Now home to the Accademia Galileiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, the extant parts of the Carraresi Palace have retained parts of the non-figurative decoration in the ground-floor room and a precious cycle of fresco decoration in the former chapel.
The non-figurative decoration is significant not only because of the variety to be seen in these remains but also because some features – such as the ‘tiled wall’ motif that can be traced back to Islamic art – were introduced into the Padua area by Giotto and those influenced by him. One can also see heraldic crests and chariots, the armorial bearings of the Carraresi family, elegant foliage and crowns, and faux arched recesses resting on corbels in the form of female heads. Both refined and rich in detail, this decoration was clearly designed to impress all visitors to the palace with a sense of the power exercised by the Carraresi rulers of the city.
The other important frescoes are to be found in the former chapel, which now serves as a Meeting Chamber: on the northern wall there are scenes from the Old Testament painted by Guariento, along with two detached fresco scenes now hanging on the opposite south wall.
Included among the cycles covered by the nomination, these Guariento frescoes are the first examples of works by a court painter that are clearly to be seen in relation to a commission from the rulers of Padua. All of the city’s fresco cycles are narrative in inspiration, but here that narrative takes on a decidedly courtly flavour, resulting in a very personal interpretation of the fresco tradition initiated by Giotto.
In these Palace Chapel works, Guariento further develops his exploration of perspective, showing ever greater attention to the detailed rendering of both Gothic architectural features and the furnishings within each individual scene. The artist introduces here a new way of storytelling: each episode is no longer isolated within an individual frame but rather linked together with other scenes within a single space. The narrative sequence thus forms an unbroken flow. However, the composition of the whole still maintains an overall geometrical layout. The biblical scenes come above a tall dado in faux marble (clearly reminiscent of Giotto’s work) that ends in a series of deep-looking faux arched recesses that rest upon corbels. This latter feature reveals the artist’s clear command of the spatial illusions that can be created through the use of perspective.
The narrative unfolds along two levels separated by deep cornices that bear inscriptions in gothic script (still partially legible) which identify each individual scene. Overall, one does not have the impression of a narrative recounted across a flat wall but incidents set within a precisely defined space – a lesson learnt from Giotto’s work in the Scrovegni Chapel (component part 1).
The episodes are set against the background of a blue sky broken by precisely modelled rocks that give a sense of depth. Within this landscape setting stand cities whose walls, towers and palaces are all rendered with great attention to architectural detail and precise handling of volume.
Painted for a courtly setting, the works are so vivid that they transform these biblical scenes into contemporary chronicles: the architecture and the elegant clothes are clearly fourteenth-century; the individual figures are closely observed and their gestures captured with all the precision of a photograph; there is minute attention to detail in the depiction of plants, flowers and animals. One of the most striking novelties in the images is the rich tent within which one sees the dead Holofernes, the opulence being what contemporaries might have expected of a fourteenth-century nobleman. Even in the most violent scenes the artist makes full use of vivid colour to delight the observer: see, for example, Joseph sold to the Merchants of Madian or Judith and Holofernes, in which the heroine, wearing a finely-embroidered cap, is dressed in a magnificent gown of yellow shot through with mauve highlights. Perhaps this latter episode is the one in which one sees most fully the fruits of Giotto’s decision to place biblical narrative within a contemporary setting – a lesson which would inspire artists throughout the fourteenth century and result in works of remarkable beauty. As further examples of this development one might cite Joseph Interpreting Pharaoh’s Dream, where Joseph is shown reading an illuminated manuscript at a desk set before a fourteenth-century loggia, or Adam and Eve before God the Father, where the depiction of our first parents in a flower-studded garden reveals close attention to individual characterization.