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Report 140: Italy - Second Italian Notebook-September 2003
By Doru from Toronto, Canada, Fall 2003
Page 14 of 29: September 9, 2003 (Tuesday)-Excursion to Padova
An interesting day: first, the return of the ship to San Basilio, where coaches will wait for us for a trip to Padova, then farewell to Venice as the ship moves on to Taglio di Po, where will stay overnight. A safety drill is planned for the afternoon; the rest of the day will be on board, the ship detouring for a while onto the Adriatic Sea, before turning back inland. So that we won't feel totally cooped up, there will be professional entertainment tonight: an “operatic evening”.
Soon after an early breakfast we all board buses which take us to Padova, where we stop at a huge parking lot, which turns out to be not far from Prato della Valle, an enormous elliptic Piazza built on the site of a Roman theatre. The Piazza is in fact a park surrounded by a moat and is home to an amazing collection of statues, about 80 of them, celebrating some of the most famous Padovans: teachers, medics, philosophers. The tall statues frame the sidewalks around the moat, and two huge alleys cut through the piazza, with graceful bridges over the moat, the alleys finally crossing in the middle of the area, thus splitting this amazing open space into slices, much like those of a cosmic-sized cake. Traffic is quite light around Prato della Valle, and on the four sides of the square which encase the park there are small buildings, with shops mostly, or at least this is all we can see from a distance.
I would like to circle the Piazza and check on the many statues, to see their names, by what were these people distinguished, but there is no time for more than a few minutes and a few rushed photographs. At one corner of the square there is an impressive church, with many domes and I assume this is the Saint’s Basilica but I am told by the local guide that this is “only” the Basilica di Santa Giustina, and that we will go to the Basilica di Sant’Antonio next; no time for poor Santa Giustina.
As we walk towards Sant’Antonio, we ask the guide about the Scrovegni Chapel, which houses the recently restored Giotto fresco masterpiece. The guide tells us that we will have some free time after visiting the Basilica and suggests two options: a walk into the University area or, if we feel adventurous, a trip to the Scrovegni Chapel, the latter by using a free municipal shuttle bus route serviced by electrical buses. The only thing to remember, she tells us, is that you will have only about 90 minutes to get there and back, and we will not be able to wait for you. Moreover, the visits at the Chapel are regulated much like the viewing of Leonardo’s Last Supper: here there is a strict limit of 15 minutes (compared with the 20 minutes available at the Cenacolo) for each group, and advance reservation of tickets is required.
I don’t feel adventurous enough to throw myself into an unknown city to look for a place were we may not even be admitted, but J. and F., who also were interested in this visit, try to challenge and also encourage me using flattery: they need “my” Italian, J. explains; hers is not good enough. Feeling like the Emperor with no clothes, sorry: with no Italian, I look at Josette but she is game and I say: “what the h..l; we'll try”.
But first to the Basilica del Santo, because in Padova Sant’Antonio is so much part of the fabric of the city’s history that it is not necessary to name him: “The Saint” here means no Roger Moore but Sant’ Antonio and also the Basilica dedicated to him, so if you say you go to Il Santo it is clear you do not plan to meet him personally but rather visit the beautiful church.
We arrive very soon at the Piazza del Santo and the Basilica. At this hour the Piazza is quite deserted and we seem to be the only visitors. While the guide tells the story of Sant’Antonio, I take in the simple but elegant façade, with a long, graceful gallery bridging over the entire front, the capital with the rose window, and above a hint of the domes and minarets, which give the Basilica a distinct oriental air.
Inside the main point of interest is the chapel containing the Arca del Santo, where Sant'Antonio is entombed. Donatello’s works distinguish both the interior, with the a crucifix, bronze statues and reliefs of the high altar, among them the famous Man of Sorrows, and the exterior, with the imposing riding statue of Gattamelata, the renowned Venetian mercenary and Condottiere, whose tomb is in one of the chapels of the Basilica. We end the visit with the two peaceful cloisters, one of them offering a very good view of the Basilica.
