Visiting the Stunning Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, a Day Trip From Venice
Giotto frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel
Wallpapered with exquisite frescos by Giotto, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is one of the world's greatest art works. Giotto painted a cycle of 39 frescos depicting the lives of Mary and Jesus in 1303-05. It's a precious masterpiece of Italian art, as stunning in person as the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
Giotto was the greatest painter of the 14th century. His Scrovegni frescos were a watershed moment in art history. The chapel is considered one of the first examples of "modern art" and profoundly influenced subsequent Renaissance painters.
Visiting the Scrovegni Chapel can be a complicated affair. But it's a perfect day trip from Venice and well worth the effort. In this guide, I tell you all about the Scrovegni Chapel and why you should visit it. And I give you tips and tricks for planning your visit.
the exterior of the Scrovegni Chapel
History of the Scrovegni Chapel
The Scrovegni Chapel was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni in 1303. The Scrovegni family were well known usurers. Or, to put it more politely, bankers. They loaned money at rather high interest rates (like 25%). The Catholic church condemned this practice.
Because of their disreputable profession, the Scrovegni family was the victim of negative publicity. In Dante's The Divine Comedy, Reginaldo Scrovegni was singled out by name in one of Dante's circles of hell.
Legend holds that, to ameliorate the family reputation and expiate their sins, Enrico Scrovegni decided to build the Scrovegni Chapel, adjacent to the family palace. It was the type of redemptive "good work" that helped earn entry to heaven.
But ... this is likely an apocryphal tale, repeated over and over until it became canon. The Scrovegni Chapel was built and painted between 1303-05. Dante's book was written between 1308-20. It's more likely that Dante, who was friends with Giotto, took his shot at Reginaldo Scrovegni later, perhaps after seeing the lavish chapel that usury begot.
the star studded ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel
Giotto de Bondone, Proto-Reanisssance Genius
In any event, Scrovegni hired the well known artist Giotto de Bondone to paint frescos on every wall. Some art historians speculate that Giotto may also have designed the building, it's so perfectly scaled for paintings.
Giotto's frescos were radical at the time. He was the first artist to break away from stylized and formulaic medieval art. He ditched the gray and gold religious iconography and used vivid colors.
More importantly, Giotto painted real people in 3D scenes from everyday life. He replaced the mask-like faces prevalent in Gothic art with expressive faces. Giotto's characters exude emotion -- tension, reverence, astonishment, anger, joy, and even introspection.
You might almost forget you were looking at religious art, his frescos are so personal and powerful. One imagines the parishioners identified with Giotto's heartfelt depiction of biblical stories.
detail from the Presentation of Mary
Renaissance luminaries all studied and admired Giotto's Scrovegni frescos, including Leonardo, Michelangelo, Masaccio, and Raphael. Michelangelo was likely influenced by Giotto when he painted his own The Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.
In 2004, over the course of eight months, Giotto's magnificent frescos were restored to remove salts that were rising to the surface and prevent further paint loss.
There was very little damage, given their age. Where the plaster had pealed away, the restorers just added some gray paint. The colors, now vibrant, are Giotto's original paint.
Reading the Giotto Frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel
Once inside the chapel, you'll be awed and transfixed. Almost like a comic book, Giotto's frescos tell a continuous story in almost cinematic fashion. The narrative is clear and easy to read. This was important, as most people were illiterate in the 14th century.
The Annunciation is at one end of the nave, with The Last Judgment at the other end. The frescos are neatly arranged in three horizontal tiers, effectively divided into a trilogy: (1) the life of Mary (top register) (2), the life of Jesus (middle register), and (3) the Passion of Christ (top register). You read them clockwise top to bottom, in a sort of spiral. Each scene foreshadows the next.
In between the scenes are tromp l'oeil faux marble panels. They look like inlaid marble. But they're paintings too. The ceiling is likewise painted, a star studded blue sky with images of Jesus and Mary.
Mary learning that she will be a mother, in the right side of the altar arch
The Narrative Cycle of Giotto's Epoch-Making Frescos
1. The Annunciation
Above the chancel arch of the altar, Giotto painted the Annunciation. God calls the Archangel Gabriel to his side. He sends Gabriel to Mary to tell her that she'll bear Jesus. God's image is painted on a wooden panel inserted into the wall.
If we look to Mary and the angel, they're in an architectural space. Significantly, it's an earthly, not a divine, setting.
2. The Last Judgment
At the other end of the nave is The Last Judgment. The fresco depicts the apocalyptic moment when the world ends. Jesus decides who will go to heaven and who will be banished to hell. Giotto's painting is a somewhat more benevolent rendition of this classic religious moment.
