Today was a travelling day for us as we said goodbye to Padua after a very happy stay at the “Grand Italia Hotel” which was not particularly grand but who looked after us very well indeed. We had a late checkout, enjoyed the air con in the room and eventually made our way to the station for the very short run to Venice.
It is the first time we have stayed on the Venice
island and it does make a huge difference. Our rather “boutique” room looks out on a canal, not a very grand canal, but a canal nevertheless! It also could only be reached by water-bus there being no road taxis on the island. We alighted at St Angelo stop on the Grand Canal after a very crowded and rather sweaty water-bus ride and began the hunt for the St Georgio Hotel. The best written maps of the lanes of Venice inevitably fail but ours lasted long enough to find someone to point us in the right direction and we were delighted to be reunited with air conditioning.
Initially appearing to be a Venezian backwater we were delighted that Moranda from Helloworld Belgrave had placed us in the heart of the San Marco shopping district just 10 minutes relatively straightforward walking to St Mark’s Square. The shopping lanes cheered up Ann immensely and immediately including much murano glass, clothing, amazing jewellery, air conditioned restaurants, paper and leather shops. Yes there was even a secondhand bookshop and even a stamp shop run by an 84 year old hard talking salesman who was a child in uniform when Mussolini ruled and proudly showed us the photograph. We stayed in the shops and the sun long enough to plot a course to St Mark’s Piazza then retreated to our room for siesta.
After dinner we went for a further wander looking at the Rialto Bridge in early evening light and watching the slightly embarrassed gondola dwellers as they passed under little bridges crowded with tourists.
We have just learned on BBC News that the heat will be with Italy for another week so we will have to maintain our current sun avoidance routine. It is at least getting down to a quite reasonable 35 degrees! and there is an ocean breeze in Venice which helps.
Today is our last full day in Padua and we have been chilling out trying to stay chilled in the 39 degree heat. We negotiated our way on to the city tram and bus system and took the tram to St Anthony’s Basilica, in the south of Padua. This is a vast seven domed cathedral (not even counting the high spire) which we visited five years ago and were in awe of its magnitude. Today it was different, knowing what to expect and having recently seen large basilicas in Rome and elsewhere. But it is still a monumentally large cathedral with a huge number of side chapels and one very large side chapel in honour of St Anthony (who, being committed to poverty I am sure must wonder what happened to his legacy!).
Today also there was a communion service about to start which we joined in with to the end of the Gospel reading. We have worshipped in many multilingual services over the years but usually with the help of earphone translation loops in Poland, English on screen in Rwanda, Verses sung in English and Japanese in Japan, and my very average French in New Caledonia. To be in Italy with no Italian at all and no English at all in the service was hard going and we pulled out at the end of the sermon which I presume was on the Gospel for the day which was from Matthew (the only word I understood in the reading). It certainly helped me to understand why migrant churches in our parishes have different services. To worship without meaning even in an extraordinary environment is very difficult as St Paul points out in 1 Corinthians when dealing with tongues.
Donatello’s huge bronze figures (six of them) still stand on the high altar and his amazing statue of the condotierre Gattamelata still keeps guard in the grounds of the Cathedral.
Coming out of the Cathedral we were able to join the hop on hop off bus and do the rounds of the whole city. It is a city of canals ( in one of which I observed an otter swimming) which reminds me how much of a sensation Mick Fanning’s victorious shark battle has been on BBC news…they keep replaying it day after day! The canals connect with the Adriatic and you can take a water taxi to Venice if you wish. Of course there are many other sensational and ancient churches which we could only see for short periods from the high bus eg The Chapel of San Giacomo (San Felice) – (which has five domes of its own) and the ancient Basilica of St Sophia. The Prato della Valle is a vast statue surrounded piazza between these two vast edifices and is apparently the largest piazza in Europe. We would love to have walked its perimeter but with no tall trees in 39degree heat that was not an option.
We trammed back to the city centre and tried to break our way into Padua University to see Galileo’s chair in the Astronomy Centre but were turned back by an armed guard who was unimpressed by my status of being an expert on Galileo having written a book on the subject!..we had to join a proper tour and there were none on offer in the time we had left. We had to be content with a seat at the Caffe Pedrochhi which opened in 1831 and became famous as the cafe that never closed its doors. It was certainly a nice place to escape from the engulfing heat for a very long lunch once again ..the gelato is to die for!
Enough is enough.. we are back in the air conditioned hotel…time for siesta.
I had an inauspicious beginning to my day by scoring almost full 9.9 points for my reverse inward pike with double twist starting from a standing position in the bath while showering and somehow, very soapy, ending up with a large bang on my back on the bathroom floor! I am still not sure how all this happened and even more uncertain how nothing was broken especially parts of me but I am very thankful that everything was ok! It could have been a very difficult end to a promising career as an Italian art tour guide that I have been working on lately.
