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Padova 22 September 2011

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More Treasures

What could top the Capella Scrovegni? Nothing. Giotto at the top of his game is arguably one of the best painters of all time. But the context he worked in is a fascinating part of the story -- as it influenced him, and he influenced it. And the Padovani art world of the 16th Century was fluid and exciting.

On our last day in Padova, we did our best to pick up the pieces, and one of the first was the Duomo's baptistry. Another hexagonal room crammed in amongst church structures next to the city's cathedral -- large and barnlike, but not without surprises; see the panel on modern works below -- with a magnificently painted ceiling, frescoes by Giusto de' Menabuoi, surprisingly painted after Giotto's Capella.

The main dome (below) is populated -- one might say overpopulated -- with what looks to be the whole congregation of Padovani in the mid 1500s.

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Here are saints, bishops, popes, cardinals, patrons, and most likely all the painters on the Menabuoi team. Only nobody took down the names. In the main dome, some of the saints are labeled (right). 

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One of the main dome's features, besides the usual suspects, is the strange little image on which the BVM is standing. (That's Blessed Virgin Mary, and if I'm offending anyone by my off-handedness, sorry, but here in Europe on an art crawl, you get pretty saturated with BVMs.) Squinting at it with my good eyes, I couldn't make it out, but here's what my camera saw: that's the known world of 1500 -- Columbus hadn't really reported in to this part of the world yet -- surrounded by the signs of the zodiac.

The preoccupation with the zodiac, and the constant echoing of the iconography of the Tarot, is, at least to my eye, a fascinating pattern. In the Palazzo della Ragione, the zodiac symbols are a prominent organizing principle, and many of the major arcana of the Tarot appear, only slightly modified, only under the guise of presenting church people, nobles, and so forth. Likewise, in the Capella Scrovegni, themes and layouts from the Tarot find their way into Giotto's compositions. Of course, in superstitious Italy most of these artists grew up with the Tarot as part of their iconographic education; these were the only non-sacred images that had philosophical meaning, and in a culture that communicated big ideas graphically, they were a natural part of the artistic vocabulary. 

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It's tempting to think that Padova burst with creativity in the 1500s and then quit. Not so. In the big barnlike cathedral, the new altar and its fittings are the best of the 20th Century. Using clean lines and beautifully colored marble, an unacknowledged sculptor has offered us a couple of gorgeously rendered saints, and an angel whose air becomes a tree and then the lectern.

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Outside the Duomo and a couple of streets over, we encountered the market -- an everyday event here. The first square was the usual Italian market crap, clothes, belts, flea market wares that must sell, but who knows to whom. But then, the food. Two squares and a covered marketplace (with more art upstairs: the Palazzo della Ragione. We'll get to that in a moment. But if you want some serious food porn, click here.

We bought some figs and lovely raspberries and found a step in the shade to sit on for a snack. The next morning we made a quick trip back to the market, because we were going to be travelling during lunchtime -- mealtimes are very regularized and mostly unbending, unless you're willing to eat a sandwich -- and put together a delightful midday meal. We are craving vegetables, because northern Italians eat lots of cheese, pasta, rice, but not many vegetables ... even with these riches in the marketplace. 

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After our snack, we visited the Palazzo della Ragione, a one-time courtroom above the covered market. It has an amazing huge inverted boatlike roof that handsomely spans the immense chamber. Over the centuries the walls above the windows and below the roof were decorated with symbols -- the zodiac, animals, symbols, icons, all in a dark and mostly unphotographable mishmash. Giotto himself decorated part of the walls, but a fire in 1522 (!) destroyed his work, and so most of the images date from the 17th Century. 

The truly interesting pieces in this great hall are a great wooden horse and the Throne of Shame, an innovation proposed by San Antonio is preference to the stocks. Debtors would sit on this stone and declaim their unworthiness, thereby expiating their responsibilities. 

Two things strike me here: the continuing humanitarianism of the Franciscans, and especially San Antonio, who is one of the most beloved of saints, in part, we have to assume, because of his gentleness in matters like this. Secondly, I have to be impressed that a hard-headed Northern Italian city like Padova would allow its customs to be so swayed by a gentle monk.

