Monday, June 6, 2011

Giotto in Padua

In February, we made a trip to Rome in celebration of our 25th anniversary. To celebrate my  60th birthday, I requested a trip to Venice, a city I never imagined I’d have a chance to visit and of which I had few mental images.

Venice has the advantage of being within driving distance of Salzburg, something over five hours. Rather than make the whole journey in a day, we booked four nights in Venice, and then, working backwards, I booked a night in Sirmione, one of dozens of towns and villages that dot the shores of Lago di Garda, the large Alpine lake in the north of Italy, and another night in Padua, which lies less than a hour west of Venice. I had left one night open, the last night of the week and, at the urging of our sister-in-law, Moyra, we decided to spend it in Verona on our return journey.

Venice, Padua and Verona are cities associated in my mind with the plays of Shakespeare, with literature I haven’t necessarily read, and with the ghosts of art history lectures decades ago. It was then I fell in love with medieval and early Renaissance Western art with little expectation I would ever see the masterpieces in situ.

So it was with taut nerves and hard-to-contain excitement that I waited with about twenty others to be admitted to the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua to see the cycle of frescoes painted by Giotto for the ruling family of Padua in their private chapel. Depicting scenes from the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, from the life of Anne, her mother, and from the life of Christ, the cycle was completed in 1305. It is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Western art. 

An early master, Giotto bridges the divide between the stiffer, hierarchical figures painted against gold ground that mark medieval work and the opening up of perspective with naturalistic settings and more lifelike figures that heralded the coming of the Renaissance. Put plainly, he was one of the artists who opened our eyes so we could see the world differently.

The high, round vault of the chapel in Padua is painted deep blue with a regular pattern of gold stars. Across the ceiling and down the walls patterned bands of colour divide the space into panels, each of which frames a different scene from Mary’s life, so the whole is viewed like a picture book. They are lovely; the colours, both rich and soft, are varied. Giotto shows technical skill, too. The modelling of the drapery carefully rendered to indicate the solidity of the flesh, bone and muscle beneath. Backgrounds are simple but there is early use of perspective, so the depth of a scene in shown. Decorative borders under some of the panels are painted with such skill that they appear as if carved from wall.

But what draws one to the paintings is the humanness of the figures. Faces are beautiful and expressive. Tears stream down the mothers’ faces in the scene depicting the massacre of the innocents. The faces of Mary, her companions and John the Baptist are anguished as they cradle the body of the dead Christ, disposed from the cross. Over their heads, tiny angels mourn, arms spread in agony or clutched to their faces. In these faces, the artist captures vulnerability, volatility, softness and beauty.
Giotto, The Lamentation, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Still, Giotto’s naturalism is not the realism of the later Renaissance and Baroque. The figures are charming and lifelike in the way of beautifully drawn picture book. They lack the full physicality and complete individualisation of painting that would follow in later centuries. However, like a child, I wanted to study every small detail, to hold them in my mind, to somehow own them though my first-hand experience of them. I love the translucence of the water that laps around Jesus’ legs as he stands in the Sea of Galilee while John baptises him. I love the delicately overlapping feathers in the angels’ wings and the softness of the women’s faces. Since I first was introduced to these works, in slides and four-colour pictures over thirty years ago, I have wanted to be in their presence.

Giotto, The Kiss of Judas, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Frescoes are created by mixing pigment in plaster that is painted onto the surface of a wall, so they are chemically bound to it. This gives them durability, but they can be damaged by exposure to the elements, in particular salt. The frescos of Giotto in Padua are still in place more than seven hundred years – nearly three-quarters of a millennium – after they were created. Yet they have suffered some damage; to protect them from the effects of humidity caused by respiration, only twenty-five people at one time are admitted, and then for only fifteen minutes. All too soon for me, our fifteen minutes were up, and we were escorted out, passing on our way the next group of twenty-five waiting to be ushered in.

So Himself and I came out of the dim chapel into the heat and glare of a May afternoon in Padua. Before us stretched the week in Venice, where we would see many more landmark paintings and many more masterpieces of art. Seeing the Giotto frescoes was but one dream fulfilled. I can’t hold them in memory as acutely as I would like: to write this, I referred to images online, pale imitations of the originals that can only hint at their power.

I am lucky to have had the chance to worship at their shrine, inconceivably so. Little by little, I am learning to see the world differently.

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