Today we tackled the local railway system again with a journey to Vicenza, the closest large town west of Padua. The trick was that there were trains every five minutes to Venice but nothing towards the West until 11.40am. We filled in the time by having a No 1 haircut for me in a local salon in which I was their first male customer! Perhaps a new trend for Padua! We then visited the local parish Catholic church which was built by the Jesuits in 1921, a red brick building almost Orthodox in initial appearance with a very simple attractive interior (definitely no Baroque!)
Vicenza seems to be a city “owned” and designed by the C16th architect Palladio. He designed over 20 major buildings in the city including a number of massive villas in the surrounding hills for wealthy families. If in our travels there is a line in consistent elegance for Italian cities for me it would run Bologna -> Padua -> Lucca -> Vicenza, although I am sure there are many other cities I have never seen that should be in this list including Ferrara. Palladio was totally committed to reintroducing classical style so they are in abundance in Vicenza, columns, ionic and corinthian capitals, triangular pediments, large rectangular piazzas, colonnades everywhere (covered verandahs) and massive high towers, loggias and statues, statues, statues everywhere, all in white.
Kenneth Clark comments in Civilisation on the influence of Palladio on English architecture including the Bank of England building, St Paul’s Cathedral and many other major English structures built by Wren and others after the fire of London. It is not uncommon in Australian cities also. He also comments at length on Palladio’s last building the Teatro Olimpico ..a wonderful theatre with tromp l’ceil effects that are quite deceptive. Unfortunately for us we were in Vicenza on a Monday when pretty well everything in the city is closed but even from the outside the building is interesting and attractive.
We wandered the streets, once more in oppressive heat, in awe of the architectural proportion and beauty all around us. The massive civic Palazzo Chiericati; the equally massive and domed Cathedrale di Piazza Duomo; the huge Basilica Palladiana which is actually not a church at all but the local meeting place for business and town government with offices over elegant shops in the loggia below; the extraordinary unusually red marbled Loggia del Capitaniato and church after church with elegant faces to the street too many to mention.
We returned to the almost equally elegant Padua (although a city with much more of an “edge” and felt very privileged to experience human commitment to architectural excellence in so many different ways.
Sunday 19th July Today we decided to defeat the heat by travelling in (mostly) air-conditioned local trains to the ancient city of Mantua, changing trains at Verona of Romeo and Juliet fame. Mantua is a world heritage site for its amazing palaces, old city centre, impressive churches (an early C4th mausoleum church, a huge domed duomo (currently being restored), and early St Barbara’s, closely related to the Ducal Palace of the Gonzaga Family.
Our goal was to see both the Ducal Palace (which is now also a museum and art gallery) but also the “Camera degli Sposi” = “bridal chamber” which is located alongside the palace within the impressive Castle of St George and which contains some very well preserved paintings by Mantegna, a particular favourite of mine. Negotiating the local train system was no simple matter because once again English is very scarce everywhere; having finally obtained our tickets we happily jumped on to our train to Verona only to find, after we changed trains at Verona that we should have validated our tickets before boarding. We were lucky to not be checked on the first half of our journey because we have met fellow travellers who were instantly fined on the spot by card payment of 80 Euro for not validating so we have learned that lesson.
Mantua is right away from the tourist trade so getting off the train after a four hour journey including waiting at stations was only half the battle. There were no taxis or buses and no signs to old town so we set off in hope and were assisted by English tourists with a map. Again the temperature was high 30s. The effort was worth it because the town centre deserves its world heritage status. We first found the little circular mausoleum church which is perhaps one of the earliest Christian churches in Europe and secondly the Romanesque St Barbara’s Church closely associated with the Ducal Palace of the Gonzagas.
The Camera degli Sposi (Bridal Chamber) is a small room in the middle of the Castle of St George adjacent to the Ducal Palace. The room is surrounded by frescoes by Mantegna which involve various celebrations involving the Gonzaga family. Mantegna as ever paints with impressive realism for an early C15th painter and the character of the individuals in his paintings comes through with shining clarity. The ceiling of the small room is based on the Roman pantheon, “open to the sky” with an “oculus” which tries to give a tromp l’ceil impression of a hole in the roof. The Castle also contained an impressive collection of porcelain and bronzes donated by one Freddi, a wealthy collector.
The Ducal Palace itself is a massive structure with four storeys, huge halls and countless large apartments. The palace is now filled with rich tapestries, paintings, and mediaeval artefacts from Mantua and all over Italy. A key feature is the quality of the ceiling paintings which are all original to the palace. We visited almost 40 rooms and were museumed out in the finish. A third component of the Ducal Palace is an exceptional collection of gardens (mostly large trees and perennial shrubs). A huge elm tree garden sheltered many weary visitors in the heat and a “hanging garden” of manicured shrubs also drew applause as did a secluded “four plane tree” garden.
