- Cappella degli Scrovegni (Scrovegni Chapel, famous for a fresco cycle by Giotto, completed about 1305 and considered to be one of the most important masterpieces of Western art)
- Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua (one of the biggest churches in the world; one of the most visited places of pilgrimage; one of the 8 international shrines recognized by the Holy See)
- Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico, the world’s first botanical garden)
- University of Padua (founded in 1222, guided tour in the Palazzo Bo, where Galileo lectured in the Aula Magna (Great Hall); the world’s first anatomical theater)
- Cathedral Baptistery (vibrant frescoes by Giusto de’ Menabuoi)
- Palazzo della Ragione (one of the largest lifted halls in the world, hundreds of fresco panels with astronomical, mythological, and zodiac themes)
- Other attractions and tips
How to get there: 2 hours away from Milan and 0.5 hour away from Venice by train.
Recommended length of visit: 2 full days.
The World Heritage Convention comments that Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel fresco cycle is considered to have marked the beginning of a revolutionary development in the history of mural painting. The work is not only the greatest fresco masterpiece of the artist but also the best preserved.
How important is Giotto in the history of Western art?
Giotto was the most important Italian painter of the 14th century, whose works point to the innovations of the Renaissance style that developed a century later. For almost seven centuries Giotto has been revered as the father of European painting and the first of the great Italian masters.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante says of his relation to his reputed teacher, the Florentine artist Cimabue, that “Cimabue thought to hold the field in painting, but now Giotto has the cry, so that the fame of Cimabue is obscured.” When, in 1550, the artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari published Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, he naturally began his history of Italian art with Giotto as the man who, even more than Cimabue, broke away from the Middle Ages and ushered in the “good modern manner.”
The fresco cycle tells the stories of the Life of the Virgin and Christ (painted along the aisles and on the triumphal arch), depicts the Vices and Virtues, addressed in the lower section of the main walls, and ends with the majestic Last Judgement on the counter-façade. The first great revolution made by Giotto in Padua is in the representation of space: we can admire examples of “perspective” and the rendering of the third dimension. The second is the attention paid to the representation of human beings, in their physicality and emotionality.
Particularly worth noticing are the blue vaulted ceiling of stars, The Meeting at the Golden Gate, Kiss of Judas, Lamentation and The Last Judgement featuring a depiction of the patron Enrico Scrovegni offering the chapel to the three Marys.
PS: in the nearby Eremitani Museum, you can see a crucifix and God the Father (original panel from the Scrovegni Chapel) by Giotto, two small panels by Giorgione, two panels by Titian, and so on.
Basilica of Saint Anthony
Basilica di Sant’Antonio is one of the biggest churches in the world, one of the most visited places of pilgrimage (millions of pilgrims each year), and one of the 8 international shrines recognized by the Holy See.
Cappella del Santo: this is probably the busiest part of the basilica, where St. Anthony’s tomb is located. Different from any other churches I’ve visited, here the faithful can actually touch the saint’s tomb and make a request. Don’t forget to disinfect your hands before entering the chapel if you plan to touch the saint’s tomb.
Chapel of the Black Madonna: this chapel is what remains of a small church dedicated to Santa Maria Mater Domini, donated to Saint Anthony 1229 by the Bishop of Padua. It is right here that the saint celebrated mass, preached and listened to confessions. Recent studies have in fact revealed the earliest traces of Giotto’s work here. In the niche of the altar, behind the statue of the Virgin and Child, is Giotto’s fresco. The figures were certainly painted in relation to the architectural space and you can see the artist’s initial steps towards portraying human emotion.
Chapel of Blessed Luca Belludi: the decoration was entrusted to the Tuscan artist Giusto de’ Menabuoi around 1382, who just a few years earlier had frescoed the Cathedral Baptistry. The scene of St. Anthony Announcing the Liberation of Padua to Blessed Belludi became famous for its bird’s eye view of the city, in which we can see the medieval walls, the castle of the Carraresi with its white and red checkered walls, the Palazzo della Ragione as well as the Basilica of St. Anthony.
The Chapel of the Relics: In the left niche there is a modern reliquary containing a relic of Saint Pope John Paul II. The precious central reliquary contains a bone from the foot, a fragment of skin, and some hair from the body of St. Anthony. In the central niche, in a splendid reliquary by the goldsmith Giuliano da Firenze (1436), the Incorrupt Tongue of St. Anthony is kept. Above this is a reliquary in which the Saint’s Jawbone is kept.
