The Basilica and Monastery of St. Anthony of Padua house the extant traces of Giotto’s earliest works in Padua; these date from the period 1302-1303, before the fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel.
If the work in the Scrovegni Chapel demonstrates Giotto’s confident use of perspective in the rendition of three-dimensional pictorial space, the slightly- earlier decoration in the Monastery shows the Florentine laying the bases for that mastery. In effect, these works mark the chronological starting-point of the entire sequence of fresco cycles included in the nomination.
The Basilica, for its part, contains work by all the major fresco artists active in fourteenth-century Padua: Giotto, Giusto de’ Menabuoi, Altichiero da Zevio, Jacopo Avanzi and Jacopo da Verona, and thus is a key part of the history of their commissions within the city.
One work that has very recently been attributed to Giotto is probably his earliest in the Basilica and is to be found in the Chapel of the Black Madonna, the site of St. Anthony’s original burial. (It would appear, therefore, that he probably worked on the Chapel of the Black Madonna before the frescoes in the Benediction Chapel and the Chapter Chapel.) Clearly designed in relation to the architectural space it occupies, that work in the Chapel of the Black Madonna is a fresco behind the statue of the Virgin and Child set within a niche of the altar. The faces of the prophets, the poses of the crown-bearing angels, and the foreshortening used in the depiction of the flying angels and of the figure of God the Father – all reveal Giotto’s interest in perspective and in the portrayal of human emotions, factors that are so important in the Scrovegni Chapel (component part 1).
Moving on to the Chapter Hall in the monastery, we have a cycle of frescoes which, though now incomplete, is one of the most significant works produced in early-fourteenth-century Padua. Once, the walls here were entirely covered by frescoes inspired by a single narrative theme: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis. The artist’s skill in the handling of pictorial space means that the scenes on two walls offer a unified perspective view; below, faux marble panels support arches comprising two orders of pilasters that are surmounted by an architrave apparently resting on projecting corbels (these latter probably intended as trompe l’oeil supports for the real wood ceiling). Despite repainting, the details here reveal the artist’s inventive use of perspective and a refined taste for classical-style decorative details (plant volutes in faux relief, inspired by classical antiquity). Such features were entirely new to painting in early-fourteenth- century Padua and can only be compared with details of the decoration in the Scrovegni Chapel (component part 1).
The extracts from sacred texts in the cartouches all refer to one theme: Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Among the characters included is the remarkably realistic depiction of a decaying corpse, an allegory of Death, shown in silent dialogue with St. Anthony; the realism here heralds what Giotto would achieve in his later works. That sense of the real and the dramatic is also to be found in the other scenes, just as the command of perspective shown in the depiction of an architectural interior looks forward to what one sees in the Scrovegni Chapel (component part 1).
The innovative narrative suggests a close parallel between the founder of the order and St. Anthony, in particular their radical interpretation of the Imitatio Christi, taken to the point of self-martyrdom. Giotto would in later works again use the same scheme of parallels between the two.
Alongside the Chapter Hall in the Monastery of St. Anthony is the passageway that links the Magnolia and Novitiate Cloisters. The walls here bear two other frescoes that may be attributed to Giotto and his workshop; they depict a Lignum Vitae Christi and a Lignum Vitae Sancti Francisci.
Within the basilica itself, the Benediction Chapel, the first to the south of the Choir, also contains traces of a precious fresco cycle attributed to Giotto. In the fourteenth century, the entire chapel must have been covered in frescoes; however, the work carried out in 1727 led to the repainting of a large part of the original surfaces.
Nowadays, the best preserved area is the intrados of the entrance archway, decorated with busts of female Saints depicted within geometrical borders: of the eight medallions, only the first on the left has been repainted. The frames enclosing the female figures are rendered in perspective and decorated with slim floral garlands. These saints cannot be identified with certainty, but each is a solidly modelled figure that stands out against a light blue background. The soft drapery, depicted without deep folds, heightens this effect of individual volume, which is also enhanced by the clear outline of the figures.
