I AM PENSIVE IN PADUA

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Basilica of Sant’Antonio, Padua

A question.  Can a garden be as artistic as a fresco? For what is art? If it is about expression, beauty, the effect on the beholder, some essence transmitted from a creator to a recipient, then surely both can count. This was the question I pondered in Padua.

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Padua is famous for the Scrovegni Chapel which Giotto painted in just two years and changed the course of art forever. In this bright blue, star-studded chapel he broke with long-held tradition, abandoned gold paint and ornamentation and painted people naturally rather than in the established stylised way which made the characters remote from the real people who regarded them. Instead of frontal head and shoulder images, Giotto painted people from the back or side, and put them in realistic poses or action – doing up their shoes, kissing a husband – and introduced dramatic narrative to his work.

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Dante, da Vinci, and the first historian of Italian art Giorgio Vasari, all praised Giotto for ending the Dark Ages, initiating the Renaissance in art, and helping people to see themselves as “vessels for the divine, however flawed, and no longer lowly vassals” when comparing themselves to “saints perched on high thrones with their blank stares” (Lonely Planet : Italy).  A charming example is this image of an everyday Joseph and Mary with her reclining with her baby just as any new mother might do.

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I discovered too late that to visit the chapel one needs to book in advance but luckily I managed to get a last minute late night ticket which added a slight frisson to the occasion.  The chapel is awe-inspiring, only increased by the build-up as each small group that is taken in is first decontaminated in a specially sealed room before entering for a few minutes.

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The scenes which cover the walls are played out in pastel shades all around you as your eyes flick from side to side and you try, and fail, to take in all the details. There are so many characters in lifelike action. One fresco cycle is dedicated to the life of Mary, another to Christ, and another to Joachim and Anna. The whole west wall is devoted to a large, gruesome in parts representation of the Last Judgement. Giotto is also renowned for his rendering of perspective and innovative illusion of depth, as in his depiction of a little room which looks as if you are peeping through a window.

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The illusion of depth

Giotto has been hailed as the Father of European painting and the first of the great Italian Masters. He was a revolutionary and a genius.   Just as when I learned about Stradivari in Cremona and wondered what makes one person stand head and shoulders above their fellow artisans – and for centuries – I asked myself the same about Giotto. What makes one person create something so beautiful and completely original?

Little is known for certain about the Florentine Giotto di Bondone. It is believed that he lived from 1266 to 1377 and may have been taught in his youth by another Florentine painter called Cimabue who also depicted people naturally. However, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says that, even so, “it is clear that he succeeded in an astonishing innovation that originated in his own genius”.   Was Giotto’s genius the fortuitous convergence of exceptional ability, appropriate and influential lifetime experiences, and being in the right place at just the right moment in history? Can genius be explained rationally?

With the existence of the Scrovegni Chapel in the city Padua’s other masterpieces get scant attention from visitors. I read that I might be the only person viewing the frescoes in the Oratorio di San Giorgio, and the Titian paintings in the Scoletta del Santo above it, both of which would get top billing in any other city but have to compete with the megastar Giotto.  So it was. After viewing the exquisite frescoes of the lives of St George, Lucy, and Catherine with two other people in the Oratorio I was given a key to make my own way upstairs to see the Titians, with a promise not to take photographs and to lock up carefully when I left!

However, as I suggested above, I think there is another kind of art – let’s call it horticultural “Green Art” – which was to be found in Padua’s ancient Botanical Gardens where I passed a slow, peaceful time away from the crowds milling in and around the ostentatious Basilica of Sant’Antonio nearby.  The Basilica’s domes are dramatic without and the statuary, relics, gold and shrine to the saint are hugely ornate within (no photographs allowed).

The Botanical Gardens were created in 1545 by Padua University’s Faculty of Medicine in order to study medicinal and poisonous plants and is the oldest university garden of its kind in the world. It still shelters trees from its foundation including a precious palm tree planted in 1585 which inspired the German poet Goethe to write his theories on nature in his Metamorphosis of Plants.

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The ‘Orto Botanico’ with Sant’Antonio Basilica beyond

What prompted my allusion to art were the huge statuesque trees, some entangled, misshapen or hollowed, and the way in which the plant specimens were meticulously laid out in geometric shapes and labelled with scientific accuracy so precisely they were like patterns on the soil.  One could sense that the guardians of this calm garden have always lovingly tended the plants entrusted to them.   I found the Orto Botanico as pleasing to the senses as any fresco, though in a different way.

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Nature as Art

Since 2004 the gardens have also had a ‘Garden of Biodiversity’, where one can walk through five indoor glasshouses, experience their different climate zones, and learn how plants have adapted to them. As you travel through you understand man’s relationship with the plant kingdom from pre-history to today, and look into their uncertain future due to our carelessness and greed. “Our planet is losing about 30,000 living species every year” they tell us, “i.e. three every hour. An endless massacre we are hardly aware of. We should remember that biodiversity is the result of three and a half billion years of experimentation, that it is the guarantor of our survival and that it is not our property to do with as we like.”

If you go to Padua enrich your eyes and mind with Giotto’s art but be sure not to miss nourishing your heart and soul in the Orto Botanico.

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Comments
2 Responses to “I AM PENSIVE IN PADUA”
  1. Joan says:

    You are very fortunate to be able to see so much!
    I think Padua outshines some of the earlier ventures.
    Thanks again for sharing with me.

  2. nyika999 says:

    A good pleasant nice read. Informative as ever.

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