Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles
Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles consists of 4 sites preserving significant 14th century mural paintings, in particular the work of Giotto.
Scrovegni Chapel is considered Giotto's masterpiece. One of the sites is also an important example of a female commission.
Map of Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cyclesLoad map
Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of the significance of the Scrovegni Chapel or the T-list site of Padua when I visited with my family back in April 2017. We visited the city for the sole purpose of seeing St. Anthony's grave, and I had just barely convinced my family to walk the few hundred meters to the Botanic Garden. Anyhow, the church was really interesting. I will guiltily admit that the paintings that the site is on the T-list for weren't the most memorable thing about the church, but it was interesting seeing the different architectural styles and artistic value, especially in the many side altars. Photography is not permitted, by the way, but apparently someone managed to sneak a nice picture of the whole church anyway. As with everyone else, I do believe in the undeniable OUV of the Scrovegni Chapel, which I hope to visit one day, but I also think that that Padua is a very beautiful and significant city that deserves World Heritage status other than just its lone monuments.
I had already visited Padua several times and I had visited the Scrovegni Chapel some 13 years ago but at the time photography wasn't allowed, so I didn't mind revisiting to take some photos of Padua's WHS and TWHS.
Moreover, I had seen an advert of the late opening hours of the Scrovegni Chapel plus the possibility of staying inside it double the amount of time which is usually allowed. It's no secret that even as a standalone site, the Scrovegni Chapel deserves inscription as a WHS. Conservation efforts have been more or less continuous over the past fifty years. To start with, the entire chapel had suffered from the nearby bombing during World War II. The facade was dangerously out of trim and had to be realigned. Next came the repairs to the old framework of the beamed ceiling, then the devising of a new system for draining off rainwater from the area beneath the chapel. After this came the decision to close off the adjacent Via Giotto to traffic, followed by the replacing of several tie-beams in the nave while the frescoes underwent highly specific inspection and maintenance.
During the 70s, the newly formed interdisciplinary Commission announced that atmospheric pollution constituted a major threat to the frescoes, so monitoring began, using the most up-to-date technology. Results clearly showed that improving the environment had to take priority over restoration. Meanwhile, steps were being taken to verify the static condition of the building, to protect it from seepage and from both natural and artificial radiation. This was followed by an in-depth study of the chemical and physical agents present as well as of the existing microclimate. The only work done on the frescoes took the form of reinforcing and cleaning.
Then the specially designed, state-of-the-art entrance (where a short but informative film is shown) was set in place which guarantees the filtering and cleaning of the air inside the chapel, monitors and controls the microclimate inside, and limits the number of visitors to 25 at any one time. From my last visit, more than a decade back, a new lighting system has been installed which adjusts the artificial lighting inside to an optimum level according to the natural light present outside. Booking the evening tickets already meant that the 25 spots weren't filled in, but then the double time inside we had paid extra for meant that we had at least 5 minutes completely alone inside the chapel (photo) between exit of the first group we went in with and entrance of the second group.
This time round I also visited the other locations of the Padova Urbs Picta TWHS nomination and I must say that all of them were top notch sites. The different locations (especially the smaller chapels with 'normal-looking' exteriors) in a way reminded my of the WHS in Ravenna, where I had felt awestruck each time I stepped inside the different locations and gazed at the mosaics. In Padua, the Giotto frescoes are truly remarkable and really worth visiting. Read up before visiting so that before visiting you can already have an idea about the history and techniques involved. The different locations are really like separate art museums in quite a small space but a truly 360 degree experience, so it helps to know which frescoes not to miss. At the same time, you'll surely be able to appreciate other minor frescoes or the intricate little details of the more famous ones.
One of the disadvantages of almost having ‘finished’ Italy - I have 2 out of the 54 WHS left to visit - is that I am missing the regular weekend trips out there to enjoy the historic cities and their art. So although Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel is only up for nomination in 2020, last week I fitted in an easy weekend trip to this self-proclaimed ‘Capital of the 14th century fresco painting’. It even already has a nomination website and an epic title: Padova Urbs Picta (Latin for “painted city”).
I had been to Padua once before, in 2007. Then already I had a booking for the Scrovegni Chapel, but I ran out of time that day and only ‘did’ the WHS Orto Botanico. Now I had some 24 hours to spend in the city and I stayed overnight. Padua is not the most immediately likeable city: it has some prominent examples of fascist architecture, the railway station area is rather scruffy and it takes a long walk from there to get to the historic center – a center that is split into several piazza’s with not much of interest in between.
On my first afternoon I visited 4 out of the 9 proposed locations. I was staying near the Prato del Valle square, from where the Basilica del Santo is the closest location. This is a huge pilgrimage attraction – its interior holds the spectacular tomb of St. Anthony - but I did not manage to find the ‘right’ frescoes made by Giotto and his contemporaries (the church is fully covered with paintings and frescoes). A better bet lies next door: the small Oratorio di San Giorgio. This is a cute funerary chapel entirely decorated with frescoes and worth the separate ticket.
