October 21, 2012 – Lost in Padua the city of Frescoes and Roundabouts
After I graduated from college I thought, “I should have minored in Art History.” After all, I took plenty of art history, painting, and drawing classes. But by then it was too late and who knows what good having a minor would have done me. Probably none. All too soon, with the passing of years, the images, the artists, and the historical importance of the works I’d studied faded to a sun-lightened pallor in my memory.
Despite time, some names and some objects managed to imprint themselves on me like tattoos. Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo. The David. The Pantheon. The Parthenon. The Last Supper. Giotto. The Doge’s Palace. St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pieta. The Elgin Marbles. I might have forgotten why these artists or works of art were important but I did remember that they were. Which is why I chose to visit Padua. It’s the home of Scrovegni’s Chapel (which my mother said sounded like a bad word) which is the home to the frescoes painted by Giotto.
Who is Giotto? Turns out (as I go back now to review) Giotto was one of the first artists to break from the flat two-dimensional Byzantine style into a more natural three dimensional style, and is considered by many to be the father of the Renaissance. He’s also considered to be the Father of Western Pictorial Art (I hope he had that printed out in diploma format, framed and hung up on his office wall).
Western art, as it is today, has Giotto to thank for things such as tears painted on people’s faces to indicate sadness (he was the first one to do that, the experts say), a more realistic sense of pictorial space, and better proportioned and emotionally expressive figures.
I’d made my reservation for a tour of the chapel a month ago, while still in Sweden, to ensure that I’d be able to see it. True frescoes are wall paintings painted on wet plaster and don’t always withstand the heavy hand of time. Because of that, Scrovegni’s Chapel is climate and humidity controlled in order to preserve the art. No more than twenty-five people are allowed inside at one time. Visitors, such as me, must arrive early, check in, sit in an air-locked room for fifteen minutes to allow the temperatures to adjust between the outside air and the entry into the chapel and then be escorted inside. After all these measures have been taken the 707 year old frescoes can be viewed for a very precisely timed fifteen minutes.
That in mind, I leave the house I’m staying in (and have only just arrived to) around 11:00 am. I’m going to walk the 1.24 miles to the Chapel and I want enough freedom to see the sites, to get lost, to get unlost, and to arrive a bit early for my 3:00 appointment. It might seem like a bit of time overkill, yet with so many things to see in Padua, I’m glad I do. I’ve written out directions, but the street names I come to don’t seem to match what I’ve written. And Padua has more roundabouts than any other city I’ve visited to date. Or so it seems. At each roundabout I count the “exits” to see what corresponds to my directions and then go that way. Every time I’m wrong. I’m not sure I know how to follow directions.
Just after my first adventure with a roundabout, and being a bit turned around, I stop at a café to ask where Brecci a San Prosdocimo is. It’s only the fourth instruction out of seventeen on my notebook page and already here I am, wandering along and navigating myself more or less by feeling (which is usually, and in this case, not accurate). Two of the café’s men customers tell me in a flurry of Italian to go back the way I’ve come. Damn. I repeat what they’ve said with hand motions just to be clear. One of the men steps outside with me and begins to give the details again. Then he says, “I have to go that way anyway so I’ll just walk with you.”
He doesn’t tell anyone goodbye; we just start off. As we go, he begins to talk, to ask questions. Where are you from? Are you a student? Are you here alone? I tell him regretfully that I only speak a little bit of Italian.
“Do you speak French?” he asks.
“No,” I tell him. “Spanish.”
With three Romance languages and one Germanic one between us, he escorts me to Via San Prosdocimo talking the whole time. I smile and nod. Agree to a few things that aren’t true because it’s easier than trying to explain my current life to him. We just don’t have the time. Eventually, his path goes to the right and mine straight ahead. We move to part ways and I thank him. “Mille grazie!” and he shakes my hand, kisses me cheek to cheek and wishes me good luck.
I only get turned around a million more times, see Padua’s 800 year old University where Galileo Galilei taught at one time, walk past statues and down narrow cozy streets, regret only having one day to explore this place, visit the Cathedral of Padua’s Baptistery with the impressive frescoes of Giusto de’ Menabuoi (which, by the way, are amazing), pass by the Palazzo della Ragione, buy some peaches from the open market in the Piazza delle Erbe, and after two or so hours of historical, architectural and artistic distraction find myself at the Eremitani Museum.
I’m supposed to be there an hour before my appointed tour time to pick up my ticket and, being even earlier than that, I approach the ticket counter wondering how strict they are about the scheduling.
Apparently not very. Also it must be the low season because the ticket man asks me if I want to go in right now.
“Now? Sure,” I say. This will be great. Then the rest of my day will be freed up to wander and be lost if I so desire.
He prints out my ticket and changes the time on it in pen. I don’t have a watch, but I assume that right now means right now and I need to be at the temperature stabilization room soon.
Photography of any kind is strictly forbidden and I have to check my bag before I leave the museum. The Chapel staff does not mess around with the chance that anyone will take pictures inside. “Is it okay if I take my notebook?” I ask the bag handler. I wonder if pens are forbidden too. Forbidden is such a strong word.
“That’s fine,” she tells me.
Once my bag is claimed and shelved, I realize I don’t know where I’m supposed to be. “Where do I go to wait?” I ask a uniformed museum attendant in English, showing him my ticket and feeling like the whole day is a maze of lostness.
