Last week I visited Padua in North-Eastern Italy in order to see its treasure trove of 14th century frescoes. While the city is well known for its university and appearance in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Padua’s extraordinary artworks have always felt slightly forgotten when compared to a Florence or a Venice. Yet earlier this year this was finally remedied when the city was at long last awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for its frescoes, comprising 8 different 14th century cycles that constitute a revolutionary development in the History of Art. I have always loved fresco cycles, they surround and envelop the viewer in 360 degrees of colour and history, and as such visiting Padua had long been a dream of mine.
The city’s greatest treasure is undoubtedly the Scrovegni, or Arena Chapel. Frescoed by Giotto between 1303 and 1305, it was built as the private chapel of the banker and moneylender Enrico Scrovegni, a figure so financially unscrupulous that he made an appearance in Dante’s Inferno while still alive! Clearly trying to compensate for his sins and assure himself a place outside of the fires of Hell, Scrovegni created a chapel designed specifically for wall paintings, with only a few small windows to divide the painting surface. Retaining their vivid colours to this day, Old and New Testament narratives in the frescoes almost overwhelm the viewer with complex imagery and iconography in all directions. Painted over 200 years before the Sistine Chapel, the ultramarine blues (a pigment more expensive than gold leaf) of the background and ceiling still capture the imagination. One can only imagine how these scenes would have affected a viewer over 700 years ago.
The Arena Chapel remains important to this day because it marks the point at which the perception of artists began to change. Before Giotto, artists were almost exclusively seen as craftsman, appreciated in the same way as a skilled carpenter or metalworker but expected not to deviate from traditional iconography or motifs in their works. Yet Giotto’s innovations in composition, emotional realism, narrative and space made him perhaps the first celebrity painter, with his name known across the Peninsula and his work in constant demand, starting a trend that culminated in figures like Michelangelo and Raphael assuming almost rockstar-like status in the High Renaissance.
While today we are all used to artists being celebrated as creative geniuses, each one unique and bringing their own personal style to the canvas, we should remember that before the painting of this chapel most patrons or viewers would have likely never heard the name of the artists behind the works that adorned their halls and churches. I assume that the concept of collecting art, something that underpins life here at Gladwell and Patterson, wouldn’t exist if differentiation between artists hadn’t emerged at this point!
So valuable are the frescoes in the Arena Chapel that one has to wait in an air-controlled room for 20 minutes to lower your body humidity and filter out any dust that you might have brought in with you, and despite this process making you feel like a slightly unwanted visitor it does make entrance to the building seem truly special.
Padua has too many highlights to mention them all, but a space that particularly stood out to me is the Old Baptistery of the Cathedral, frescoed by the native Paduan artist Giusto de Menabuoi in the 1370s. The domed space is a riot of figures and colours that swirls upwards towards a central figure of Christ. Where the Arena Chapel is often lauded for the minimalism and modernity of its imagery, the Baptistery was perhaps even more impressive because of just how overwhelming its hundreds of figures were.
I would highly recommend Padua to anyone looking to see one of the places in which painting as we know it today began. Even into the 20th century, artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani have continually emphasised the influence of Giotto and his followers for its directness, bold colours and compositional clarity – demonstrating that the legacy of these works is still very much alive.