The type of frame used here is similar to that one finds in the decorative bands within the Scrovegni Chapel (component part 1), thus the work should be dated just after the completion of that project, around 1303-1305. The temporal proximity is also borne out by a comparison with the busts of the prophets to be found in the Scrovegni Chapel, which reveal the same handling of drapery and the same monumentality of form; there is also a facial similarity with various figures that appear in the Scrovegni Scenes from the Life of Christ. When one comes to the Cappella di San Giacomo (St. James Chapel), off the south aisle, one finds work by other great fourteenth-century fresco artists active in both Padua and the Basilica: the extraordinary cycle of frescoes by Altichiero da Zevio and Jacopo Avanzi. Here, Altichiero da Zevio develops upon the innovations introduced by Giotto. Perspective is again used to render pictorial space three-dimensional, but the interiors created are even more complex and realistic; for the first time, painted and real architectural features interact as if forming a single whole. These developments are to be seen in close relation to the studies of optics and physics then being pursued at Padua University. It should also be pointed out that the coherence within the overall fresco cycle is such that, for a long time, the actual nature of the collaboration between the two artists was the subject of scholarly debate. Now, however, the contribution made by each has been clearly identified.
The works by Altichiero reflect his artistic maturity and reveal his ability in handling extremely dynamic scenes with numerous figures, as well as his skill in using the architecture of the chapel itself to create trompe-l’oeil spaces. A very significant example of this is the large scene of the Crucifixion in the lower level of the fresco, with the image divided by three actual columns that form three archways into the pictorial space: on the left one sees Jerusalem, in the centre the crucifixion scene itself and, on the right, a second walled citadel. This is the first time an artist used such daring trompe l’oeil, developing the pictorial space as an extension of the real architectural space.
The Arrival of St. James’ body at the Castle of Queen Lupa in Spain is depicted as a sort of fable, with the saint’s body arriving on a ship borne by an eagle to the castle of the queen who, legend had it, was an ancestor of the family, which commissioned this work. Once again, one sees the sacred narrative unfold within a contemporary setting, the episode serving as an opportunity to celebrate the regal origins of the Lupi family. This feature is also highly important in the depiction of Charlemagne’s Council, which contains actual portraits of some of the most significant figures associated with the Carraresi court – Francesco Petrarch, Lombardo della Seta, Bonifacio Lupi and Francesco da Carrara – and a portrait of Charlemagne himself; this latter shows a clear resemblance to emperor Louis of Hungary, an ally of the Carraresi rulers of Padua. The entire image is, therefore, a clear political statement of the prestige of both the lords of Padua and of the Lupi family.
Jacopo Avanzi would also explore the narrative aspects of fresco; in creating scenes packed with figures whose expressions and gestures are individually characterised, he took even further that focus on individuals, which had begun with Giotto.
The narrative cycle starts in the upper lunettes and illustrates the life and Miracles of St. James. The choice of this saint as dedicatee is probably due to the fact that the work was commissioned by Bonifacio Lupi, who was a member of the Confraternity of St. James, a religious-military order founded in Spain in 1175. Furthermore, St. James was one of the patron saints of the Carraresi family.
In the north aisle of the basilica, through the Chapel of the Black Madonna, one gains access to the Chapel of the Blessed Luca Belludi (otherwise the Chapel of Saints Philip and James or the Conti Chapel). Here the Conti family commissioned the fresco decoration from one of the greatest painters active in Padua, Giusto de’ Menabuoi; just a few years earlier he had painted the frescoes in the Cathedral Baptistery (component part 2).
The interior is divided into two parts, the first, used by the faithful during worship, is decorated with Scenes from the Life of St Philip and St. James the Minor, whilst the apse has frescoes of Christ Pantocrator and The Virgin Enthroned, with Franciscan Saints interceding on behalf of Donors. Compared to his work in the Baptistery, here Giusto de’ Menabuoi depicted fewer scenes, which occupy a greater area and thus provide the opportunity for more development in the handling of the spatial setting: a leading role in the overall composition is now played by the architectural details and by the landscapes that had previously been mere background features. The unified narrative draws on St. Matthew’s Gospel, whilst the intrados of the arches are decorated with 40 figures taken from the Genealogy of Christ, thus forming a compendium of the entire Old Testament. These sequences of figures also provide the opportunity for portraits of Illustrious Paduans of the day (as in the Baptistery), along with depictions of contemporary crowd scenes. As elsewhere in these fresco cycles, one can see the artist choosing a contemporary setting for scenes from the Bible and from the Lives of the Saints, including a celebration of the donors as part of the celebration of human salvation.
In terms of both the history of the medium and its use in religious art, the cycles of fresco decoration within the Basilica are of fundamental importance. Indeed, the work here ranges over the period from the fourteenth century right up to the early twentieth (the apse Chapel of St. Stephen was decorated by the Roman artist Ludovico Seitz in 1909). Thus the entire complex forms a sort of handbook which is important not only for the history of art but also for the history of this specific technique.