The history of the building and subsequent conservation of the Palazzo della Ragione is closely bound up with that of the fresco cycles that decorate its interior. The construction work was carried out in 1218-1219, when Giovanni Rusconi was podestà of the Commune, and was intended to provide an adequate meeting-place for public assemblies and the administration of justice. It was complemented by a complex series of other structures serving the commune, of which all that remains is the Palazzo degli Anziani, the Palazzo del Consiglio and remnants of the Palazzo del Podestà.
Evidence shows that the building completed by 1219 was lower than that we see nowadays and had a pitched wooden roof supported by wooden roof trusses resting on leather-clad columns. The upper floor was divided into various rooms by wooden structures designed to house the desks and benches of the various tribunals. The first decoration of the interior did not begin until 1271, when the then podestà, Tommaso Giustiniani, had the space above each tribunal bench (the building would house up to seventeen) painted with its respective mark of office, most of which were animal symbols. Then, in 1306-1309, the overall appearance of the building was changed by Fra Giovanni degli Eremitani, famous for various hydraulic projects and architectural works within the Padua area (including the Fondaco delle Biade/Fodder Exchange and the Church of the Eremitani itself ). In making the building the central feature of the various palazzi that had risen around the piazza during the later part of the thirteenth century, he raised it higher and remodelled the roof (an exposed wooden structure in the interior covered on the outside with lead sheeting). This work made the first floor into an enormous hall that was divided into various spaces which included a chapel dedicated to St. Prosdocimus, a tax collector’s office, a prison and the various tribunals and law courts – all under a vast keel roof. Around 1309 Fra Giovanni would then work on the external loggias, which probably served not only a decorative function but were also intended as buttresses to withstand the outward thrust from the new roof; in addition, they provided much more space for shops and workshops.
The most innovative feature of this new addition was the decision to use blocks of stone instead of brick (then the dominant building material). This made the structure much more monumental and heightened the visual impact of the porticoed arcades; these latter were a feature that was very common in northern Italy because they provided space for markets that was protected from the elements.
Various scholars have argued that the use of stone throughout the arcades was inspired by the extant remains of the Roman arena near the Monastery of the Eremitani. Much of the above-cited information comes from Visio Egidii regis Pataviae; a text drawn up by the notary Giovanni da Nono in the years 1314-1318, this is a key source with regard to the urban layout of Padua at the beginning of the fourteenth century. We also have a visual depiction of the Palazzo, complete with lead roofing and loggia supported by wooden roof trusses, in the fresco that Giusto de’ Menabuoi painted in the Chapel of the Blessed Luca Belludi in the Basilica of St. Anthony (ante 1387). Giotto would be commissioned to decorate the upper hall of the Palazzo della Ragione during his second period of work in the city (probably in the 1310s).
However, this would be completely destroyed when, on 2 February 1420, a fire which started in a cordage storeroom in the mezzanine devastated the loggias, the wooden roof and the fresco decoration. The subsequent rebuilding work would modify the interior by getting rid of the mezzanine space but would not make substantial changes to the exterior, except for the fact that loggias now had vaulted ceilings. So what one sees nowadays could largely correspond to Fra Giovanni’s original design. Unfortunately, the structure would also fall victim to a summer whirlwind (on 17 August 1756) which caused a large part of the roof and the northern loggia to collapse. On that occasion, too, reconstruction was prompt, as was the restoration of the pictorial decoration (by Francesco Zannoni, in the years 1759-1763). Soon afterwards, with the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the Palazzo ceased to be used as a courthouse. It has recently undergone complete restoration of both the interior decoration and the architectural structure (consolidation of the building and loggias, re- facing of the roof).
Contemporary records talk of huge astrological frescoes decorating the Palazzo, complete with signs of the zodiac, planets and constellations. This subject- matter was again taken up in the work after the terrible fire of 1420, resulting in an imposing cycle of frescoes; inspired by judicial astrology, these depicted the influence of planets and stars upon human affairs and human disputes. In the Palazzo della Ragione, Giotto’s exploration of the theme of astrology reflects both contemporary ideas and the use for which this building was intended. However, we do not know if the original decoration covered the walls alone, or both the walls and the ceiling, or even just the latter. Whatever the case, from the point of view of both iconography and pictorial handling of the subject- matter, this work was an innovation that stood as a model for such images well into the second half of the fourteenth century.
We have already mentioned how Fra’ Giovanni transformed this building into a “centre of justice and trade”, and another figure to be mentioned here is Pietro d’Abano; a physician, philosopher and astrologist, he worked upon the iconography of the cycle, his contribution providing further evidence of the links between Giotto and the learned circles active at the University of Padua. Nor should one overlook the fact that Pietro d’Abano’s work should be seen in relation to that of Michele Scoto, an important astrologist at the courts of king Federico II and king Alfonso, whose miniatures may have been produced in Spain but reveal clear links with the iconography in Giotto’s work.