“Let me show you,” he says. He leads the way outside of the museum and turns down the cemented path. “This is my fucking home,” he says vehemently, making me, suddenly and unexpectedly, a confidante. He seems a little angry, very emphatic. I take a half step away from him (as surreptitiously as possible). “My fucking job. Fucking home.” I’m not sure how to respond. I open my mouth to say something to fill the space, but he beats me to the words. “That’s an American phrase,” he concludes in explanation. The power he’d thrown into the cursing is deflated from his voice and he’s amiable now, friendly. Ah. Well, there you go. He points me down the path and goes away.
I’m pondering the word “fucking” as a phrase, the advantages and disadvantages of having Hollywood and American Television as my calling card, and the strange ways people try to connect with others as I take a seat on a park bench outside of the automatic (and currently locked) doors. I can see a group of people sitting inside, watching a video as they wait for their chance to go in to the art world’s holy of holies. I hope they’re not the group I’m supposed to be with. I’m worried about this because the instructions on the ticket were very strict. They warned me that if I missed my time then there was no rescheduling. Although I have the feeling that today is not a sold out day and doubt that I’d be out of luck if that happened, I don’t want to chance it.
I’m fretting alone on my bench. I’ve lost my sense of time. I don’t know if I should just sit and wait or if I should find someone who has a watch or find some official who does or doesn’t use American phrases and will tell me exactly what I’m supposed to do, where I’m supposed to be. Before I’ve decided how I’ll act, a man takes a seat next to me. Like any good spy, I steal a glance at his watch. I still have five minutes before my new appointment time. I breathe. I can relax now. So I do.
A couple of other people arrive and--all of us anxious to be on the other side of the doors--we stand waiting until two staff members shuffle the inside group deeper inside, close off all the doors, and then open the outer door to let us in.
I don’t enjoy feeling like a herded sheep. I’m unused to being locked down to a specific time. I’m not a fan of lines or waiting. But that’s the price I’ve got to pay (along with the ticket price) to see this. I tell myself to chill out and remind myself that I’ve made it into the climate stabilizing room! You’re almost there. There’s a TV monitor at the front of the room and rows of seats facing it. I take a chair and settle back to watch the fifteen minute video that tells of the Chapel’s, Scrovegni’s, and Giotto’s history. I feel a bit naked without my bag, without my camera. I clutch my notebook and pen and dare the lady to take from me (in my thoughts).
Then. Then. It’s my turn to go in. This is my first I’d Be Sad to Have Been in Italy and Not Seen This place. I’d made a short list of things I had to schedule in advance and planned my itinerary around it. This one does not disappoint.
The strongest feeling I have in entering Giotto’s fresco lair, the biggest impression is, how rich in blue the room is. Overhead, the ceiling (officially called a barrel vault roof) arches majestically in dark night blue and is decorated with golden stars and saintly figures. Rectangular scenes, with backgrounds of a lighter blue, start on the top of one wall and round the entire room until coming around again to tier down to a second set of scenes and then around again to a third. The scenes, circulating the room in order of occurrence, cover the life of the Virgin Mary, the Nativity, the Passion of Jesus, the Resurrection, and the Pentecost. On the wall at the front of the chapel is a scene of God sending an angel to earth. And on the back wall is Giotto’s famous Last Judgment scene.
I know I only have a limited amount of time. Our guide, who reminds me of my Hungarian and wild haired college professor Dr. O (she was intimidating, had a terrific accent, and was completely wonderful), stands just off to the side of our group keeping a strict eye on us, making sure we don’t cross the rails, commit any infraction, or attempt to damage the frescoes with our thoughts. I hold my thoughts in check as I walk the room trying to appreciate each scene, but there isn’t enough time. I jot a few notes of some of the objects that stand out to me so that I’ll be able to remember better later; Jesus carrying a flag as he’s about to ascend to heaven, a dragon on a pedestal, Jonah being swallowed by a fish, a boar (why is there a boar?!), the seven deadly sins on one side of the room with the virtues on the other, Elijah in his chariot of fire. When I reach the back wall’s Judgment Scene I’ve only just glanced at a few figures (which are creepy and wonderful) when our guide calls Time Up and begins to usher us out. I linger, wanting to see more, to be here longer, to stay forever. For that, I get the evil eye and an impatient frown from the guide (she’s intimidating too). I give her a half-sorry grin. She doesn’t respond in kind. Chancing her wrath, I get one last look at it--as she all but pushes me out--and then the door shuts behind me.
I’m exhilarated with art. I’m feeling entirely blue, dark blue, light blue, painted blue. I want to beg to be let back in. Just five more minutes. Ten more minutes. Half an hour. Giotto painted too much and it was amazing to see. I hadn’t really known what to expect. I hadn’t known it would be that great in person. I want to go right back in and start from the end and work forward. There were just too many figures, too many stories, too much for only a fifteen minute glance. I’m gushing and frantic, punch drunk with images.
Pull yourself together! I think.
I go to collect my bag and toy with the idea of buying another ticket and taking that ride again. I want more time to stare at the demons, to lament with the tortured humans. I talk myself out of it by buying a small notebook with the Last Judgment scene on one side and a more angelic scene on the other. I’m going to need another notebook soon anyway.
With my appointment fulfilled, I meander back through Padua, retracing my steps, stopping to admire things more fully now that I have the rest of the day to spend however I’d like. Hours later, maybe, I make it to one of the roundabouts and (surprisingly enough) I’m not sure what exit to take. I put my hands on my hips and say aloud, “Where do I go from here?” Which starts off the Karen Carpenter song of the same title in my head. So I sit on the small ledge wall behind me and pull out my music to listen to it, singing along with Karen there on a street in Italy.
The words play out in my head, pass my lips, and I linger there contentedly thinking, Maybe now I can divine the way.