Work on the Basilica – intended to house the tomb of St. Anthony, who had died in the city in 1231 – began in 1232 on the site, which, as early as 1110, had been home to a church dedicated to the Virgin; this structure was later incorporated into the Basilica, becoming the Chapel of the Black Madonna. By 1229, the site alongside that small church had become the location of a monastery, which was probably founded by St. Anthony himself.
Scholars have long studied the complex history of the basilica and monastery, both with regard to the different phases of building work and the various cycles of pictorial and sculptural decoration the structures have become home to over the centuries. As far as the construction work is concerned, it should be noted that we have little data with regard to the earliest phase, and none of that information can be taken as offering a certain point of reference. Unfortunately, the account books for the work in the thirteenth and fourteenth century have not survived, so that scholars have to rely on what they can deduce from: the building itself; the documents relating to donations or other transactions involving the Basilica; the known dates when the body of St. Anthony was moved (8 April 1263; 14 June 1310; 15 March 1350), each of those occasions being associated with particular phases in the building work. Another source of information is the text Visio Egidii regis Pataviae, which was written by the notary Giovanni da Nono and can be dated to the period 1314-1318.
In looking at the main hypotheses with regard to the different phases in construction, one should start with the building that formed the core of the complex: the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini. The centre of Franciscan activity in the city, this housed the tomb of St. Anthony from 1231 to 1263 and very probably stood on the same site as the Chapel of the Black Madonna, which still contains what is likely to be the earliest extant evidence of Giotto’s work as a fresco artist in Padua. Given the number of faithful who visited that tomb, the small church quickly proved inadequate and work began on a larger structure. With regard to this, scholars argue two different theories: that this larger edifice was the fruit of a single project, or that it came about as the result of three, increasingly ambitious, projects whose chronological sequence can be understood thanks to the dates when the saint’s body was moved. For a more detailed account of this debate, see the bibliography. What is important to note here is that the final basilica is a very complex structure through which runs a series of internal and external wall corridors and passageways that reach all parts of the building; access to these is via staircases to the left of the entrance to the cloisters.
From the very beginning, the Friars Minor and the main noble families of the city were involved in projects for the decoration of the interior. As already mentioned, it was perhaps the friars who called Giotto to the city at the beginning of the fourteenth century to work on parts of the complex (the Chapel of the Black Madonna and the Chapter Hall), whilst the frescoes in the Benediction Chapel (also known as the St. Catherine Chapel) were the result of a commission from the Scrovegni family; of this latter project, all that remains are some busts of female saints on the entrance intrados and a few fragments on the walls.
As for the St. James Chapel (also known as the Chapel of St. James and St. Felix), both its construction and decoration were commissioned by the marchese Bonifacio Lupi di Soragna, a member of a family with very close links to the Carraresi court. His goal was to create a place of burial that befitted the outstanding rank his family had achieved from the mid-fourteenth century onwards thanks to their military and diplomatic services to the lords of the city. The chapel itself was commissioned from some of the most important artistic figures then working in Padua: the Venetian sculptor Andriolo de Santi and the artists Altichiero da Zevio and Jacopo Avanzi. The former had already distinguished himself around the year 1350 thanks to his work in the Padua church of Sant’Agostino on the tombs of Ubertino and Jacopo da Carrara. In 1372 a detailed contract for his work on the St. James Chapel was drawn up by Lombardo della Seta, secretary to Francesco Petrarch. The terms of that document reveal Bonifacio’s determination that the project should be carried out in a rapid and coherent manner; indeed, the chapel was consecrated just four years later. While there are no extant contracts for the two artists involved in the decoration of the interior, two documents (dated 1377 and 1379) record the costs of lowering the scaffolding used during the work, and (in the later contract) the balance for the entire work payable to Altichiero alone (probably due to the fact that Avanzi had died). Both artists had arrived in Padua around 1370 to work on interiors of the Carraresi Palace; however, none of their frescoes there survive, so this chapel is the sole evidence of the fruits of their collaboration.
Altichiero had been born in Zevio around 1330, and though his initial influence was the Giotto-influenced art of Lombardy, his main training as an artist came in Verona and Padua; in the latter city he would, for example, paint the lunette in the Dotto Chapel (structure completed in 1382) in the Church of the Eremitani. Within the Basilica of St. Anthony, he is also credited with the lunette decoration depicting Madonna and Child with Saints which surmounts the tomb of the nobleman Federico Lavellongo. His art reveals the refined and cultivated sensibility of an artist who was fully informed on both advances in painting techniques and the sort of scientific research (particularly in the field of optics) which was then being pursued at the University of Padua. It was thanks to this knowledge that Altichiero could offer a new reading of Giotto’s artistic language, developing upon the Tuscan master’s skill in creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. His own works are built around very complex yet convincing spatial compositions that hinge upon interaction between real architectural features and the frescoed walls; and within that space there is a harmonious distribution of human figures.