The Oratorio di San Michele lies somewhat out of the way, but it is also a small former church. I was the only visitor. The frescoes here have been severely damaged. Finally I went to the Battistero della Cattedrale, the Baptistery of the ‘other’ or real Cathedral of Padua. It was packed with visitors inside and some scaffolding disturbed the views, but I found it quite brilliant in general. There’s a lot to admire here, especially the dazzling ceiling fresco with a crowd of faces surrounding Christ.
For the next morning I had a pre-booked ticket for 10 a.m. to enter the Scrovegni Chapel. I was afraid to miss my time-slot again, so I already showed up at the adjacent Eremitani Museum an hour before to exchange my printed ticket for an official one (A4-sized!). That gave me some time to explore the museum first. It is large and a bit of a maze. The best 14th century art is concentrated in 2 or 3 exhibition rooms upstairs on the first floor. There’s a lot of other stuff also, including Roman, Egyptian and Etruscan archaeology plus art from various ages. The museum is to be part of the WHS nomination, as it holds some works that were taken away from their original location. These include the Croce by Giotto (originally painted for the Scrovegni Chapel) and the painted panels by Guariento (originally located in the Cappella della Reggia Carrarese). It takes at least an hour to do the exhibitions justice.
The Scrovegni Chapel itself did not disappoint: I felt a bit rushed in the beginning, would the 15 minutes that you are allowed inside be enough? But in the end I was OK with the time given. I also enjoyed the video that is shown in the 15 minute period while you're in the 'holding pen': it's a nice warm up and programmes your mind to see certain details. Because of the low sunlight I found the frescoes on one of the walls hard to see.
It is quite remarkable that taking pictures is allowed here, as well as in the museum. At the other nominated locations it is forbidden as far as I noticed, although the bans are not strictly enforced. At the Baptistery everybody was happily snapping away with their phones while the only staff member on duty was busy selling tickets.
After having spent 1.5 hour in this part of the city, I just forgot to pay a visit to another location next door: the Chiesa agli Eremitani. I went back to the Cathedral area instead, where I also had planned to have lunch. Not to be missed here is the Palazzo della Ragione. This huge former town hall annex covered market holds a great space on its first floor: a hall also covered in 14th/15th century frescoes. They're not really masterpieces up to the Giotto standard, but the hall itself and its wooden features are not to be missed. Trying to complete the 9-out of-9 locations, I searched in vain for the entrance to the Cappella della Reggia Carrarese. It lies close to the Cathedral as well, but signposting isn't great and its best frescoes are in the Eremitani Museum now anyway.
A final conclusion: I am still not smitten by Padua as a city in general, but the Scrovegni Chapel, the Battistero della Catedrale and the Palazzo della Ragione are worth the trip out there.
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There is broad agreement among the reviewers on this website that the Scrovegni Chapel deserves a place on the World Heritage List and I can only emphasize once again the magnificence of these paintings. The Scrovegni Chapel was on the Italian tentative list as a single monument since the late 1990s, but it was never nominated. Recent activities suggest that things now get going: in January 2016, the T-list entry has been extended to include eight additional sites with frescoes from the 14th century, and it was reported that Padua is working on the nomination dossier and a management plan.
The Scrovegni Chapel is still the focus of the nomination: "It represents the most significant monument in the proposed series and the best-preserved fresco painting by Giotto” (cited from the T-list entry). Giotto di Bondone is the most famous artist of the Trecento (i.e. art and architecture of the 14th century in Italy) and an important forerunner of Renaissance. He introduced visual perspective in painting, his frescoes have spatial depth by the use of landscapes and architectural elements in the background, his characters are not static and flat, they show gestures and posture and individuality, Giotto "painted from life". The other sites of this serial nomination show frescoes by Giotto’s lesser-known successors. This website provides detailed information on the nine sites: locations, opening times, descriptions of the artworks and even audioguide tracks.
I visited the Scrovegni Chapel for the first time in 2004, and a weekend in Padua in August 2016 gave me the opportunity to visit also the other sites (only the Cappella della Reggia Carrarese was closed).
A few comments on the individual sites:
The Scrovegni Chapel is definitely the highlight. The entrance is via the Musei Civici agli Eremitani, I would recommend to pre-book tickets online. A visit takes about 30 minutes, it starts with an introductory film and then you can visit the chapel for 15 minutes in a group of 25 people. This restriction is an appropriate way to manage the rush of visitors, it allows to admire all the details and colouring of the magnificent frescoes without jostling. To my surprise, it was allowed to take photos, this was not the case ten years ago, if I remember correctly, and is forbidden in several of the other sites.
