Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 18, 2016

The Masterwork: Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

There simply aren’t enough days in one’s life that include standing in a place, surrounded by utterly epoch-making, monumental art at the pinnacle of human accomplishment.

So think I.

If you think so, too, when you plan a trip to Italy that will put you in the vicinity of Verona or Venice, plan to see Padua (Padova).

If you’re driving, you can reach Padua via major highways — autostrade. Or, you can get there by train — Padua is about 30 minutes from Venice via train, for example — and the city has excellent connections via numerous trains from every direction.

Padua has been an important city for a couple of thousand years, and has more than a day’s worth of fascinating sightseeing. I intend to cover some additional Padovan attractions in another post, but you must not fail to see one site: the Scrovegni Chapel (skro-VAY-nyee).

The chapel was consecrated in 1305 as part of the opulent palace of the affluent banker, Enrico Scrovegni.The Capella degli Scrovegni is not immense. The interior of the nave is 20.88  meters (@ 75 ft.)long by 8.41 meters (@ 27-1/2 ft.) wide and 12.65 meters (41-1/2 ft.) high. While well-preserved, the structure isn’t an overpoweringly compelling work of architectural design or execution. Here’s the exterior as it looked in 2000.

Scrovegni Chapel exterior Brad Nixon

One goes there to see what’s painted on the walls and ceiling of the interior.

S. Scrovegni determined that his chapel should be impressively decorated, and, as it happened a well-known Florentine artist was already working in Padua, painting frescoes in a portion of the Basilica of St. Anthony. The artist, Giotto di Bondone, is so widely recognized as one of the principal figures in the development of Western art that he’s common referred to simply as “Giotto” (je-AHT-toe).

Giotto and a team of perhaps 40 assistants frescoed the entire inside of the chapel, depicting scenes from the lives of Joachim and St. Anne, the apocryhpal parents of the Virgin Mary; the life of Mary; the life of Jesus; panels depicting virtues and vices; a Last Judgment and other images.

They are remarkable. I’ve seen Giotto’s work in Florence, Assisi and elsewhere in Padua. His work is always distinctive and powerful, but in the Scrovegni Chapel, one inhabits an entire world created by the master.

A wide angle of the interior shows the four tiers of frescoes on the walls, the blue sky of the vault and the last judgment over the entrance.

512px-Scrovegni

Traditionally, scenes depicting the Annunciation by an angel separate the angel from (typically) the Virgin Mary by a pillar, a doorway, a pedestal or some other means. Giotto painted not only the Annunciation to Mary by Gabriel, but the annunciation of the coming birth of Mary to her mother, St. Anne. The angel appears in a window.

Giotto_di_Bondone_-_No._3_Scenes_from_the_Life_of_Joachim_-_3._Annunciation_to_St_Anne_-_WGA09171

The human figures, as in all Giotto’s work, have vivid expressions, depth and definition of modeling and beautifully executed drapery, not to mention the architectonic buildings, pillars and rooms that put them in a specific, human space. Here, Judas tells the authorities he can lead them to Jesus. In Giotto’s striking depiction, a dark, satanic figure stands behind Judas, claw gripping his shoulder.

Giotto_di_Bondone_-_No._28_Scenes_from_the_Life_of_Christ_-_12._Judas'_Betrayal_-_WGA09213

In the Lamentation, Giotto fills the 6′ x 6′-6″ area of the panel with solid, recognizably “modern” depictions of humans: suffering, weeping, arms flung wide or hands clasped. Above, some of the most memorable cherubim ever created, their robes feathering into cloudy vapors to suggest they’re wafting through the air, their faces etched with agony.

512px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-36-_-_Lamentation_(The_Mourning_of_Christ)

You will never have long enough to stand and marvel. Seeing Giotto’s work there was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a lifetime of travel.

The Counselor and I were there 16 years ago, on what was not only one of the most noteworthy, but also one of the luckiest travel days we’ve ever had. From Venice, we took a train to Padua and walked from the station to the chapel. We’d blithely assumed we could simply arrive, buy a ticket and walk in. There was, though, a schedule, and visits were limited to 20 minutes. Fortunately, we were able to get on the list for a time two hours later. We ate lunch nearby, and returned to join our assigned group of about 20 visitors.

It would have been a crushing disappointment not to have seen the chapel; both of us had wanted to see it since studying about it in college. We were lucky.

Today, there have been significant changes to the experience of visiting the chapel. Air locks control ingress and egress in order to help preserve the fragile frescoes, now more than 700 years old. Most notably, you must schedule your visit.

I quote from the website:

“Reservation is compulsory. On-line reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance. It is not possible to reserve for the same day.”

Go to the chapel’s website and register, or call the number provided. CLICK HERE for the website.

Giotto, like all fresco artists, had to work fast. As his assistants spread plaster ahead of him, he drew the scenes he’d sketched ahead of time, then applied paint to the plaster before it could dry.

You’ll have 15 minutes to witness what Giotto spent two years creating in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Prepare: Study ahead of time. Arrive early. It’s not every day you can stand in a place like that. One consolation is that you’ll use only your eyes without distraction: cameras are not allowed. Look. Look closely. You’re there.

Have you been to the chapel, especially anyone who’s visited since the advent of the new procedures? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017

The exterior photograph is the work of Brad Nixon. Photographs of the chapel interior and frescoes are provided under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Full attributions of the photographs can be found at the following links:

Scrovegni Chapel interior view

Annunciation to St. Anne

Judas’ Betrayal

Kiss of Judas

Lamentation

Reuse of these images must be accompanied by attribution to the Creative Commons license.

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Responses

  1. Great post. Visiting the Scrovegni is one of my most memorable travel experiences. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to see these wonderful frescoes in person.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Amazing artwork!

    Like

  3. I believe it was some long-forgotten English author who wrote the lines “I come to wed in Padua. If wealthily then happily in Padua.” Or something like that. But like I said, the guy has disappeared into history; so I can be forgiven for failing to give a proper attribution, even if I’m not the spouse of a politician cribbing the fine lines of others’ work. But back to the point, you two did find great wealth in Padua. Congrats!

    Like

    • careful, La Boheme, you are close to violating the rule about no political commentary here. I’m biting my tongue, but still resolved. Thanks for the obscure quotation.

      Like

      • I didn’t know that rule applied to guest commenters! 😿 Anyway, I did avoid all Names, even The Bard’s (what is a “bard?”).

        BTW, what class taught you about Giotto? I don’t think I learned about him until I met you two! 👏

        Like


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