As we all meet back in Piazza del Santo, the four of us get again careful instructions from the guide, directions where to get on the electrical shuttle bus and where to get off in order to meet the rest of the group.
We go towards our adventure to the corner of the Piazza, from where we can see the station of the shuttle, with two of the buses in the station. The first question is which one should we take and in my best Italian I ask “Per la Cappella degli Scrovegni, per piacere?”. The “Si” is a signal to get on the bus, which is quite small, with about 8 or 10 seats and a space in the middle for the daring or for those we have no other choice. For one has to be daring or bereft of choices to stand in the little bus when the driver starts his route as if he drives a Formula 1 car.
The bus sways this way and that, and F., who uses a cane to ease on a painful knee, and myself, owner of two invisible but very real artificial hips, hang on for dear life. Finally, some people get off and I get to sit close to the driver, watching his every move and hoping that he will tell us where to get off, or otherwise we will go ‘round and round' the center of Padova to eternity. But no, he didn’t forget us and as at one of the stops he gesticulates vaguely and announces: “Eco Piazza Eremitani per la cappella!”.
We get off the shuttle dazed by the ride, and find ourselves in front of the building of a church and face to face with a gypsy beggar. As we try at the same time to avoid her insistence and to figure out where we are, we notice a sign directing to the Cappella degli Scrovegni; later, looking at a map, I will figure out that the first building was that of the Chiesa degli Eremitani, whose recent history is closely tied to that of the Cappella, since both were heavily damaged during the Second World War; the church was since restored, but the section of the Cappella which was destroyed could not be restored. Fortunately for the world, Giotto’s frescoes were in a sector of the Cappella, which, miraculously, was not damaged at all. The Scrovegni name comes from a family of money lenders, one of them infamous enough in Padova of its time to be mentioned by Dante, who condemned him to Hell.
Following the sign, we stop at a modest building and enter what appears to be the entrance to the museum. Here we are stopped by a nice gentleman, who explains to us in great details, but way too fast, that we cannot go immediately into the Cappella, but have to obtain tickets for a specific hour. The first available time slot would be 11:15 and the visit lasts 15 minutes.
We check our watches and figure that we should be able to get back to Prato della Valle in time to catch our bus and not be stranded in Padova. But it will be tight. We plunge and buy the 12 Euro tickets and are directed to another part of the building, where others are already lined up.
It is 11 o’clock and an attendant is waving the queue in. We advance with the queue and are allowed to proceed! We just gained 15 minutes!
The air-conditioned waiting room in which we are assembled is surrounded by glass on three sides and this allows us to admire the beautiful garden while we wait, not for long, since on a screen a slide and sound show starts. This is a comprehensive presentation of the history of the chapel, followed by an analysis of Giotto’s masterpiece. The frescoes have undergone recent restorations resulting in a stable state and this has allowed further work to be done. This work continues.
We are finally allowed into the chapel. The first impression is that of disorientation: the walls of the single nave are literally covered from floor to ceiling by paintings, each delineating a specific scene from the lives of Mary and Jesus, all organized meticulously, following a clear programme: the story of the New Testament is told in three continuous horizontal leyers of paintings, the top layer dedicated on one side to the life of Joachim and on the other on the life of Mary, each contained in six panels, Mary’s continuing into the chancel.
The life of Jesus is depicted in the following two layers, the last scenes of his life on the lowest layer, the closest to the viewer. As the visitor turns towards the entrance, the powerful Last Judgement leaves the final and everlasting impression.
Significant figures from the Old Testament, the Seven Virtues and the Seven Sins, saints and angels, all complete and frame the story. Every available surface is used and it is quite easy to see the powerful educational meaning of this work in times in which few knew how to read and most came by their knowledge of the Bible only through such expressive images.
Up, above our heads, dominates the blue expanse of the ceiling, decorated with shining stars.
15 minutes are not nearly enough to look at and understand the extraordinary power of Giotto’s talent, the realism and drama of the panels in which each scene and moment are staged to perfection, logical conclusion to the previous painting, lead into the following. So what is left to the visitor is to absorb as much as possible from the general impression left by the superlative art and thinking of Giotto, a genius two hundred years ahead of the Sistine Chapel. Once the general impression was captured, then attention can be given to details, to individual scenes, to the emotion encapsulated in some or the force of destiny expressed in others.