We were glad to have made the effort and the palace was a cool place to be temperature wise as well. We were not looking forward to the long walk back to the station and hired what we thought was a taxi driving through the square of the palace and asked to be driven to the station. The driver seemed taken aback but agreed to take us and only as we approached the station did it dawn on me that it was not a taxi at all but just a very obliging older Mantuan man who was probably coming home from mass. We were very embarrassed and he was very polite and helpful and thought it was very funny being hijacked by two sweaty Australian tourists. As it happens his help enabled us to gain an earlier return train and an equally helpful conductor ignored our non validated ticket and told us how to get on to an express back to Padua. All in all we got back in record time feeling that God had really been looking out for us.
Saturday 18th July Our day began with a visit to the Scrovegni Chapel to see the Giotto frescoes in the Capella Chapel and the Civico Museum. The history of Western Art seems to have begun with Giotto and I have long wanted to see this work although I note that Ruskin gives first place to the French craftsmen who created the tracery and patterns for the Gothic cathedrals culminating in Chartres and Amiens. The Capella Chapel was larger than it looks in photographs and the frescoes are well preserved except in the old sanctuary. They tell a very clear Biblical story with no additional legendary material and cover every inch of the walls and ceilings although the ceiling is a simple night sky. In addition Giotto has represented the major Christian virtues and vices as individual figures in large paintings on each side of the chapel beneath the Biblical frescoes.
No photography was permitted and we were only given 15 minutes in a group of 25 but it was a quiet and cool place and we had been well prepared by a 15 minute film with English subtitles. They even accepted a seniors half price which was a first on our tour. The Museum is an excellent collection of ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek monuments and jewellery and funerary caskets and an excellent art gallery with works by Bellini, Donatello and Mantegna. Next door is the ancient church of the Eremites also with frescoes from Mantegna in the Ovetari chapel. This church and the frescoes were badly damaged by allied bombing in 1944 and the frescoes have been restored by following black and white photographs. It is interesting that “The martyrdom of St James” that so deeply impressed Proust on one of his few journeys outside France, can no longer be seen in the original although the reproductions are still very impressive, scattered as they are with “bits” of the originals and two still complete originals.
After this visit we found a cool place for lunch then retreated from the intense 38 degree heat to the hotel and had a siesta. We emerged at 5.30pm and wandered through the stately and elegant streets of Padua old town where crowds were building but nothing like Rome. We found the Duomo which was not finished on the outside and a curious mixture of stages and styles. The inside however was lavishly decorated and again clearly a worshipping congregation with clergy getting ready for a service and for the next day’s Sunday services. In the main sanctuary modern very artistic fittings had replaced the traditional architecture and the difference was refreshing after so much Renaissance architecture.
From Tuscan Arezzo to Byzantine Ravenna to the University town of Padua
Friday 17th July
My rather mythological view of Tuscany has been broadened by climbing up through the forests of Montepulciano, the mountains north of Sanselpolcro and the more developed hill top towns like Cortona. We came to love wandering through Arezzo’s hard working narrow streets, churches and shops and knew that by travelling north we would be re-entering the more hard nosed twenty first century go go world of northern Italy.
Following the eastern track north we came to two ancient Byzantine churches in Ravenna both named after C2nd missionary teacher Appolonius. The first in the quiet suburb of Classe is a C5th survivor built about the same time as the much loved San Vitale. This church has had many additions including an C8th crypt which has resulted in the sanctuary being lifted substantially and now reached by twelve broad stairs making its appearance almost like a stage. The mosaic ceiling is notable for its large collection of sheep, the single hand of God and the significant Old Testament influence represented by Moses and Elijah. The wooden roof is supported by two lines of corinthian columns and apart from a tomb of Appolonius in the centre and a series of sarcophagi the church looks quite empty compared with the intensity of Baroque Roman churches. There is still clearly a worshipping community in this church which was really encouraging.
In Ravenna itself is another probably C6th church of St Appolonius built after the city walls of Ravenna had been reduced leaving Classe out in the cold. This church, again with impressive mosaics, felt much more like a museum than a worshipping community. It was built in the period of Arian dominance in Ravenna. The style was very similar to the original church in Classe including the tower.
We had a good run into Padua and found our hotel in the heart of town easily. Finding the Avis office was far less simple and although we were close all afternoon with all the one way streets it took quite a protracted effort (would you believe 3 hours) to find the office and drop off the car. We are looking forward to exploring this ancient university town of Padua and the surrounding cities.
It keeps getting hotter and hotter in Southern Italy and today we relaxed in Arezzo, sleeping in, lying about, having a long lunch in a delightful restaurant in old town and doing some shopping. The heat looks like staying around so we will have to adapt as well as we can.