These interconnections demonstrate how knowledge and artistic developments might cross national borders thanks to links between individual courts and the fact that, despite the difficulties of contemporary travel, artists and craftsmen moved between one workshop and another. Even more important than the movement of individuals was that of illuminated manuscripts and codices, which meant that work became known far beyond the environment in which it was created. Within Padua itself one sees an example of such cultural interchange over the distance of centuries, with the remains of the Roman Arena in the area near the Scrovegni Chapel probably serving as the inspiration for the decision to build the new loggias of the Palazzo della Ragione (c.1309) in stone rather than brick.
Those who worked on the restoration of the cycle included Niccolò Miretto, Stefano da Ferrara and various assistants, amongst whom recent scholars have identified Antonio di Pietro, a nephew of Altichiero. However, the fact that their work was exclusively in fresco does not resolve the issue as to whether Giotto’s original was in this medium, on painted panels or a mixture of both. What makes the cycle as it exists today so important is that those re-doing the decoration were explicitly requested to be faithful to the original both in iconography and in style. And though nowadays we might have some difficulty in understanding the fresco cycle, at the time this will not have been the case, given that it was a clear reflection of the principles that were supposed to be the basis of civic life. For the people of the day, the administration of justice was not simply a matter of applying laws; it also involved an evaluation of the influence the planets and stars might have upon the human psyche and human behaviour. We have no exact knowledge of the relationship between Giotto and Pietro d’Abano, but it seems highly likely that they knew each other personally: the latter, a man-of-letters who taught at the university had, for example, praised the Florentine master in his writings.
What we do know is that the city and university continued to be home to such figures as Giovanni Dondi, a physician, astronomer, philosopher and poet; therefore, it is highly probable that studies of the heavens continued to influence the work of artists active in the second half of the fourteenth century. Dondi, for example, was the creator of the famous Astrario, a marvellous astronomical clock that could reproduce the motions of the sun, the moon and the five major planets, as well as measuring time to a fraction of a minute. Recent studies have also stressed the link between Giotto’s cycle and the miniatures in various codices, including the above-mentioned work by Michele Scoto, astrologer to the court of Frederick II, (now in Munich) and the illuminated manuscript produced in Spain for the court of King Alfonso (now in the Vatican Library). It has been shown that certain fifteenth-century images seem to draw directly on those generated by the high level of interest in astrology, which was typical of Alfonso’s court. Probably, while he was in Paris at the end of the thirteenth century, Pietro d’Abano himself had come into contact with such cultural circles.
The small chapel intended for the personal use of the Da Carrara family once had a rectangular floor plan and stood on the west side of the first floor in the palace. Contemporary sources and extant material indicate that the interior of the palace was entirely decorated with frescoes; however, due to the various vicissitudes through which the building has passed, little of these decorative cycles survive. After the city fell under Venetian control in 1405, the palace became the seat of the various bodies of Venetian government, and gradual neglect would result in the building’s decline, with the ultimate destruction of a large part of the structure.
Lord of Padua from 1338 to 1345, Ubertino da Carrara was the one who initiated work on this residence, on a site in the west of the city that was bound to the east by the Strada Maggiore, to the south by the Contrada del Duomo, to the north by the church of San Nicolò and to the west by the river. The first nucleus of the complex, known as the Palazzo Vecchio, or the Palazzo di Ponente (West Palace), was completed in 1343, with work on the Palazzo Nuovo or Palazzo di Levante (East Palace) beginning under Ubertino but being completed under Francesco ‘Il Vecchio’ da Carrara.
All that remains of the old structure is the part between Via Accademia and Via Tadi, the most architecturally significant portion of which is the fourteenth- century double loggia. The hall within this became the premises of the Accademia Galileiana in 1779, and it was then that the south wall of the Chapel was demolished to create a large space for the meetings of the Academicians. Other work then involved the demolition of the so-called Traghetto, a raised walkway some nine metres high and three metres wide that ran on 28 arches from the Palace to the Casa della Rampa (Rampway House) and then to the north of the Porta Tadi city gateway, forming a link between the city walls, the castle and the Torlonga (nowadays known as La Specola and home to the Astronomical Observatory). Dominating the entire space around it, this traghetto was designed to give rapid, unobstructed access to the castle in cases of necessity.