Giotto's massive fresco, The Last Judgment
Jesus sits in the middle in judgement, with a full body halo. He focuses on the saved, not the damned, whom angels escort to heaven. Jesus is surrounded by tiny mirrors set into the plaster, causing his face to light up when sunlight pours through the windows.
Hell is somewhat smaller than usually depicted. But it's still violent, perhaps inspired by Dante. One sinner is being roasted alive on a spit. Usurers are being hung with bags of money. Below the usurers hangs a disgraced Judas. And there are clergy in hell too, including a pope.
You can see nude figures rising out of coffins to be judged. A nice touch is the two angels at the top rolling up the sky, indicating that the show is over.
the "heaven" side of The Last Judgment
detail from "hell" showing Judas hanging
an angel rolling up the sky
3. Fresco Cycle of the Life of Mary
You begin "reading" the fresco story with a scene of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna. They have both just received news that, after years of infertility, they will have a child. In the Meeting at the Golden Gate, the pair come together in a warm embrace.
Such an emotional scene, complete with a kiss, had never been shown before in a religious painting. It's poignant and human. You can see the couple's happiness.
The hug symbolizes two people coming together as one. To put a caveat on the happiness, a female dressed in black hovers, ominously foreshadowing the dire events to come.
Meeting at the Golden Gate
The next scene is the Presentation of Mary. The "Golden Legend" holds that Mary was so beautiful and virtuous that she had myriad suitors. So a contest for her hand was held.
Suitors brought rods for the gods to examine. Joseph won the contest when his rod magically turned into a lily. Giotto depicts the losers as fairly pissed off.
Next you see scenes of Mary's marriage to Joseph. It's unclear whether this part of the story took place before or after the Annunciation.
the Marriage Procession
4. Fresco Cycle of the Life of Christ
Giotto then turns his attention to scenes from the life of Christ. The first scene is the Nativity, where we see (rather comically) a sleeping Joseph, exhausted from the day's events. There are frescos showing the Adoration of the Magi, The Flight into Egypt, and the Slaughter of the Innocents.
In the Flight From Egypt, Christ is shown riding a donkey. Spectators are shown taking off their coats in respect. If you look at Christ, you'll see some blue is missing.
The blue wasn't painted in buon fresco. Scrovegni didn't want the blue brilliance of lapis lazuli mixed with plaster. So, instead Giotto painted it in secco fresco, or dry fresco, which is less durable. Sadly, much of the lapis blue is now gone.
You also see the story of Herod, King of Judea. When he learns that a child has been born who will be the new king, he attempts to hunt down the newborn. When Jesus isn't identified, Herod decides to slaughter all newborn male babies in the vicinity of Bethlehem.
Giotto doesn't show the actual violence. Rather, he provides a suggestion of violence that has occurred. Naturally, the mothers are distraught over the fate of their children.
Slaughter of the Innocents
Jesus on the Flight to Egypt
Continuing the life of Christ on the other side of the chapel, you first see Christ Among the Elders, where Jesus talks religious theory in a temple. The Wedding Feast at Cana is also a riveting story. Mary and Jesus are at a wedding feast. But the host, rather embarrassingly, runs out of wine.
Mary asks Jesus to fix the problem with his miraculous powers. Jesus and Joseph had planned a different public outing of his power. But Jesus accedes to Mary's request. The lesson is "obey your mother."
So Jesus turns the water into wine. A rather chubby wine taster approaches the vat to taste the conjured wine. This is reputedly a self portrait of Giotto.
The next scene is the Raising of Lazarus. When Jesus' friend Lazarus dies when he is away, his sister pleads for Jesus' help. Jesus opens Lazarus' tomb and raises him from the dead. Giotto renders the scene in an emotional way. You can almost see the people about to react to the expected stench.
the climactic Kiss of Judas
5. Fresco Cycle of the Passion of Christ
On the lowest tier, you see frescos of the last week of Christ's life and its aftermath, know as the Passion of Christ. The first vignette features Judas, taking 30 silver pieces to betray Christ to the Roman authorities. Judas is dressed in yellow, which is a sign of evil.
The next scene is The Last Supper, a classic Renaissance subject. In Giotto's version, unlike other, no one is looking at the viewer. Jesus announces to his apostles that he will betrayed, anticipating and permitting the betrayal.
The next scene is one of my favorites, The Kiss of Judas, also called The Arrest of Christ. It's a powerful and dramatic painting, a full sensory experience with torches raised. Judas arrives with soldiers. Rather than simply pointing to Jesus, Judas places his yellow clad arm on Jesus and identifies him by kissing him.