Musei Civici agli Eremitani (admission is included in the fee for the chapel): works of Trecento artists are shown in two rooms, including a painted cross by Giotto. I was most impressed by the cycle of angel panels by Guariento. It has been discussed in the forum, whether "movable" and "detached" objects can be part of a WHS or not, see here.
Chiesa agli Eremitani: next to the museum, with frescoes in the apsis, partly damaged in WWII, free entry.
Battistero della Cattedrale: another highlight, entirely decorated with wonderful frescoes by Menabuoi, most notable are the paintings in the dome, no photos allowed.
Palazzo della Ragione: in the centre of Padua, with a striking roof construction and a huge hall in the upper floor; however, the dimensions of the hall (80 metres in length) are more impressive than the paintings.
The Basilica of Saint Anthony is a very popular pilgrimage site because of the tomb of Saint Anthony of Padua, so the frescoes are of minor importance for most visitors. There are numerous services throughout the day, but only the chancel and the central nave are closed to normal visitors. Most impressive: the Belludi Chapel with frescoes by Menabuoi.
Oratorio di San Giorgio: next to the basilica, entirely covered with frescoes by Altichiero da Zevio and one of the best sites of this nomination.
Oratorio di San Michele: on the outskirts of the old town, the frescoe cycle is partly fragmented, in my opinion the least impressive part of the nomination.
Finally, the question: Has the proposal been strengthened by the extension to a serial nomination? In general, I am more in favour of single monuments than of comprehensive thematic approaches, also in this case. The outstanding value of the Scrovegni Chapel is indisputable and as a single monument it would be a representative example of the Trecento on the WH list. Having said that, I must admit that some of the other parts of the nomination are also extraordinary works of art and well worth a visit, especially the Oratorio di San Giorgio and the Battistero della Cattedrale. And if the extension increases the chances for the Scrovegni Chapel to get inscribed, I would have no objections.
The fact that this site is still on the tentative list is really a mortal sin! How can such a magnificent site be left out of the WHS list!!! This is truly Padova's highlight. It is a masterpiece - nothing more to add!
This site deserves to be added to the list. More than what the rest of Italy--Venice, Florence, Rome, the whole lot--can claim, it was this building that kick-started the European Renaissance and thus the modern world as we know it. It is also incredibly beautiful to boot. Along with the Orto Botanico, the Capella degli Ermani really shows that during its height Padova and its university was one of the most important centers of learning in the western world.
This was the single highlight of my trip around the Veneto, and the finest site I have visited from the tentative list. It could easily make it onto the World Heritage list proper and I really hope it does.
The chapel is famous for its magnificent frescos painted by Giotto. There was something about the amazing misty colours of the interior that really grabbed my attention and held it. The 15 minutes or so we were in this small chapel enabled us to follow the story being depicted on the wall very closely, and gave plenty of time to really absorb the details of the art works, looking at the incredible emotion that Giotto was able to get into the depictions. This chapel is one of the key works of art from a major turning point in the western tradition; it shows the transition from gothic art to the more natural forms associated with the renaissance.
Entry to the chapel is restricted and you will have to book in advance (at least 3 days before but I would recommend booking as early as possible especially if you come in the high season). This limited entry means that a maximum of 25 people are allowed in the chapel at a time, which makes for an exceptionally rewarding way to see the paintings, allowing you time and space to really appreciate them (if only somewhere like the Sistine Chapel could give you the time and space to admire the artworks). Before entering you watch a 10 minute video in a small chamber to help regulate the environment inside the chapel. The chapel is located a pretty near to the station in Padua, and really should be the main purpose for visiting the city, even over the already inscribed Orto Botanico.
After exiting I had to take a little while to just reflect on what I saw, it stands alongside Skellig Michael and the Plantin Moretus Museum as one of the most impressive sites I have seen. These small and manageable places manage to squeeze a lot into small places and they really had a major effect on me.
This is a truly World Class site and one that the World Heritage list is poorer for not including at the moment. I really hope this is added at some stage in the future.
[Site 9: Experience 9]
I went to Padua especially to see this marvelous Giotto capella and it was even more striking than I had expected. Giotto was indeed a genious. Padua by the way was heavily bombarded in WWII so many other sites including the nearby Capella degli Eremitani covered with frescoes by Mantegna were damaged. Nonetheless, the huge dining room (the largest in the world), Scuola San Giorgio, San Antonio complex, Prato della Valle, the Univeristy del Po' and the Battistero all offer the art lover great pleasures. Weren't it in Italy I'm sure a town like Padua would become a prominent tourist attraction and a country's main source of pride!
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2021 Name change
Upon inscription from "‘Padova Urbs picta’, Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel and Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles" to "Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles"
Includes former TWHS Cappella degli Scrovegni (2006)
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