Around Northern Italy in a Fiat Panda

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The Contessa and the Commendatore Visit the Home Country

Wednesday Oct. 17: Torgiano ⇒ Padova

food & lodging

Food & lodging notes

K I sought to buy a Le Tre Vassele ashtray and the concierge waved away my money. One of the few places we’ve been where the staff and the entire communist party hq, peruga setup conspire to accommodate the whims of guests. Guess that’s what 5 stars means.

After breakfast, on the road to Padova. A long and trying drive, made interesting by 30 mi. of twisty mountain 2-lane road, which we traversed buried in a convoy of trucks, across the top of Emilia-Romagna. A singularly graceless province, the eastern anchor of the Red Belt (as in Communist).

In the non-freeway stretch we saw a number of signs for a truffle festival somewhere ahead. The signs were long and complicated, and we had glean their meaning by reading a little more each time we encountered one. We were ready to make a detour for such a bit of serendipity, but alas the festival was being held on the previous weekend and the next one.

K We had a fine, spacious, quiet, cheap lunch in an autostrada cafe past Cesena (Lou was right). The stretch of the A14 from Cesena (Ravenna) to Bologna has nothing to recommend it, beyond the above-mentioned cafe and its brethren. We were packed solid in two lanes and linear kilometers of trucks as we approached Bologna; unable even to read signs, let alone to change lanes. For once the relentlessly efficient autostrada signage system broke down. We managed somehow to get ourselves on the A13 to Padova from the bowels of this Elizabeth-New-Jersey hell.

On into Padova:

A We found the Hotel Milano not quite by chance.
K The weakest part of the otherwise admirable Red Guide system is that it doesn’t help you enough getting into and out of town.
A We got settled and set off on foot for the centro citta. Walked straight for the Capella Scrovegni [which houses frescos by Giotto] — as wonderful as we had imagined. The grave presence of the figures is striking. Restoration work is being carried on in the apse and in the archway of the apse. Walked back to the hotel looking for a restaurant; no luck. We changed and ventured out again in the car (it was raining hard) for Casa Veneta, recommended in both Red and Bantam.

Padova is a forthright sort of a place. Unlike Firenze or Venezia it’s not overrun by tourists, so the life you see is the life of the people who live there. Padova was once walled; the walls survive in some places, but not all the way around. Many of the massive gates (porta) still stand. A once-pervasive system of canals has left a few remnants. There are Roman ruins and traces of the people who were indigenous before Roman times. The university dates from 1299. In the center of the old city many streets are colonnaded: the sidewalks run inside arched, roofed extensions of the buildings.

Padova is surely not on hard times, but it’s not bustling to bursting the way Milano is. A number of the colonnaded buildings on our route from hotel to centro are unoccupied. An outsider’s guess at the Italians’ attitude towards them goes like this: “Well, we’re not using this building just now. It’s been happily occupied for five centuries, we’ll just let it take a rest. We’ll use it again some day. It’s not going anywhere, and neither are we.” The result is that that vacant buildings do not contribute to a feeling of abandonment, of a neighborhood on the way down. There are no bouquets of desperate For Sale signs; there is no vandalism; the buildings do not look run-down. One feels perfectly safe walking here. There is life on the streets until late in the evening.

In two weeks, twelve hundred miles, five cities and ten towns, we never saw a single person with a threatening aspect or felt unsafe walking about. Try that in USA.

That first afternoon we set out on a beeline for the Capella Scrovegni, also called the Arena Chapel because it’s built beside a Roman amphitheater. The chapel houses frescos painted by Giotto and his school in 1302-04. Alice has known and loved these works for decades; the frescoes are a towering landmark in the development of realism in Renaissance art. (They predate Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel frescos by a century and a quarter.) I first became aware of them through an article in Scientific American in May 1979. It seems that in his nativity painting Giotto had represented the Star of Bethlehem as a quite lifelike and detailed comet. This had never been done before in Western art. The art historian Roberta Olson proposed that the comet depicted was in fact Halley’s Comet, which Giotto had presumably observed in its spectacular visitation of 1301. (Edmund Halley calculated the comet’s orbit from observing its appearance in 1682, and connected it with “great” comets seen in 1607 and 1531. He had no recourse to historical artifacts such as Giotto’s painting.)

Seeing these marvelous works was one of the high points of the trip. The conditions were not the best: late afternoon gathering darkness and noisy workmen busily restoring. But in this one chapel the worlds of art, religion, and science meet. The survival and restoration of the frescos through WWII (the entire chapel was filled to the roof and covered with sandbags, and took some direct hits by Allied bombs) only adds to their allure.

The entrance wall is completely covered with a Last Judgement. One gets the impression that the young men working in Giotto’s studio particularly enjoyed creating these hellishly graphic scenes, as they apparently enjoyed the latter half of the Virtues and Vices cycle that runs around the base of the chapel, beneath the biblical frescos.

On the way out we stopped into an antiquary museum next to the Arena Chapel and wandered mostly uncomprehending among relics from the pre-Roman indigenous people. The problem was that the labels on the exhibits were in Italian only, and were quite complicated and technical.

On the way back from the Arena we passed through the Palazzo del Capitano, which according to The Blue Guide houses an astronomical clock dating from 1344. The clock tower was wrapped up for renovation, so we did not see this artifact, if that is indeed where it was.