Christ is shown in resigned acceptance, prepared to be a sacrificial lamb. Jesus and Judas look each other straight in the eye. The kiss gives the scene a godfather-esque quality. It's all the more horrible that betrayal comes with a show of affection.
Next, you see the Carrying of the Cross and The Crucifixion. The comes the Lamentation, which is generally considered Giotto's best painting in the Scrovegni Chapel. Christ has been crucified. His lifeless body is taken down from the cross. Mary tenderly holds her dead son.
The painting is a tour de force of emotion. The sadness of the scene is palpable. People experience emotion in different ways -- some are shocked and in disbelief, some grief stricken, and others quietly mourn. A barren tree symbolizes death and the hope of rebirth.
Giotto simplifies the background and puts the emphasis on the figures. Mary Magdalene tends to his feet with a sense of care. In a real instance of naturalism, Giotto places two figures with their backs to the viewer, something that had never have been done in painting. It has the effect of bringing the viewer into the painting.
close up of a very dead Jesus and an an anguished Mary in the Lamentation
Another beautiful painting is the Resurrection. Jesus waves away Mary because he is not yet risen. The look on Mary's face is incredible. She reaches out almost desperately, a look of hope in her eyes.
Jesus is at the edge of the frame, suggesting he's trying to run away. But there's still a look of kindness on his face, befitting a reunion.
In the Ascension, Christ is taken up to heaven in a halo. The apostles below watch in admiration. In an incredibly realistic and intuitive touch, Giotto paints the apostles shielding their eyes from the sun. Touches like these are what distinguish Giotto's work from the semi-divine world of Gothic-Byzantine painting.
apostles gazing up at Jesus in the Ascension
5. Paintings of the 7 Virtues and 7 Vices
On each side of the chapel below the panels of the Passion of Christ, you see what almost look like relief sculptures. But they're not. They're paintings of the 7 virtues and the 7 vices, one set along each side of the chapel.
The Vices are the more interesting. Inconstancy stands on a rotating disk on a sloped surface, exuding a sense of perpetual unsteadiness. The figure of Envy is shown with huge distorted ears. A snake emerges from her mouth about to gash her eye.
the vice of Envy
How Do You get To the Scroegni Chapel?
The Scrovegni Chapel is a small church located in Padua or Padova. It's also known as the Arena Chapel because it's close to an ancient Roman amphitheater.
It's located 45 kilometers from Venice. You can get there by bus, which takes 1-1.5 hours.
But it's easiest to get to Padua by train. Trains leave every 30 minutes from the Venezia S. Lucia station. It's a 23 minute train ride and then a 10 minute walk to the chapel after you arrive in Padua.
How Do You Make Reservations and Buy Tickets?
You have to make a timed entry reservation to visit the Scrovegni Chapel. Buy tickets online here. There are no refunds. If you're late, you won't be let in. You have to make a reservation at least 24 hours in advance. Same day reservations aren't permitted.
If you made a reservation but didn't purchase your tickets online, pick them up at the Eremitani Civic Museum about 100 meters from the chapel. Arrive at the museum 30 minutes or so in advance.
Lucifer in hell in The Last Judgment
What To Expect When Visiting the Scrovegni Chapel
Because the 700 year old chapel is fragile, only 25 people can see the frescos at one time. This is similar to the restrictions put on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Super.
Proceed to the chapel entrance and wait in line there. When it's your group's turn, you'll be shuttled into a climate controlled decontamination unit for 20 minutes. The chamber "cleans" you of impurities and "dehumidifies" you so that you won't contaminate the painting. Yes, humans are the biggest threat to art.
Try to be at the far end of the unit. When the doors open, you'll be the first to go through two more air locks and then into the chapel.
You only get 15-20 minutes inside the chapel (depending on what month you made the reservation in), so you want to make every moment count. While you're being decontaminated, you'll see a short video about the content and preservation of the Scrovegni Chapel.
scene from the life of Joachim
When you enter the chapel, you'll be in a confined corridor, so that you don't touch the frescos. Head straight to the end of the nave to first admire The Last Judgment. You'll see a devotional portrait of Enrico Scrovegni handing the chapel to three Marys, just over the entrance on the side of the blessed.
If you want longer than 20 minutes in the chapel (who wouldn't?), it's possible to buy back to back timed entry tickets. This way, while your first group is being shuttled out, you'll have Giotto's masterpiece all to yourself for a few glorious minutes.
I honestly enjoyed this more than seeing the Sistine Chapel. It's on a somewhat smaller scale. And you also aren't just crushed by hordes of visitors. I suspect that the Sistine Chapel will one day have to shift to a limited visitor + decontamination type of viewing.
devotional portrait of Enrico Scrovegni handing the chapel to three Marys
Other Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Scrovegni Chapel