Sunday, August 26, 2007

July 2007 - Padua, Italy - The Brain of the North

Padua is a progressive northern Italain town located in the Veneto region about one hour east of Verona and 30 minutes west of Venice. We took a day trip by train to explore this forward-thinking, politically-minded town that houses Italy's first non-religious university.

In 1222, a group of liberal professors and students broke away from the University of Bologna and founded Padua's prestigious university, which led to the city being nicknamed "the brain of the Veneto." This university hosted Galileo (who spent the greatest 18 years of his life on the faculty), Copernicus, Dante and Petrarch. Because it was not funded by the Catholic church and thus had a relatively unrestrained curricula, the university had schools studying astronomy and medicine with state-of-the-art equipment. The school of medicine was the first to conduct autopsies and use cadavers to teach students, acts highly forbidden by the Church. Today it is still one of Italy's most liberal and progressive towns.

The university area of Padua abuts the narrow, colorful streets of the Jewish ghetto and the streets are lined with pastry and gelato shops.

We started our tour by walking to the Civic Museum which contains a large collection of Renaissance and medieval art. The highlight of this museum is the adjoining Scrovegni Chapel. This Chapel, beautifully frescoed by Giotto in 1303-05, was intended to get Reginaldo degli Scrovegni into heaven despite a lifetime of white collar crime charging sky high interest rates forbidden by the Church. Reginaldo was so offensive to the people of Padua that Dante wrote about him in the Inferno placing him in one of the levels of hell. When Reginaldo died, the Church denied him a Christian burial. So his son Enrico commissioned this chapel which contains 40 well-preserved frescoes depicting the life of Mary and Jesus. The frescoes are so special because of Giotto's innovative style painting real people in real scenes expressing real human emotion. This was accomplished by using 3-D techniques, lively colors and realistic light sources. It is considerd by many to be the first piece of Renaissance art symbolizing Europe's break out of the Middle Ages.
The Chapel is surrounded by a lovely public park used for the afternoon lunch break.
After visiting the Chapel, we made our way to the botanical garden or Orto Botanico run by the University since 1545.
The garden was originally founded by the school of medicine to cultivate medicinal plants which are still in pots scattered throughout the garden.
The gardens also have beautiful, Renaissance elements to them such as formal gardens and stone statues.
We really liked the big koi swimming in the ponds and seeking cover from Casandra's hand under the enormous lily pads.
From the garden we walked over to the 13th century Palazzo della Ragione, originally holding the medieval law courts. Now this amazingly large (almost the size of a football field) meeting room has been converted into a display hall. It's claim to fame is also the enormouse keel shaped roof which helps support the structure without the use of columns, a significant architectural feat of the time. Just look at the magnitude of this open room!
It was once adorned by frescoes by Giotto which were destroyed by a fire in 1312. It was redecorated in the 15th century with 123 frescoes depicting the signs of the zodiac, figures of saints, and the labors of the months.
The outdoor terrace is also covered in frescoes,
and provides a view of Padua's main square, Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta.

These piazzas are the setting of a produce market second only to the one we visited in Bologna.

From the Piazza delle Erbe, we headed down the main street and toward the Basilica dedicated to St. Anthony, perhaps Christiandom's most famous saint known as a miracle worker and finder of lost items. This stunning Romanesque-Gothic church, undoubtedly Padua's most important though not its Duomo, has housed St. Anthony's remains for 800 years.
Building of the Church started immediately after the Saint's untimely death (at age 36) in 1231. Perhaps he wore himself out by being a brilliant, devoted, multilingual, tireless preacher he traveled the world over spreading the message of the Catholic Church. A year before his death, he retired to Padua, founded a monastery and issued reforms for the poor.In the middle of the red brick facade, above the portal is a statue of St. Anthony looking down and blessing all who enter his church.
In the center square in front of the Basilica, sits Donatello's life-size equestrian statue of the Venetian, mercenary general, Gattamelata. This was the first life-size secular equestrian statue cast out of bronze in a 1,000 years (basically since the Roman times).
Upon entering the Basilica, we knew we had arrived in one of Christiandom's most important pilgrimage sites. We saw a long nave with an elaborately decorated altar containing Donatello's crucifix along with his statues of Mary and Padua's 6 favorite saints. On the left side of the nave is St. Anthony's tomb covered in prayers and photgraphs seeking miracles to heal the sick and find the lost (primarily abducted children). The tomb is also surrounded by marble relief carvings depicting scenes and miracles from the life of the Saint.
After visiting the creepy, golden Chapel of the Reliquaries in the rear apse of the Church, where its most prized relic, St. Anthony's tongue, is kept in a glass case in the center, we strolled around one of the quiet cloisters under the portico where the monks of St. Anthony's monestary used to pray.
From this cloister and courtyard, which we thought was the prettiest part of the Church, we had amazing views of the its many domes, turrets and bell towers.
Here we are in the second cloister, which also provided great views of the domes and turrets. A very well sits in the center of this cloister, surrounded by pretty landscaping.
When we fisinshed with the Church of St. Anthony, we headed over to Padua's most beautiful and expansive square, il Prato della valle, nicknamed the "field without grass", though there's plenty of grass. It's claimed to be the largest square in Italy but it's really more like a park.We ran across the busy two-laned street encircling il Prato delle Valle and spent much of the afternoon enjoying this 400-yard long oval-shaped park, which was once a Roman theater and later the preaching grounds of St. Anthony. In this picture you can see the Church of St. Antony in the distance.
Just within its first band of grass is this pretty moat lined with hundreds of almost-life-size statutes and crossed by several bridges.
The park is surrounded by many pretty buildings from medieval and Renaissance times, including this massive church, resembling that of St. Anthony, with multiple domes and a red-bricked facade.
That's Casandra in turquoise on one of the bridges that crosses the moat.
Once across, we plopped down on another large band of grass that encircles a pretty fountain in the middle of the park, and relaxed after a long day of traveling and sightseeing.

Later, we walked to the far side of the park and crossed another one of the bridges to check out some of the interesting medieval buildings on that side.
This park, square, or whatever you want to call it was one of our favorite parts of this very interesting and cultured city. If we had gone to college here, this would definitely be our place of choice for studying (or perhaps a siesta).

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