minutes at the end of which a kind but inflexible custodian sees everyone out, in order to prevent the internal microclimate, which is observed and controlled by sophisticated apparatus, from altering its composition. It is only by applying these conditions, in fact, that the precious frescoes, rescued from damp and neglect, after years of a process of deterioration that had almost completely rubbed them out, will be able to be seen in all their splendour in years to come.
The sight that presents itself to the gaze of the visitors – even though they will already have been prepared by an explanatory video in the hall as they waited – is unimaginably atmospheric. Along the walls of the Chapel there are 34 images subdivided into three registers that tell the life of Christ, from the antecedent facts concerning Joachim and Anne, the Virgin’s parents, taken from James’ Proto-bible, as far as the Ascension. When he painted the Cappella degli Scrovegni, Giotto was just over 40 and had already worked on the Basilica of Assisi. By now a mature artist, here he worked personally on all the paintings, leaving his pupils just the residual work. And it is in this extraordinary masterpiece that the artist, while inspired by the iconographic tradition of the time, manages to express feelings of pain and joy with a mastery generating incredible pathos. The Cappella degli Scrovegni is a unique, not-to-be-missed work that goes through the eyes to the depths of the heart. An experience that lasts only a few minutes, but that reveals such a vivid image that it remains impressed on your memory forever.
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