Peter Morrell goes to this ancient Italian seat of learning and is amazed by its history, art and culture.
When you are in a city where the university can boast Galileo Galilei as one time chair of mathematics you know that it had the ability to attract some of the world’s finest academics and artists. Padua University was formed in 1222 by a break away group from Bologna who wanted more academic freedom. Galileo made the most of this freedom by promoted the theory of the earth revolving around the sun, for his troubles he was declared a heretic during the Inquisition, but he was right.
It was not the university’s only claim to fame, in 1545 it created the world’s first Botanical Gardens to research the role of plants as medicine, the Gardens are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, a member of the Venetian nobility, became the first women ever to be awarded a degree. This is in complete contrast to the misogynistic theme of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew which is set primarily in Padua
The Basilica dedicated to St Anthony of Padua
The rich academic heritage of the city sets the scene for it’s many cultural, artistic and architectural attractions. My exploration started at the Basilica dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. Standing on the forecourt, which is guarded by Donatello’s equestrian bronze sculpture of Gattamelata, I looked up at the imposing structure, with it eclectic Byzantine and Romanesque architectural styles. It is one of Christianity’s greatest shrines and is just as impressive inside.
In the cool, quiet interior I made my way under Gothic arches to the tomb of St Anthony. Surrounded by intricate bas relief carvings, it is the end of a journey for many pilgrims. They stand in silent prayer, their hand on the black marble side of his resting place, imploring the Saint for a miracle known only to them, it’s was a moving sight.
Moving on, niches above the altar contain three elaborate reliquaries containing some of the Saint’s remains, the jaw bone, the larynx and the most prized relic, his tongue, still intact after more than seven centuries.
The Piazza Prato della Valle
There are multiple kilometres of porticos in the city, keeping people dry in the winter and shaded in the summer, they made the short wander to my next destination, the Piazza Prato della Valle, quite comfortable. It is Italy’s largest square, a huge garden with central fountain and an elliptical canal decorated with 78 statues on either side of the waterway.
Palazzo della Ragione
A few minutes from the square is the old Jewish Quarter, its narrow streets and high rise buildings were in total contract to the large sunny open space I suddenly burst into, the Piazza delle Erbe. Along one side was the immense Palazzo della Ragione. This medieval Palace of Justice has a immense great hall, the roof unsupported by columns and the walls decorated with hundreds of allegorical frescos representing the signs of the zodiac and the trades of the townspeople. At one end of the hall is a giant trojan horse which is dwarfed by the sheer enormity of its surroundings.
Continuing my journey I popped in to the Pedrocchi Café, opened in the 18th century and near the university, it has always been a draw for artists and free thinkers.
The Scrovegni Chapel
My final stop was the pinnacle of the city’s artistic heritage, the Scrovegni Chapel. Commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni 1303, it is thought that he had it build as an act of penitence for his banker father’s sin of usury, charging excessive interest rates. He chose Giotto di Bondone to both design the chapel and to decorate it.
In two years Giotto and his team created a fresco cycle depicting the major events in the life of Christ. The results are stunning, the powerful images are still fresh 700 years after they were painted.. One of the most striking panels is Judas kissing Christ and equally impressive is the wall above the entrance where The Last Judgement serves as a warning to sinners. A visit to the Chapel should be on every art lovers bucket list.
A short walk from the Chapel was my home for the next two days, the comfortable Hotel Europa. A few steps down the street was the bar/restaurant Baessato Padova where my fellow travellers and I revived ourselves after a hard day’s sightseeing with Italy’s favourite aperitivo, the Spritz, made with either Aperol or Campari.
Padua is less than 40 kilometres from Venice and the surrounding area was used by Venetians to build their villas, it was these buildings that allowed them to display their wealth ostentatiously. Many of the greatest villas were designed by one man, Andrea Palladio, who was born in Padua. Palladio was heavily influenced by the architecture of ancient Rome and his ‘Palladian Style’ remains a strong influence in building design to this day.
On day two I travelled to Piazzola sul Brenta, about 20 kilometres north west of Padua. Situated here is an example of Palladio’s work, Villa Contarini. The building today has a more Baroque feel after renovations in the 17th century. These houses were primarily occupied in the summer for parties, in the winter the lavish rooms decorated with frescos of Bacchanalian feasts were used to store wood and grain.
There was a corridor over 150 metres long where the nobility took their exercise during the day, they did this to avoid getting a suntan, a sign of the poor. The main atrium has an open balcony at its apex which allowed the music of an unseen orchestra to entertain guests.
From Piazzola it was a short drive to the historic walled city of Cittadella. This is a medieval masterpiece enclosed by 1.5 kilometres of well preserved brick battlements. There is a circular path around the fortifications from where you can see down into the town. Look outwards are the Asiago Mountains and Plateau where the famous WW1 battle took place between the armies of the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Back at ground level I walked through the street market thronged with people buying everything from fruit to flowers. Looking at all the food stalls made me hungry so I had lunch at Taverna degli Artisti. This meal brought together the entire essence of Italian cuisine, it was simple and fresh with powerful natural flavours. There was beef carpaccio, burrata made with mozzarella and cream, delicious tomatoes and pungent cheeses, a foodie’s dream
Padua Expo Week
In the evening there was a gala dinner to celebrate Padua Expo Week held in the grounds of the recently extended Botanical Gardens. It was a glamorous event and was a showcase for everything good about the city, from the concert orchestra to the food cooked by the best local restaurants and wine from the surrounding vineyards.
Villa Pisani and the Naviglio del Brenta
My last day answered the question, how did the Venetians travel, complete with crockery, cutlery and bedding to their country villas? The answer was by boat along the Naviglio del Brenta, a canal which runs from the Venice Lagoon to the River Brenta. Along it’s banks are villas of all shapes and sizes, I started by looking at one of the most sumptuous just a few kilometres from Padua, Villa Pisani. Built by Alvise Pisani, who was elected doge in 1735, it is a pure statement of power and influence. Everything about it is in the grand scale, looking from the rear of the property at the end of a water garden is the façade of a Baroque villa which was in fact the stables.
The elaborate gardens feature a decorative Belvedere to help enjoy the views and a complex Maze.
The villa must have attracted megalomaniacs as it was subsequently owned by Napolean, his bed is still there, and in 1934 saw the first meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
I boarded a boat to cruise slowly down the canal, stopping at the once important mill town of Mira with its bell tower in the style of St Mark’s in Venice and Palladio designed Villa Widmann-Foscari. My final stop was Villa dei Leoni, now a municipal building, it still has good examples of mosaic flooring.
My trip was over and it had been an eye opener in terms of the wealth of architecture and art. Padua can easily hold the interest of a visitor and Venice is only a twenty minute train ride away so it makes a good base from which to explore the region.
Nearest Airport: Venice Marco Polo with regular flights from the UK
For more information on visiting Padua go to www.padovatravel.it