Benediction Chapel: this chapel contains a precious fresco cycle attributed to Giotto and the decorative band in the entrance archway to the chapel has been preserved. It shows busts of the saints within geometrical borders and four-leafed quadrilobes (logo of the UNESCO World Heritage site Urbs Picta). Each saint is depicted holding the symbol of their martyrdom in their hands. It was the Scrovegni family that commissioned Giotto to decorate this chapel and it was only after this commission that the Scrovegni family entrusted the master with the decoration of the famous Scrovegni Chapel.
Chapel of St. James: among the frescoes, the most curious is probably the representation of the Council of Charlemagne (on the left side wall when entering), where portraits of the illustrious citizens of Padua can be identified. Charlemagne is portrayed bearing a resemblance to Emperor Louis of Hungary, an ally of the Carraresi rulers of Padua. Here, painted architecture interacts for the first time with real architecture. The artist Altichiero da Zevio not only demonstrates his deep understanding of Giotto’s artistic language but also has also developed a skill in creating the illustration of 3D space. These developments also reflect the studies of optics and physics being pursued at the same time at the University of Padua. Jacopo Avanzi developed the narrative aspects of the frescoes, and created scenes packed with figures whose expressions and gestures are individually characterised. He took even further a focus on the individual which began with Giotto.
PS: photos are not allowed in the basilica and I took a few of the frescoes solely for the purpose of promoting the new World Heritage site Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles.
Besides the basilica itself, the cloisters and nearby Oratory of St. George are also worth visiting.
The basilica is very busy with services and I recommend you to visit it on a weekday between 12:00 and 16:00. The Chapel of the Relics has its own opening hours.
The city of Padua has two World Heritage sites, one of which is Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles, while the other is the Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico), the oldest surviving example of this type of cultural property. According to the UNESCO, the world’s first botanical garden was created in Padua in 1545. It still preserves its original layout – a circular central plot, symbolizing the world, surrounded by a ring of water. Other elements were added later, some architectural (ornamental entrances and balustrades) and some practical (pumping installations and greenhouses). It continues to serve its original purpose as a centre for scientific research.
While buying the ticket, you should also get a map of the garden, which contains a brief introduction and some highlights. Particularly noteworthy are:
- Oriental Plane: recognisable by its hollow trunk;
- Ginkgo Biloba: an old male specimen grafted with a female branch in the mid-1850s;
- Southern Magnolia: one of Europe’s oldest surviving specimens;
- Goethe’s Palm (1585): it inspired the German poet Goethe to write the theories on nature in this Metamorphosis of Plants; it’s also the oldest plant in the garden;
- Plants introduced into Italy and Europe by the Botanical Garden of Padua: Did you know that potato, sesame, lilac and sunflower were first planted in Padua?
- Himalayan Cedar: the first ever specimen imported into Italy.
In short, the old garden, which was founded so that students could research and recognise medical plants (known as simples), keeps its original layout, and the new garden, the modern greenhouses running on solar- and water-power, takes the visitor on a journey through Earth’s climate zones and recount how plants adapted to their various habitats.
The Palazzo Bo can only be visited with a guided tour and I strongly recommend it. Join a weekend/holiday tour (Palazzo Bo e il ‘900 di Gio Ponti) if you can because you will not only see the historical places but also the twentieth century additions. From Monday to Friday, only a historical tour is available. There are English and Italian tours.
- The Rector’s office: its extraordinary interiors that bear the signatures of Gio Ponti;
- Great Hall: where Galileo Galilei taught during his time (18 years) at Padua.
- Hall of Forty: entirely furnished by Gio Ponti; it displays the podium that was supposedly built for Galileo Galilei by his students for use in his lectures in the room known today as the Great Hall.
- Anatomical Theatre: the oldest permanent anatomical theatre in the entire world that is still standing and preserved to date. By the way, it much much smaller than what it looks like in the picture. You have to experience it yourself.
PS: the tour takes more than 1 hour and costs 12 euros. Some facilities might be closed considering the palazzo continues to play a crucial and operational role in the university’s daily academic life.