As for Jacopo Avanzi, he was born in Bologna and, as an artist, he would be powerfully influenced by Giotto’s work in Padua, both at the Scrovegni Chapel and elsewhere. The characteristic feature of Avanzi’s art would be its narrative power, an intensity achieved through the close concatenation of different scenes in which figures were depicted as individuals, their emotions easily recognizable from facial expression and gesture. The pictorial space in Avanzi’s work is more open, with solid architectural features serving largely as background – when such background is not provided by extensive landscapes. Clearly, the artist’s main interest was in the interaction between groups of figures, rendered with careful attention to glances, expressions and the details of physiognomy.
The last of the fourteenth-century fresco cycles within the Basilica is to be found in the Chapel of Blessed Luca Belludi, which also houses the so-called Arca Vecchia, the sarcophagus which once held the body of St. Anthony and was, in 1285, used as the tomb of Blessed Luca Belludi, a figure who was as dear to the Franciscan monks as he was to those who commissioned the chapel. In fact, the veneration of the tomb, vigorously encouraged by the monks, was by the early fifteenth century on such a scale that the place would become known as “The Chapel of the Blessed Luca”.
However, the construction of the chapel was more than a mere expression of religious devotion and must be seen in a wider social context. At the time, Francesco ‘Il Vecchio’ da Carrara was actively promoting the political – and cultural – hegemony of his family, and all the families most closely linked to his court were involved in the achievement of this goal. Amongst these, the Conti family, one of the oldest aristocratic houses in Padua, played a primary role, particularly through the actions of Naimerio and Manfredino Conti, who provided Francesco ‘Il Vecchio’ with important financial services. It would be those two noblemen who put up the money for this chapel (the date of whose foundation is 1382) and commissioned the frescoes from Giusto de’ Menabuoi, an artist whose flowing use of vivid colour generates a hauntingly intimate atmosphere.
Menabuoi had settled in Padua around 1370, and by the time he came to work on the Chapel of the Blessed Luca Belludi had produced a long series of works in the city; mainly religious in theme, these had largely been commissioned by learned clerics, who had provided the artist with the opportunity to explore complex theological issues. In 1370 we know he was working in the Church of the Eremitani on the Triumph of St. Augustine in the Cortellieri Chapel. In the Basilica itself, he would then work on the frescoes for the tomb of Niccolò and Bolzanello da Vigonza, with a Coronation of the Virgin with Saints, Angels and Donors, and an Annunciation in the lunette of the arcosolium. Before receiving the commission for the Belludi chapel, he had worked on the imposing cycle of frescoes in the Cathedral Baptistery from 1374 to 1378. His frescoes in the Chapel of the Blessed Luca Belludi may be less refined in atmosphere than those in the Baptistery, but they do open the way to more modern notions of pictorial composition, particularly with regard to the organization of visual space.
In 1377 Raimondino Lupi di Soragna had a small private oratory built near the Basilica to house the mortal remains of Bonifacio Lupi di Soragna; that building is now known as the Oratory of St. George. This important project, which came shortly after Bonifacio Lupi di Soragna himself had commissioned the decoration of the St. James Chapel within the Basilica, gives one some idea of the rank the family had achieved in Padua by the late fourteenth century. This was, in fact, a period when the most important families in the city were following the lead set by Enrico Scrovegni at the beginning of the century and commissioning their own fresco-decorated chapels. The Carraresi court of the day saw that the effective exercise of its power over the city and its territory also involved generating consensus of support amongst not only the families that were its allies but also the population as a whole. To this end, the Carraresi had encouraged the arts, the sciences and literature as active vehicles of political propaganda; indeed, they themselves played the foremost role in projects for the embellishment of the city. However, there was also a more individualistic aspect to Raimondino Lupi’s commission as well, with his celebration of his family intended to be seen in direct comparison with the chapel Enrico Scrovegni had raised to the memory of his own house. This ‘competition’ meant there were clear and intended architectural similarities between the two structures. Similarly, the scenes represented and the sculpture of the tomb were taken as opportunities to highlight the military virtues that the Lupi di Soragna family had placed at the service Padua and the Carraresi family.
The frescoes were commissioned from Altichiero da Zevio around 1379, the artist already having had contact with the family thanks to his work in the St. James Chapel. Having become established within Padua’s cultural and artistic life, Altichiero had continued to develop his skill in the handling of pictorial space, becoming a virtuoso master of the perspective. From his fundamental encounter with the work of Giotto, the artist had drawn themes, ideas and notions of pictorial space that he continued to rework. And in this process, which was never one of mere passive absorption, he could draw upon the deep knowledge of optics which might be acquired from study of the work of the other great artist then active in Padua: Giusto de’ Menabuoi, whose marvellous cycle of frescoes in the Cathedral Baptistery will certainly have been known to Altichiero.