Our original goal for today was the Scrovigne Chapel in Padua, decorated in early 14th-century frescoes by Giotto, that is so well-preserved that the paintings’ original rich colors – cerulean skies, golden-haloed rows of angels – are still intact. What this means in practice is that extraordinary measures must be taken to keep it that way: visitors are allowed in for only 15 minutes at a time, and there is no photography allowed at all. This in turn means that the “tourist throughput”, so to speak, is very low. Reservations must be made in advance for your particular 15-minute window, and this is not an easy process, requiring callback numbers (our phones do not work here) authentication codes, and other elements of a Jason Bourne novel. We did not take care of this while still in the US, and it became a near-impossibility now, as we learned the hard way when we tried to buy tickets at the chapel in real time. Bottom line: we didn’t see it. So here is a Google image for you instead.
Still, Padua is a lively city, home to the University of Padua, one of the Continent’s oldest and most venerated schools, dating from the mid-13th century. (Consider that Harvard, the oldest university in the US, is 400 years younger.) It is what today would be called an urban campus, a skein of ancient and modern buildings integrated into the compact, old portion of the cityscape. It has an array of passageways, courtyards, and alcoves to explore, and wandering randomly – as we were more or less doing, having flamed out on the Scrovigne Chapel – reveals treasures like this variegated marble staircase…
…or this very Italian bar and sundries store, located in a passageway off one of the university courtyards.
The university – like many in Europe – saw its share of sacrifice in both World Wars. It lost a number of students in both wars, commemorated in various ways around the campus. One well known example are these brass doors, easily 10’ tall, listing those killed in WWI.
The university was also an epicenter of the local Resistance during WWII, and was given an award recognizing this by the European Union.
It’s not actually fair to say that we were wandering randomly. We were in fact in search of the Palazzo della Ragione, primarily because Elaine had picked up a brochure for it that featured a very large and impressive-looking wooden statute of a stallion. As we headed in search of the elusive statue we came to refer to it as the Trojan Horse, though that is not actually its subject.
The Palazzo della Ragione, as it turns out, is not exactly a single building but rather an array of them defining the perimeter of the oldest part of the city, very possibly the site of the original local Roman forum. Now the square is the site of a yeasty farmer’s market, mostly featuring meats, cheese, and produce. Its crown jewel is the Great Hall, called the Salone, which houses our equine target. While we found the building without too much difficulty, getting inside turned out to be a bigger challenge, until Elaine took the reins (notice my clever horse reference there) and asked one of the merchants, who kindly led us to the correct, not-at-all-secret staircase.
The Salone is an impressive structure, the interior space being a single open cavernous volume, every square foot of wall covered with frescoes, and topped with a so-called shipwright roof, meaning that it is shaped like an inverted ship’s hull. I’m guessing that it’s about 250’ x 100’ in area, nearly a football field in floor area. It was completed in 1219, and looks for all the world like a medieval zeppelin hangar. (That roof, by the way, is a rather fraught piece of architecture. Originally built of wood, of course, it has been variously burnt down in fires and blown off by hurricanes, and then rebuilt, about every 200 years or so.)
The space is so huge that upon entering it is easy to overlook the non-Trojan horse at the far west end. It is quite the stunning beast, a proud-looking (and, um, anatomically correct) stallion perhaps 20’ tall, standing on a platform with one leg raised, sinews visible, and glaring down regally at the viewers.
You can see him here, against the backdrop of frescoes on the wall behind.
One of the later additions to the Salone, sating from 1761, is this golden sun on the south wall:
It is hard to estimate its size because it is high up on the vast wall, but I am going to guess “bigger than it looks”, perhaps 6’ across. And what is cool about it is its astronomical functionality. See that bright round dot below the nose? That’s not a photo artifact: it’s a hole in that pierces the wall of the Salone. The Sun sits at the midpoint of the south wall, and at midday on the Equinox the beam of sunlight shining through the hole traces the path of the north-south meridian line that is inlaid in tile on the floor.
Yet another unusual feature of the Salone – and man, it would be great to fly a little drone quadcopter around in it, or at least play Frisbee – is the “Stone of Shame” at the opposite end of the hall from the horse. (In Italian it is called “pietro del vituperio”, literally “stone of vituperation”, which is a phrase that I am going to have to start using more often.) It’s a black stone cylinder, broadening slightly at the top, about 2’ wide and 3 ½’ high, placed there in 1231 and used to punish insolvent debtors. According to the statutes of the time, if you couldn’t make the vig you had to sit on the stone three times wearing only your underwear whilst stating “I renounce my worldly goods.” Then you were banished from the city. If you were foolish enough to return you would have to do it again, only this time people would pour buckets of water on your head. Wait till the credit card companies hear about this.
We left the Salone in search of sustenance, which is the Italian word for gelato. That craving satisfied, we continued on to the “Commune” the central square of the modern part of the city. This is a congenial park centered on a fountain lined by a very large number of classical statues and frequented on pleasant days – which yesterday definitely was, sunny and in the 70’s – by many, many people, sitting by the fountain, lazing on the grass, or (as you can see here) practicing their tightrope skills.
We hung around for a while, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere, then headed back to the car, fortifying ourselves for the long (20 minute) trek with another gelato. Indeed, I believe that I have discovered the Zeno’s Paradox of Gelato, as the intervals between gelato stops became progressively smaller as we got closer and closer to the car. If the walk had been much longer, we would not have needed dinner.
I will close with some self-indulgence, in particular with the narcissistic fantasy that you actually care how I am posting these entries at all since I stated a few days ago that our B&B castle does not have wifi. As it happens, there is a restaurant down the street with free wifi that (they graciously informed me) they leave turned on 24 x 7. So every morning I wander down the rode, sit against the outside wall of the restaurant, and blog away in the hope that the cars speeding down the winding, narrow alley do not crush my legs. (About five minutes ago I actually had to stand up and dodge a voracious street-sweeping machine whose girth filled the entire alley.) Anyway, here I am hard at work, in a photo that Elaine took yesterday: