PALAZZO DELLA RAGIONE
DESCRIPTION OF THE FRESCOES CYCLE
Of all the cycles covered by the nomination, that at the Palazzo della Ragione is the largest in terms of area: all four walls of the vast first-floor hall are entirely occupied by frescoes.
The decoration comprises more than three hundred different scenes divided into two sections. The upper area, which is part of the remodelling which took place in the fifteenth century, contains scenes that develop over three levels and illustrate the correspondence between the months of the years, the signs of the zodiac, and the trades and character traits associated with them. The lower area is less densely decorated and contains parts of the fourteenth-century frescoes; these are probably to be read in relation to the frescoes in the upper zone, but it is also true that their creation was in part inspired by the function of the different spaces into which this hall was once divided. Hence, for example, the frescoes in the lower section are separated by the clearly visible traces left by the tribunal benches (known as dischi or deschi) which once lined the walls, and by symbols associated with them – a reminder that the Palazzo once served as the law courts.
Within the various cycles that make up the nomination, that at the Palazzo Della Ragione is the only one that was the fruit of a secular commission from the civic authorities. Giotto’s appointment to do this work came, in fact, from the Commune of Padua some dozen years or so after he completed the frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, and the work may have been intended as a ‘public’ response to that ‘private’ commission. It is no coincidence that after having depicted the Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel, the artist was then called upon to decorate the building where secular justice was administered.
The chronicles of the day speak of a vast cycle of works on an astrological theme (signs of the zodiac, planets and constellation), which were then destroyed in a massive fire some century later. However, that initial iconography was then repeated in a vast cycle which was inspired by judicial astrology and charted the influence of the planets on human affairs and disputes. The Palazzo della Ragione still houses the so-called Pietra del Vituperio, a stool of black stone which was located at the middle of the hall in the Middle Ages (it now stands in the north-east corner) and was used for public humiliation of insolvent debtors, who were obliged to sit there as in the stocks.
An important distinguishing characteristic of this cycle is its subject matter. Here, there are no stories from the Gospels or the Lives of the Saints, but rather a massive secular almanac made up of 333 squares organised at three levels along the upper parts of the walls that run around the entire hall.
This cycle depicts the variety of humankind and the various tasks that occupied life in the Middle Ages; it also aimed to remind those who sat in judgement here of the full range of human tendencies and failings. In effect, it provides a panoramic compendium that illustrates the contemporary belief of the day that human behaviour and states of feeling were subject to the influence of the stars.
The entire cycle is organised within a painted architectural structure comprising hexagonal pilasters crossed, in the upper area, by architraves and in the lower area by proscenium openings under architraves resting on corbels. The whole layout is a more elaborate version of the sort of faux architecture that Giotto had already used in the Scrovegni Chapel (component part 1). The reading of the astrological cycle opens as nature begins to awaken in the month of March, which is shown in correspondence with the East and associated with Aries. This is the starting-point for a scheme that is divided into twelve sections, corresponding to the months of the year, each of which is shown complete with: the sign of the zodiac; the constellation or ascendant that determines the character of those born under the related sign of the zodiac, the apostle associated with that month; a personification of the month; the planet that resides in the associated sign of the zodiac; the influences the corresponding sign exerts on a person’s character; the work performed during that month.
Separated by the animals, which identified the different tribunals and courts, the allegories and figures of saints in the lower area were intended to represent the divine grace which guides human nature. Dating from the late fourteenth century, the Judgement of Solomon was a reminder of the proverbial wisdom of that biblical king, a virtue that was supposed to be possessed by all judges. Other extant fourteenth-century parts are the so-called Trial of Pietro d’Abano and The Virtues. The former is of particular interest because the defendant depicted seems to be the very physician and astrologer who, in collaboration with Giotto, decided the iconography of the decoration within the Palazzo della Ragione. It also provides a realistic account of what a fourteenth-century courtroom must have looked like, complete with various interesting details. This work has recently been attributed to Jacopo da Verona, who produced the fresco cycle in the Oratory of St. Michael (component part 4), which is the latest work in the series of frescoes covered by the nomination and shows the same careful attention to the rendering of details.
For their part, the Virtues were once attributed to Giusto de’ Menabuoi (now to Antonio di Pietro) another leading fresco artist in fourteenth-century Padua, whose works figure in component parts 1 and 2 within the nomination. “[There are] the twelve constellations of the Zodiac and the seven planets with associated characteristics […] all in marvellous frescoes by Giotto, the greatest of painters; and [there are] other stars and planets in gold, with their symbols […]”: this was how, writing sometime between 1314 and 1318, Giovanni da Nono described the cycle of astrological frescoes in the Palazzo della Ragione. And even though that work was destroyed by the fire of February 1420, the layout and iconography of Giotto’s original inspired the decorations painted after that disaster, which we can still see today.