Padua is a city in northern Italy, about half an hour’s train ride from Venice. So if you’ve already seen more than enough gondolas then it is worth a day trip. The star attraction of the city is the Arena Chapel, where modern painting is said to have started. I went to the chapel a few years ago and the following contains extracts about it from my new book on early art.
The Arena Chapel is a small chapel that was finished in 1305. By small, I mean really small; there is nothing outstanding about the architecture of this building. In fact, from the outside, it looks decidedly uninspiring. Inside it is just a simple hall of about 20 metres in length and it follows the normal eastern orientation of a church.
Churches were built in this direction because Christ is expected to return from the east, therefore the congregation would be facing him when he makes his reappearance. The priest, however, would be facing the opposite way and thus have his back to Christ. This may sound a bit rude, especially from one of his own employees. I suppose it could have been deliberate, just in case Christ takes everyone by surprise and tries to sneak in through the opposite west door. I presume priests have a lot of training so they should be able to spot a messiah from a distance, even a sneaky one.
At the east end of the Arena Chapel is the altar and a small apse. The apse also contains the tomb of the man who commissioned the chapel, Enrico Scrovegni. I guess he wanted to be interred there so he could be the first in line to give Jesus a hug and a bunch of flowers, assuming he does return from the east.
It is known as The ‘Arena’ Chapel, because it sits on the site of an old Roman arena, although it is also referred to as the Scrovegni Chapel. It has six narrow vertical windows on the long south wall with none on the opposing wall. This is because on the north side it originally annexed the now demolished Scrovegni Palace. There was no need for windows on that wall, unless Scrovegni wanted a view of another wall and he wasn’t a man to waste money on useless windows.
Scrovegni was a very wealthy banker and a bit of a slippery eel by all accounts and slipperiness ran in his family. The commonly held belief is that the chapel was built by him to atone for his family’s mortal sin of usury. This was serious stuff back in those days. His father was actually named and shamed in Dante’s Inferno, in which he is seen suffering the same level of fiery eternal punishment as that of blasphemers and sodomites. Usury, or moneylending, was considered a sin against God because it made money out of money, rather than hard work.
Eternal damnation is, therefore, an obvious downside of working in the banking business and I hope it gets mentioned in the employment contracts of the likes of HSBC. If the last banking crisis meant that you lost your house, then you can take comfort that those responsible will be sitting in a rain of fire for all eternity. This is how Dante graphically describes the punishment of usurers.
Even if you work in a bank in a lower capacity, you should probably take the precaution of being buried with an asbestos umbrella. This might be particularly relevant if you are the stony-faced harridan that works in my local branch. If you are reading this now, then you may want to reflect on the wisdom of not refunding the £30 charge when I went 23p over my overdraft limit.
Another aspect of Enrico Scrovegni’s slipperiness was that when he built the chapel it was on the understanding that it would be a private space for the family. However, he altered the plans and designed a much grander apse with a bell tower. He also added a transept, which gave it the cross-shape of a proper church rather than just a simple chapel. Unfortunately for him, the neighbouring Church of the Eremitani, a friary of full-time religious professionals, could spot a proper church taking shape when they saw one.
As Scrovegni’s competing church would both divert God’s attention away from theirs, and lighten the friary’s collection plate, they quickly got the local bishop to order the demolition of the additions. The eventual simplicity of the chapel was, therefore, somewhat forced upon Scrovegni. What it did mean though, was that the flat interior wall space, with no transept, was now one big blank canvas waiting for a very special artist with a revolutionary vision.
That artist was the Florentine Giotto di Bondone (c.1267 – 1337), or ‘Giotto’ as we know him today. To summarise what Giotto achieved I am now going to hand the baton over to Giorgio Vasari. He effectively wrote the first book about artists and art history. This was called ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’ and it was originally published in 1550.
Vasari does spend a lot of the book banging on about his own talents and those of his family, however, all hubris aside, he got it fairly spot on with Giotto. This was presumably just by looking at his paintings. To quote from Vasari’s famous book…
“He (Giotto) made a decisive break with the crude traditional Byzantine style, and brought to life the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”
In reality it had been neglected for a lot longer than that. We’d have to go right back to Greek and Roman times for anything as good.
