Visit: 28th May 2016
Padua, a historic city in the Veneto region of Italy, is known for its ancient university and its dramatic fresco cycles from the very beginnings of the Renaissance. My plan for this bank holiday weekend was to spend one night here and another in the nearby city of Venice.
We arrived from Gatwick at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport on Saturday afternoon and made our way west to the city known in Italian as Padova. I was at once impressed with its urban landscape as we walked down the main north-south street, Via Roma. Our hotel for the night was close to the botanical garden, just off the famous Prato della Valle. This 90,000 sq-metre ellipse is the largest ‘square’ in Italy, featuring a canal and rings of statues of the great and the good.
The World Heritage Site here belongs to the city’s university. Dating from 1222, it is the fifth oldest extant university in the world (after Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca and Cambridge). The Botanical Garden at Padua is inscribed on UNESCO’s list for being the oldest surviving example of such a site. It represents the birth of botanical science and the world-changing discoveries that have sprung from that field.
Founded in 1545, it is laid out in a plan of four squares within a circle. In the sixteenth century 80% of medicines were derived from plants, so you can appreciate how important it was to understand more about them. Medicinal plants were collected from all over the world and brought here. Today the garden is still in use, both as a site of medicinal research and for the collection and preservation of rare and endangered species.
The garden’s shape represents the world surrounded by a ring of water that stands for the ocean. In 1704 it was redesigned to include a balustrade atop the wall and wrought iron gates. I liked the gargoyles at the bottom of the gate posts which spit out potable water (I tried some). The garden apparently contains some 6,000 species of plant. One of the most notable specimens is the 450-year old Goethe Palm – named after the German philosopher who was impressed with it when he visited Padua.
The botanical garden received a major extension in 2014 when a large greenhouse was built to house a great number of additional species. It is divided into halls, each showcasing plants from different ‘biomes’: tropical rainforest, sub-humid tropical forest, temperate, Mediterranean and arid.
There are some fascinating plants here among the 1,300 species showcased. For example, in the picture above the pale green plants hanging from the branch are not part of the tree or indeed connected to the ground at all. They are Bromeliaceae, which entwine their roots around branches and drink water that trickles off other plants in the humid rainforest air.
In the arid hall are examples of the concept of convergent evolution. There are only a few adaptations a plant can develop to overcome the challenges of living in a desert. That is why cacti and other desert plants like so alike despite evolving across oceans and thousands of miles. Above are plants indigenous to Africa and below from Central America.
Looking at connections, Padua’s Orto Botanico is the second university WHS I have visited (after Coimbra, which is the world’s tenth oldest). It is also the third botanical garden WHS (after Singapore Botanical Gardens and Kew Gardens).
It is a small but pleasant WHS that could have benefited from some integration with the rest of Padua’s famous university. The UNESCO video on the site talks about the university’s ground-breaking operating theatre – laid out so that as many students as possible could watch the surgeon at work. But that is not included in this inscription, which concentrates solely on the botanical garden.
Tentative World Heritage Site:
Padova Urbs Picta. Giotto, the Scrovegni Chapel and the 14th century painting cycles
Visit: 30th May 2016
Cappella degli Scrovegni
Whilst in Padua we took the opportunity to see one of Italy’s highlights: the frescoes of Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel. It is considered by those who know such things to be one of the most impressive sights in the world that is not yet designated a World Heritage Site (the other one that always comes up is Bagan, in Burma). It is, however, on Italy’s “tentative list”, which means the country hopes to submit it for approval at a future UNESCO meeting. I read that it is pencilled in for inscription in 2019, so thought I’d write it up in advance and append it to the Orto Botanico post you’re reading now.
The site as proposed by Italy consists of nine sub-sites within the city of Padua – all notable for their early Renaissance frescoes. The Scrovegni Chapel (above and below) is only the most famous of them. The main wall shows a Last Judgement scene. It is full of innovations that were to be borrowed by famous artists. For example, the foreshortening of fallen soldiers was copied by Paolo Uccello in his Battle of San Romano, and the dead soul in Michaelangelo’s own, more famous version of the Last Judgement in Rome.
When you go for a tour it is like visiting Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan. Visits must be pre-booked, then you spend some time in a glass ante-room whilst the interior climate is equalised with that of the chapel. Only then are you allowed in for a chaperoned 15 minute period with the frescoes.
Giotto’s fresco cycle was completed in 1305 at the behest of a wealthy Paduan banker. Enrico Scrovegni wanted a chapel in his own name, to be open to the public but with privileged access (via a special private door) for him and his family.
Giotto was the first since the Greeks to paint scenes in the modern sense. For a thousand years the art of representing a scene in a lifelike manner had been forgotten, save for sculpture in the Gothic period. Giotto’s genius was to rediscover this ability, which involved the use of perspective and the technique of foreshortening. This meant he was not “picture writing” – or telling a story in the manner of a cartoon strip, one static image after another. Instead he followed the advice of the preachers to visualise a biblical scene as it must have appeared in real life. It sounds so basic to us, but for a thousand years painters never thought to represent things in a realistic manner – only in a symbolic manner (as in all those altarpieces you see in museums showing isolated figures on gold backgrounds). Giotto was an innovator, and as such he had to answer fundamental questions such as how exactly a man actually stands rather than how conventional wisdom dictated a person should be represented.
Chiesa dei SS. Filippo e Giacomo agli Eremitani
Next door to the Scrovegni Chapel is the Eremitani Church. It was severely damaged by an aerial bomb during the Second World War and most of its structure has been rebuilt.
Some of the original frescoes remain, including parts by Andrea Mantegna. Restorers have done an excellent job of tracing out the original frescoes from old photographs and fixing on fragments that were picked up out of the rubble in the places where they belong. This one below is in best condition, though.
Battistero della Cattedrale
Padua Cathedral (above) is unremarkable from the outside (it was never finished). But its baptistery contains something quite special. Commissioned by the wife of the Lord of Padua, it houses the masterpiece of Giusto de’ Menabuoi. I was very impressed with the dome paintings within the baptistery. You can really understand how people felt the glory of God when craning upwards to look at Jesus Christ surrounded by rings of prophets.
Giusto de’ Menabuoi was a generation younger than Giotto, and the master’s influence clearly shows. Prior to Giotto artists were not considered ‘celebrities’ but rather like skilled craftsmen whose names were not important. Gombrich explains that they were like tailors or cabinet-makers nowadays: we appreciate their work but do not generally wonder about the person behind it. So it was with artists prior to the Renaissance, which is why pre-Giotto artists are unknown to us and are often referred to after the piece they created – eg. “Master of the Wilton Diptych”.
The Baptistery is only €3 to get in to, and in my opinion more impressive than the more expensive and difficult-to-book Scrovegni Chapel.
Palazzo della Ragione
Unfortunately the Palazzo Ragione was closed on the Monday we tried to visit (things often are in Italy). You can see the impressive architecture of the place from the outside, but not the frescoes within. We walked around the food markets beneath the building and had some fine sandwiches and wine for a very fair price.
Basilica del Santo
The most impressive building architecturally in Padua is the grand Basilica of Saint Anthony. Although not the city’s designated cathedral, it is often mistaken for it. The numerous domes give it a Byzantine appearance – it would not look out of place in Istanbul. As well as an impressive exterior, it contains notable frescoes, and sculptures, including Donatellos.
There are four other sub-sites in Padua that we did not manage to get to. Let’s see if it makes it onto the official UNESCO list in its present form, then I’ll have to think about going back to this beautiful city.