The Basilica of Saint Anthony attracts approximately a million pilgrims per year. // © 2013 Thinkstock
It seems improbable that one small city can inspire some of the greatest minds in recorded history, but Padua has done just that. Galileo completed the majority of his work there, serving as the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua. Donatello spent approximately 10 years of his life crafting sculptures for Padua’s still-standing Basilica of Saint Anthony. Some of Giotto’s most controversial work can be admired within the city’s walls as well. Even the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri called Padua home.
A 30-minute drive from Venice, Padua is an ancient university town rich in art and history thanks to the centuries of influential scholars, philosophers and artists who have left their mark. The walled city is located along the Bacchiglione River in the center of the Veneto region and features one of the biggest squares in Europe, Prato della Valle. Historically, the square was a Roman theater and fairground. Today, locals and tourists alike head to the square for its Saturday market, which offers antiques, books and vintage clothes.
From traditional Veneto cuisine to the Orto Botanico, Europe’s first botanical garden, there are many reasons to plan a trip to Padua. Perhaps the most significant draw, however, is the Basilica of Saint Anthony. Every year, millions of pilgrims head to the eight-domed cathedral, which houses Saint Anthony’s tomb, relics connected to the saint’s life and gorgeous religious artwork that spans the centuries. Built soon after Saint Anthony’s death in 1231, the Basilica is largely the result of three separate reconstructions, which took place from 1238 to 1310. Highlights of the cathedral include the Treasury Chapel (a Baroque chapel created by Parodi in 1691) and a fresco that depicts Saint Anthony preaching from a walnut tree in Padua, painted by Pietro Annigoni in 1985.
For me, nearby Scrovegni Chapel is the crown jewel of Padua, and it was a treat touring the chapel with an expert guide, arranged by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection during a summer cruise along the Po River. The chapel was funded by wealthy banker Enrico Scrovegni who wished to outdo the other chapels in the region, including those of the Republic of Venice. To do so, Scrovegni commissioned two of the greatest artists of the time — Giovanni Pisano, who carved three marble statues for the altar — and Giotto, who painted the walls and ceilings in 1303-1305. In his paintings, Giotto narrates the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ in inventive ways. Some art historians perceive Giotto to be a feminist of sorts because of his representation of Mary holding a book — a woman reading was unheard of in the 12th century. Indeed, Giotto was daring with his brush, painting scenes that no other artist would at the time. He was also the first artist of his day to paint naked people in hell — including a bishop — and to make them anatomically correct. The most striking of scenes, the landscape of hell in the “Last Judgment,” serves as an eerie reminder to all those exiting the chapel that the choices they make outside of those doors can either bring them salvation or suffering.
New research actually suggests that Giotto’s graphic depiction of hell influenced Dante’s masterpiece, “Inferno.” To a recent visitor like me, this seems more than probable. In Padua, a city filled with incredible art and architecture, it’s hard not to get inspired.