The finest masterpiece by Giusto de’ Menabuoi, court painter to the Carraresi family, rests in the baptistery of the Padua Cathedral. In a rather limited space, the artist depicts scenes and figures from the Old and the New Testament, which culminate in the splendid figure of Christ in Paradise, at the center of the dome.
I particularly liked the visiting experience, which was well-organised and very informative. Visitors can only visit the baptistery with an audio-guide, the cost of which is included in the ticket. Firstly, visitors will be guided through a secret door in the cathedral into a multi-media room, where a short movie will be shown about the history of the baptistery and its frescoes. Then, visitors will be guided into the baptistery and a detailed introduction to all the paintings will begin.
Among all the paintings, I liked Paradise, Creation of the World (look at the two angels with their arms crossed), and The Last Supper (where Judas is portrayed with a black halo sitting opposite Jesus and his apostle).
After visiting the cathedral and the baptistery, you can also visit the Bishop’s Palace (Cathedral Museum).
Palazzo della Ragione
The palazzo, built in 1218, is famous for its architecture, with a distinctive roof reminiscent of the inverted hull of a ship. It is said to be the broadest hall (81m long, 27m wide, and 27m high) in Europe with a ceiling unsupported by columns. It overlooks two great squares, Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza dei Frutti, which have always been locations for lively daily markets. I strongly recommend you to have a lunch/dinner/coffee/cocktail break in this area, where not only tourists but also locals meet friends and buy Veneto/Italian specialties.
The interior contains important examples of 14th-century mural paintings. They depict complex astrological subjects inspired by the theme of divine and earthly justice (which was administrated here). They reflect the composition of Giotto’s original fresco cycle, inspired by Pietro d’Abano. If you’re interested in astrology, this is your place. Remember to get a leaflet at the ticket office, which gives detailed introduction to the more than 300 scenes on the walls.
Other attractions and tips
Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles
This World Heritage property is composed of eight religious and secular building complexes, within the historic walled city of Padua, which house a selection of fresco cycles painted between 1302 and 1397 by different artists. Four of them I’ve already mentioned, namely Scrovegni Chapel, Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, Cathedral Baptistery and Palazzo della Ragione. The rest four are Church of the Eremitani, Oratory of St.George, Oratory of St. Michael, and Chapel of the Carraresi Palace. To gain a deep understanding of all the 8 sites, I strongly recommend you a free app called Padova Urbs Picta and a leaflet (obtainable from the tourist office) indicating how far away the sites are from each other.
The Church of the Eremitani is located right next to the Eremitani Museum (Scrovegni Chapel), so these sites can be visited together. The presbytery and apse of the church contain a fresco cycle by Guariento, commissioned between 1361 and 1365. Significant traces remain of other works by Guariento and by Giusto de’ Menabuoi. In the Ovetari Chapel, you can also see remains of a 15th-century masterpiece by Andrea Mantegna.
The Oratory of St.George is located next to the Basilica of Saint Anthony, so these sites can be visited together. Built in 1377 as a family mausoleum, the oratory was decorated by Altichiero da Zevio. Today the frescoes are intact and still cover the entire walls.
The oratory was once entirely decorated with frescoes by Jacopo da Verona, who had previously worked under Altichiero da Zevio in the oratory of St George. Scenes from Gospels are mixed with episodes from daily life, which include portraits of leading figures in the 14th-century Padua.
Located very close to the oratory is La Specola, a 14th-century tower, formerly part of a medieval castle, and converted in 1767 into an astronomical observatory.
The renowned Galilean Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts is housed in this remaining building, characterised by an elegant 14th-century Loggia, which can be accessed from Via Academia (a bit tricky to find to be honest).
The frescoes in the Palace Chapel were painted by Guariento before 1354 and though only a few scenes remain, I was much drawn to the vivid facial expressions of the figures. This site is normally only open in the morning so plan your visit accordingly. The chapel can be visited with a guide (Italian/English) or you can simply grab an info sheet and explore it yourself.
Basilica of Saint Justina
The basilica is very close to the Prato della Valle, a 90,000-square-meter elliptical square, the largest in Italy, and one of the largest in Europe. It’s also quite close to the Basilica of St. Anthony. Compared to the popular pilgrimage site, St. Justina Basilica is way less crowded and less busy, and yet, its highlights are no less impressive.