Italy is the home of fresco painting. Among its many cycles of frescoes, both in churches and secular building there are (for me) four that stand out immensely:
- The Giotto frescoes in the capella Scrovegni in Padua (1303-5)
- The Masaccio frescoes in the capella Brancacci in the chiesa del Carmine Florence (1420-30)
- The Piero della Francesca frescoes in St Francis Basilica, Arezzo (1452-66)
- The Michelangelo frescoes in the Sistine chapel (1508-12 and 1536-41).
If you haven’t seen these fabulous four frescoes then plan the rest of your life to include them as an immediate priority: they are works which have changed the history of western art in ways that no other creative works have done – they will also change your life and the way you look at it.
I’d last seen the Capella Scrovegni more years ago than I care to remember. A friend of mine had visited it more recently and told me how one must book ahead and then wait in an “acclimatization” centre before entering the hallowed place. He also added that it was worth every effort to try to see it. The time when I could casually enter the chapel with another hitch-hiking college undergraduate was, alas, long past. Now I had to book on-line for our Easter highlight, and unmissable appointment, with the chapel. If we were even five minutes late we would have to start again: the chapel allows just twenty-five people at any one time for fifteen minutes only: last year alone there were almost half a million visitors to it.
Despite the cataclysmic storm which was shaking and flooding the entire city, indeed region, of Padua we made it, soaked even to our socks, into the park which also contains the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, (arena – which gives an alternative name to the chapel), watched an introductory film and visited the interesting museum which has been installed in the restored cloisters of the adjoining Eremitani church. We then walked across to the chapel where we saw another film, while waiting to be “acclimatised”, before entering the full glory of this building, almost entirely frescoed by one of the greatest painters the world has ever seen and painted within the first ten years of the fourteenth century.
I‘m not going to give a description of the splendour that spread all around me except to say that Giotto laid out the frescoes starting out from the top into four cycles in a generally anticlockwise direction.
The first band illustrates the story of Joachim and Anne,
(Joachim meets Anne at the Golden Gate)
the second, the life of the Virgin,
the third the life of Jesus
and the lowest the vices and virtues.
Looking at the great Last Judgement, painted on the end wall opposite the altar with hell on the right and heaven on the left, the vices follow the side of hell and the virtues the side of heaven, making it clear that resisting everything except temptation is not an option!
Above the altar is an Annunciation.
The scenes don’t all derive from the authorised version of the Bible. Secondary sources are also used which include the apocryphal gospels of pseudo-Matthew and Nicodemus, Varazze’s Golden Legend, and the Meditations on the life of Jesus by the pseudo-Bonaventura.
It’s important, therefore, to have a good look at a well-illustrated book about the frescoes before visiting them so, at the very least, one can make out the sense of each scene more clearly. Then, with those preciously few fifteen minutes at one’s disposal in this most wonderful of interiors one can then concentrate on the blazing colours (don’t forget Padua was part of the Venetian republic which had access to the most valuable pigments and best artists’ materials from the east: cobalts and carmines included), the majestic and moving expressions, never surpassed by any of the art that followed, and the intense and dramatic flow of the masterpiece, built as a mausoleum for the remains of Enrico Scrovegni who wished in every way to atone for his life as a rich banker, which included such (then) sinful practises as usury.
I’m sure that Scrovegni, by getting the best painter around, and giving him full rein in expressing the over-riding theme of Salvation permeating this artistic icon, has superbly released himself from any condemnation to that circle of hell Dante (whose literary influence also enters into these frescoes) would have allotted to such humans.
I only wish that bankers today would reflect more carefully about how future generations will think about them and realise that it’s only by giving generously to the arts, and by commissioning on a Scrovegni-type scale, that they’ll escape the censure of the public who have now, by sad experience, allocated the banker’s profession to the lowest of scales in the continuing economic crisis still afflicting too much of the world today.
PS The photos which I include are public property since no photography is allowed in the chapel. I also wish that no talking were allowed too. I found some of the other visitors to this heaven on earth rather noisy!