Visiting: Cappella degli Scrovegni

ARTIST: Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267 - 1337)

ARTWORK: Cappella degli Scrovegni (The Arena Chapel)

DATE: 1303 - 1305


LOCATION: Padua, Italy (Padova)


This post will describe Giotto's adornment of a commissioned familial chapel. The chapel structure itself is nothing but a long, tall and plain rectangular box. However, Giotto's painted imagery transforms it into something that feels like an architectural wonder steeped in spiritual reverence. Giotto was perhaps the Western world's first "superstar" artist. His legacy of naturalism coupled with relatable human emotion was comprehended and admired by both elite patrons and commoners alike.

GETTING THERE: Padova is a regular train stop on a Milan-to-Venice route, and a very short train ride from Venice. Once in Padova, it is a short and easy walk from the train station to the Chapel area. The train station in Padova is clean and user friendly. To walk to the Chapel, simply exit the front of the train station and look for a busy street called Corso del Puopolo - it leads away from the station. Walk for about 8 minutes down Puopolo. You will cross a bridge - keep walking. Soon, on your left, you will walk past the chapel and some Roman ruins which consist of a series of notable arches. Informational signage will then be visible. Turn off by these signs and walk away from the road and back towards the museum/store to check in.

TO VISIT: Buy tickets in advance:

If visiting during the summer, the likelihood a ticket will be available without a reservation is slim to none. I bought my ticket online about one month in advance and gave my receipt to the receptionist in the gift gallery (separate from the chapel) when I arrived. He printed out an official ticket and then directed me to coat check where I left my bag, as nothing is allowed in the chapel besides a camera (no flash allowed!). I then walked outside and followed a brick path (turning right) over to the chapel and waited with other tourists for entry.

For conservation reasons, the entry both into and out of the chapel is regimented and strictly timed. Though I adhered to dress protocol by wearing a dress with a hemline below my knees and covered my shoulders with a shawl, most of the other participants were casually dressed and no dress code seemed to be enforced.

Here is the path up to the chapel from the museum/gift store:

Here is the entry area. Our group waited outside until the doors were opened for us and we were directed to sit and watch a movie and "de-humidify":

When the chapel was first built, it was sandwiched between a palace AND an ancient Roman arena (hence the name "Arena" chapel). The palace is no longer there.

Palace Chapel Roman Arena

During my visit in June of 2016, the Roman arena was being renovated and was under wraps (notice arch and white fabric on your left = arena). I've included a few more images of the arena, too:

Also note the covered windows below. Time, war, and nature play havoc on fragile items. Apparently this building was originally covered with stucco.

The original chapel had two entrance doors - a front door for the public and a side door for the elite. This chapel was likely only open to the public on certain holidays. Today everybody enters through the side (elite) doors. There are no windows on this side of the chapel as it is the side that was once connected to the palace. This entrance helps readers to easily follow the pictorial narrative Giotto presents readers with.

Upon entry, the first thing I saw (immediately to my left) was the apse which contains faded wall imagery, a tomb, alter, and sculptures made by Giovani Pisano. The commissioner of this chapel, Enrico Scrovengni, built this for his tomb though he did not die in Padua, as he was actually banished from Padua and died in Venice in 1336. His remains were eventually returned to Padua and are now housed here.

On the other end of the chapel are the public's main entrance doors. Above the doors is a large painting of the "Last Judgment." [Note the carpet protecting the marble patterned floor.]

The "Last Judgement"

Detail of "Last Judgement" (the hell side!)

Interestingly, the person who commissioned the chapel was a banker named Enrico. Enrico's father, Reginaldo, was also a banker who bequeathed his fortune to his son. The famous poet Dante (who was a fan and friend of Giotto) was such a critic of Reginaldo that he had placed him in the Seventh Circle of Hell via his "Inferno" for practicing the sin of usury. Indeed, Reginaldo's transgressions were so offensive to the Church that he was denied a Christian burial. [Note: taking interest on a loan was legal, however, it was listed as sinful in the Bible.] Many people speculate the building of this chapel was a way for Enrico to atone for the familial sins of usury.

Enrico is featured in the "Last Judgment" scene (see below - he is dressed in a pink cloak on the Blessed side of the judgment). In the scene, Enrico is kneeling and and presenting a model of the Chapel to the Virgin Mary and two saints (John the Evangelist and Catherine of Alexandria?)

Allegedly, Giotto also painted himself into the Blessed scene. He is the fifth person from the left in the bottom row of spectators (with the yellow hat):

The genius of the Chapel lies in the narrative's layout: Giotto arranged 38 panels of the different New Testament scenes chronologically, in horizontal bands. Mary's life appears first, followed by the life and ministry of Jesus, and finally culminating in scenes depicting the Passion. However, when the bands are read vertically, viewers will be struck to realize that each scene foreshadows the next.

All of the scenes are separated by faux marble banding. Though many of these architectural features seem 3-D, they are actually flat - just painted to look "real!"

The bottom of the panels feature seven "vices" vs. "virtues." The canon of Christian principles during the Middle Ages was made up with seven vices (Desperation/ Envy/ Infidelity/ Injustice/ Wrath/ Inconstancy/ Foolishness) and seven virtues (Prudence/ Fortitude/ Temperance/ Justice/ Faith/ Charity/ Hope). Giotto places the virtues along the side of the Chapel that has windows as a symbolic gesture of light vs. darkness.

The image shown below is titled "Faith." Note the dimensionality of the sculptural figure and how eloquently Giotto is developing the human form in a naturalistic manner.

Here are a few images of other random details found in the Chapel:

Everybody leaves the Chapel with a favorite panel. Mine is the "Lamentation of Christ." Here I am struck by the human element of deep grief that is shown on every face and slumped body -- including the ten hovering cherubs above the main event. Though I could not get close enough to see if there are any tears present on the painted faces, the informational movie I watched before entering the Chapel mentioned that Giotto was the first to paint them.

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