The Arena Chapel, small though it may be, is covered with spectacular frescoes that demonstrate ‘the great art of painting’ that Giotto had reinvented. The fresco panels on the two larger walls show scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin. They follow a chronological narrative with each scene prefiguring the next. It works spectacularly well as a ‘poor man’s bible’ in terms of telling the story without words. Most worshippers would have been both illiterate and poor, so they couldn’t afford expensive handwritten bibles. Neither printing nor Amazon were around back then.
As was usual with churches, there is also a ‘Last Judgement’ on the inside of the west wall, the main entrance and exit of the church. This reinforced the joys of Heaven and the punishments of Hell. It served as a gentle reminder to the congregation, as they left the chapel, just in case they were thinking about skipping church next Sunday and going for a nice picnic instead.
Scrovegni himself is featured in the Arena Chapel’s Last Judgement, but only just on the Heaven side. He is presenting a model of his chapel, or church, to ‘The Three Marys’. These ladies were not a popular singing group from the Sixties, but the biblical Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas. All three of the Marys were supposedly present at the crucifixion, although Mary of Clopas doesn’t get much of a mention anywhere else in the bible. Maybe she had been on holiday and just made it back in time for the grand finale.
Scrovegni’s gift of the chapel to the Three Marys represents him making up for his family’s sins. I presume the picture also served to remind visitors who actually paid for the place. The model of the building he is presenting still features the demolished transept. This either suggests that the missing transept existed when this image was painted or Scrovegni, as slippery as ever, was fibbing to the Three Marys about how complete his building was.
This would have been a big mistake on Scrovegni’s part. Lying was classed as a worse sin than usury and another level up in Dante’s Inferno. Instead of being with the usurers and looking out for fiery rain, which you had half a chance of dodging by jumping around, liars suffered the torment of an eternal burning fever. I think I would have stuck with the usury, at least fire-dodging would have kept Scrovegni busy for all eternity and made the time go quicker. If that is even possible with eternity.
Giotto finished the chapel in 1305 and you can still visit it today, although you have to stand in an airlock for quite a while before you enter, and your breath is only allowed to pollute the actual chapel for a mere fifteen minutes. The work took Giotto and his team of forty helpers around six hundred days to complete, so use your fifteen minutes wisely and don’t get too distracted by the very attractive tour guide. She may not work there now anyway.
The chapel was painted in the ‘fresco’ technique where only a small portion of wet plaster could be painted at a time, which is why it took so long to complete. Some parts required a slightly different technique of painting on dry plaster called ‘secco’. This was because certain pigments reacted badly with damp plaster or it meant their colour would dull. This was particularly so with ‘Ultramarine Blue’ which was a favourite colour for Mary’s robes. Unfortunately, the secco method doesn’t give that all important wet bond to the plaster, so if anything is going to fall off over time it will be Mary’s robes. That sounds vaguely sacrilegious, but it took my mind off the tour guide.
The word ‘Ultramarine’ derives from the Latin for ‘beyond the sea’. The mineral pigment used to make it, lapis lazuli, was imported by Italian merchants from where it was mined in far off Afghanistan. This was indeed ‘beyond the sea’, and a lot further beyond that, hence it was extremely expensive. The overwhelming blueness of the Arena Chapel demonstrates that Enrico had done extremely well out of the usury business to be able to afford to let Giotto use so much of it.
As well as being a landmark in the history of art, the chapel was also a big hit back in the 1300s. The pope granted an indulgence to anybody that visited the chapel, so we can only imagine how many heaven-credits Scrovegni racked up in paying for it. Maybe he ended up dodging the inferno completely, I told you he was a slippery fellow.
Dante, the author of The Divine Comedy, of which The Inferno is the first part, is said to have visited the chapel whilst Giotto was painting it. Maybe this is how Dante got the idea of depositing Scrovegni’s money-lending father in his literary description of Hell.
Vasari, the writer of the first art history book, recounted several examples of Giotto’s renowned wit, including what happened when Dante met him. Giotto was a fairly plain-featured man, but his children were as ugly as sin. One can only imagine what his wife looked like. Apparently, Dante, on his visit to the chapel, asked Giotto why he could paint such beautiful pictures but still have such ugly children? Giotto dryly responded, “I make my pictures by day, and my babies by night”.
Quite witty, but considering how rude Dante had been about his kids I think Giotto should have taken him outside for a good kicking. Although maybe Dante was bigger than him or built like a brick shithouse*.
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