We leave the chapel only when reminded by the staff that the 15 minutes have passed. There is much left behind to see, with regrets that the time allowance is so miserly strict. There weren’t many people behind us and there could have been a more generous allotment of time, but this is only wishful thinking, or possibly an incentive to return, since we have left much to see in Padova and should come back some day.
Return to reality faces us with the practical question as to where the shuttle bus is. Finally, after a couple of anxious minutes, we find the station and are on the way back to Prato della Valle, where buses wait to return us all back to the ship.
The afternoon is more at less at leisure. First, at about 3 p.m. the “alarm” sounds the beginning of the safety drill. Warned well in advance, we find easily our life vests, strap them on and walk towards the assembly point in the lounge. In about 10 minutes, all passengers are in the lounge, wearing funny faces and looking just as funny with the life vests on. It turns out emergency does not account for dignity: some vests are strapped upside down, some face to back, some cannot go around a few more rotond passengers. Nonetheless, the Captain declares himself satisfied with this first (!) training session and then warns us that, as the ship will go into the Adriatic for a few hours later in the afternoon, we will be well advised not only to remember where we left the life vests, but also to limit our traffic on the ship because high waves are expected due to the windy weather.
I spend much of the afternoon in the lounge, reading some more from “Il sistema periodico”, dictionary and pencil at the ready. I enjoy more and more reading in Italian; what I don’t understand directly I try to figure out based on vocabulary from sister languages, although I am sure this is at best a “hit and miss” method. Still, referring too much to the dictionary is a disincentive and I now try to use it only when absolutely necessary.
Trish, our Tour Director, who hails from New Zealand and retained all the charm of the typical New Zealand accent (I suspect she is even kind of overplaying it a bit, just to add to the exotic of her persona), has taken a microphone and draws the attention of those staying in the lounge to various points of interest as we pass them by. One of the most memorable is her pointing towards the shore and saying something like “…and there you can see the fishermen and the nits…” and it takes me a few moments of confusion as I consider what she meant to say, what and where are the “nits” and then I figure out that she really said and meant “nets”, but it just came out as “nits”. I’ll never forget this!
The exit into the Adriatic is indeed marked, as we were advised by our Captain, by pretty high waves and the ship, a flat bottomed, overgrown river boat really, handles the situation with reasonable aplomb but also with some alarming leaning from port to starboard and back, like a drunken…sailor? Since it is coffee time, and the coffee is being served only about 10 steps away from me, I hesitate before taking my chances with my titanium hips and go to the table to help myself. The crewmember minding the coffee and the cakes reproaches me kindly that he could have brought the coffee to my table, and I indeed ask him to do so with a refill or two.
The evening is dedicated to opera, or so we were advised. In truth, the mezzo-soprano who joined us for the evening, we assume from Padova, has a large and populist repertoire and sprinkles a few arias in between canzonette and Italian pop, all very entertaining for us all but not for the accompanist, we seems always surprised by the numbers chosen by the diva and rifles desperately through his music to find the right sheets, not always successfully it must be said, and then he improvises with aplomb, a beat or two behind the singer.
The evening ends with passengers, crew and Diva singing at the top of our lungs “Volare” for which the text was thoughtfully provided on paper with the logo of “La Certosa, antico ristorante, Firenze"(!). Did they come both all the way from Florence? Anyway, “Volare” won the first prize at the San Remo Festival in the year in which Josette and I were married and caries a heavy load of memories, so this is quite nice and touching. Probably because of the emotion I manage to turn over the candle on our table and start a small fire which I myself rapidly extinguish before drawing attention and suffering huge embarrassment, but the paper with the words of “Volare” is burnt a bit in one of the corners and, as I write these lines and I look at it, it reminds me of a very special moment. To Josette: “Ma io continuo a sognare negli occhi tuoi belli, che sono blu come un cielo trapunto di stelle”. Day 9.
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