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As you can see, this is a BIG horse. It has stood in this room for some time. At some point, the head and foreleg fell off -- wood is not a very reliable material for the kind of permanence being attempted by the Italians. The foreleg got cobbled back together but the face had to be redone, and the sculptor chosen to do it was clearly a much better woodworker than the original carpenters.

In the background of the image at right, you can see some of the painted walls and one corner of the inverted boat roof. Apparently the horse is hollow, and interior photos show that the construction techniques were much like that of the roof, and of wooden boats. Padova, though not far from the sea, is a water-wise city with canals and rivers leading out to the Venetian lagoon.

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At this point, aesthetic overload is overtaking us, but we have one more major gallery to take in: the Pinacoteca at the Civic Museum. Prepared to be unimpressed, we were nevertheless knocked out, once again, but the newness of the very old work. Here are some wavy angels from the 14th Century -- all the same angel over and over -- by an artist named Guariento. Come to think of it, if you're going to have an army of angels, why wouldn't they be all alike?

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Most likely I have mentioned that we have seen one or two madonnas -- one or two HUNDRED, that is. But this one I liked for the fineness of the detail, and for the lion on her throne. The message here is that Padova has fallen under the sway of Venezia, and La Serinissima's emblem starts appearing everywhere.

Venice was enormously powerful, and ruled over a commercial empire that encompassed the Mediterranean sea -- we saw lions in Crete, and will see lots of them in Croatia --as well as in Verona. The success was commercial, but it enabled the Doges to employ the best troops to impose the City's will -- serenely, always, but strongly. 

I like the baby's nonchalant pose. Is this the first in a long strong of relaxing nudes? I also like the fruits floating around behind the BVM like planets. But most of all, I like the intricacy of the embroidery on her dress.

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This immense tapestry fills one large wall. The attribution is to a tapestry atelier in Bruges, Belgium, although at the time Bruges was the European center for fine textiles, and was a part of the Spanish empire. The horses' eyes were what captured my attention – that and, again, the amazing detail. I could get close enough to get an image of the threads that make up the picture. In a way, it's as pixellated as a modern computer image. (I wanted to get a picture of the upper horse's eye, but I wasn't tall enough. This tapestry must be 16 feet tall and 35 feet wide.) 

Here, at left, is another detail from the tapestry, of the weaving that went into the wonderful tapestry flag or bag being carried by one of the young men. This is the tassle and part of the sunburst. I like the self-reference of a textile representing a textile.

I went and got Rochelle and showed her, and we both stared in awe at this moumental piece. How many thousands of hours? How did they now how to create such liveliness? Those depicted here are individuals, with character ... until you approach closely (where the artists had to be) whereupon the image degrades into a series of horizontal lines.

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By now, artistic ennui is definitely setting in. Rochelle has given up and has sought out a bench to wait for me. It takes more and more to capture my attention. But ... here's one now!

Yet again another Madonna, but who are all the supporting players? I failed to get the artist's name, but there was no indication of who was who here. Who is the second child, and why is she playing a tambourine? Who are the well-dressed geeks on the ground floor? 

This was an altarpiece, probably for a private chapel, and likely the character in the tradesman's gown, or one of the characters stariung out of the little portholes in the base, was the patron. Was this his barefoot little girl?

It just begs for a story.

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Finally escaping the clutches of Art, we took the tram to the Pratto and watched the skaters and bikers ride around and around until it was time to go to dinner again. The weather has turned. It is comfortably Autumn here, with a new quality to the light.

For dinner we returned to Le Bersaliere, but didn't have as good a time. We were fatigued by too much beauty, and weren't much fun to serve. The food was, again, spectacular, but we agreed that it is hard to go back to the same place twice. 

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<p>Insalata Fantasia, Lasagna, White Polenta with Mushrooms and Squid</p>

Insalata Fantasia, Lasagna, White Polenta with Mushrooms and Squid

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