Today we spent 45 minutes trying to buy a shower cap in Arezzo for Ann only to find two of them in a special pack in our hotel bathroom. After solving this problem we ventured back into old Arezzo to find Georgio Vasari’s house where he cared for his wife and extended family but unfortunately had no children of his own. The four storey house has a rooftop extended garden and all of the rooms including the ceiling were painted by Vasari himself as well as a considerable number of the paintings on the walls. The House is now a beautiful art gallery and attracts many visitors.
After this peaceful place we rejoined the tourist throng first tackling the Arezzo -Florence- Lucca freeways which the Mercedes-Benz loved and was only defeated by the odd Audi and Maserati!
I was determined not to be impressed by the “miraculous tower” as it is called especially as the parking was horrendous and we would have given it away except for the excellent assistance of two Senegalese souvenir salesmen who gave us fantastic support to find and then park our very small car. Right hand drive parallel parking into a very tight space was not something I learned in driving school! We were happy to reward them for their efforts. So when in the 37 degree heat we walked the narrow pathway towards the “Miracle Piazza” I was, as ever, overcome by the sight of the towering white and grey marble Duomo towering above the skyline. To then come into the piazza and see the gleaming marble leaning tower was indeed breathtaking. I had always wanted to see the Renaissance front of the Duomo and was not disappointed.
We then drove the beautiful 17kms through the hills to Lucca which is a stunning and elegant walled town unlike any we have seen in Tuscany. The streets are relatively wide and the houses are uniformly well maintained and stylish surrounding vast squares celebrating Garibaldi, Puccini and many others. We were expecting another burnt orange hill top town. We found an elegant italian city closer to Bath than Arezzo. An ancient Gothic cathedral with an extraordinary painted ceiling was a plus as was the equally fine Renaissance basilica with very simple internal decoration.
The freeway run home to Arezzo was just 80 minutes and a tribute to Italy’s ability to move many cars and even more trucks! over long distances in quick time
Tuesday 14 July We had a lazy start this morning following an amazing Tuscan buffet dinner at our Hotel (Hotel Etrusco) in Arezzo. The Tuscan style food was seriously seductive and as always Tuscan rosso is a nice drop. Once we finally took off in the Mercedes Benz we were much more confident and the satNav is now also making much more sense for us. We continued the hunt for Piero della Francesca paintings heading first to the tiny village of Monterchi where the quite famous “Madonna del Porto” (a pregnant and very serious Mary supported by two identical angels ) used to sit in the tiny parish church. The church is now closed and the painting has its own impressive dedicated museum and presentation on the art of fresco painting in general together with an excellent movie in English which turned out to be a helpful picture of C15th Italy politically as well as artistically.
Monterchi is my vision of the true Tuscany…golden and green and productive fields, a farmer working alone with traditional machinery making hay, rivers, mountains, hilltop homes, quiet apart from cicadas, sun beating down…we had to come back once more…it weaves a spell that makes a permanent impact. (on me anyway!)
From there we journeyed to Sansepolcro, della Francesca’s birthplace (nearby in mediaeval Borgo). Here in the Museo Civico they have several Francesca paintings including a triptych altarpiece the centre piece of which (Jesus’ baptism by John) is in the National Gallery London. The major work here is the resurrection of Christ of which we could only view half! because of a restoration process going on. We arrived in the middle of a very lively private discussion (though we could hear it all in Italian) between the artists involved in the restoration as to how far to proceed. As with the other Mary painting in the Museo Civica della Francesca painted in his own portrait into the Resurrection scene (in this case one of the sleeping disciples.) Sansepolcro has at least two very impressive basilicas. A massive early Romanesque cathedral with typically huge pillars and a very simple basilica in honour of St Francis.
Here our Piero della Francesca pilgrimage finishes until London! After a shared and very delicious pizza in Sansepolcro we travelled south again to the hilltop town of Cortona made very famous by the books of Frances May starting with “Under the Tuscan Sun”. Cortona is a very well to do place with many upmarket homes and a huge tourist community no doubt much influenced by May’s books. We drove up to the gate of the old town but did not venture in although I am sure there would be much to see.
I was keen to move on to Montepulciano to revisit the amazing Renaissance church of San Biago which sits outside the old town walls high on its own patch overlooking a vast countryside which seems to last forever. We were last in Montepulciano with the Andrzejewskis and the Sheumacks some years ago and we had driven over from San Gimignano and had not enough time to have a close look at this church which is the cover plate for many books on Tuscan landscape. It is a majestic, beautifully formed building. It is a perfect example of Ruskin’s view that five things only matter in architecture ( form, proportion, beauty, curvature and colour). (in his preface to “The Two Paths”) Our photo does not do this brilliant Renaissance architecture justice. It is place of immense peace, beauty and faith. I was very glad to spend time in the church and Ann will be pleased not to hear about it again!