Restoration work, in the 1970s and 1990s, conserved all that remained of the architectural complex and of the fourteenth-century decorations. Historical documents say that the building had not only non-figurative decorations on the ground floor but also some rooms with figurative decoration. For example, there is record of the court rooms being decorated with images of animals and narrative scenes inspired by the History of Thebes, and episodes associated with Nero, Hercules, Camillus and Lucretia. The most significant space was the Sala degli Uomini Illustri (Hall of Illustrious Men) which is mentioned in 1382, and in 1390 was still being referred to as the ‘new hall’. The subject-matter there can be seen in relation to De viri illustribus, which Francesco Petrarch was then writing in Padua itself. Unfortunately, nothing remains of these extraordinary works, which illustrated the particular character of cultural influences in late-fourteenth- century Padua, where the example of classical antiquity was already making itself felt. Similarly, no extant document makes it possible to attribute any particular cycle to any particular painter, with the one exception of the Chapel, where we know the decorations are by Guariento. Savonarola, for example, mentions Altichiero da Zevio, Jacopo Avanzi and a certain Ottaviano da Brescia as artists active at the Carraresi court, but he does not specify where they worked.
The first recorded attribution of the frescoes and panel paintings in the Chapel to Guariento comes in the second edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists; Marcantonio Michiel (1521-1543) would argue that some of the work was by Jacopo Avanzi, but recent scholars have been unanimous in attributing the whole of the decorative cycle to Guariento. Born in Padua – though some say in Piove di Sacco – Guariento was an artist who had already produced one of his most fascinating panel paintings for the city’s Duomo, a polyptych which is now in the collection of the Norton Simon Foundation (USA); he appears with a certain regularity in local documents from 1338 onwards.
The artist was, therefore, familiar both with the works of Giotto and those of Pietro and Giuliano da Rimini, considered the most faithful of Giotto’s pupils and artists who worked within the Church of the Eremitani from 1324 onwards. Guariento must have entered Carraresi circles quite early in his career, given that in 1351 he painted the frescoes on the walls of the apse in the Paduan church of Sant’Agostino, which housed the tombs of Jacopo and Ubertino da Carrara; works of great quality by the Venetian sculptor Andriolo de Santi, these had been commissioned by Francesco ‘Il Vecchio’ da Carrara and are now located in the Church of the Eremitani. Probably the painter received the commission for the decorative cycle in the Palace Chapel before 1354, the year in which Charles IV, king of Bohemia and future emperor, visited Padua. Comparison with earlier works – for example, the Crucifix now in the Musei Civici of Bassano del Grappa (originally painted for the church of San Francesco in that town) and the Piove di Sacco Polyptych of 1344, reveals many innovations in the artistic language used in both the frescoes and panel paintings decorating the chapel. There is also evidence of such innovations in the few extant remnants of the work in the church of Sant’Agostino.
The decoration of the chapel in the Carraresi Palace shows Guariento occupying an ideal point of transition between the work of Giotto and that of Giusto de’ Menabuoi. In fact, whilst the work of the Tuscan master was undoubtedly one of his initial benchmarks, Guariento would also work with the latter, at the church of the Eremitani. He can therefore be seen as a conduit between the tradition of fresco painting established by Giotto and the International Gothic style, an aspect of his work which is very clear in what he produced during his period in Venice. That this was a court commission meant that Guariento could take even further that “secularisation of sacred history” which had begun with Giotto’s work in the Scrovegni Chapel. There is, in fact, a clear interweaving of both religious motifs and the celebration of secular power, and once again scenes of religious narrative unfold within a setting of fourteenth-century architecture, in a world instantly recognizable to the artist’s contemporaries. Dressed in the fashions of the day, the figures depicted are shown participating in what are treated as chronicles of present-day events.
Dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the Cathedral Baptistery was consecrated by the Patriarch of Grado in 1281. Around the middle of the fourteenth century it underwent some architectural modification and then, thanks to commissions by the wife of Francesco ‘Il Vecchio’ da Carrara, then lord of the city, it was entirely decorated with frescoes by Giusto de’ Menabuoi. That commission from Fina Buzzaccarini probably came in 1375-76 and, given that she died in 1378, scholars have concluded that the work must have been completed by that date. A refined and cultured woman, the patron also had a tomb for herself and her husband created within the baptistery; so as well as serving a sacramental function, the structure became the third Carraresi mausoleum in the city, after the churches of Santo Stefano and Sant’Agostino.
The building was the place where each citizen of Padua was baptised into the community of the Christian church, and the association enabled the Carraresi to re-assert their power as the embodiment of that community; the co-existence of family tomb and city baptismal font underlined an inextricable bond between the Carraresi and Padua. This symbolic reading is also reflected in the iconography of the Menabuoi frescoes, one of the greatest masterpieces of fourteenth-century Italian painting. Indeed, the very location of the work served to reinforce the idea that the beauty of the city was a fruit of Carraresi power: the magnificent Carraresi Palace stood nearby, on a site that ran from Piazza dei Signori to the present-day Via Accademia and Via Arco Valaresso.
A Florentine, Giusto de’ Menabuoi was probably born in the 1320s. He received his first training as an artist in Visconti-ruled Milan, within an atmosphere that was permeated by the influence of Giotto; that artist had spent the last years of his life in Milan, a fact which inevitably promoted interaction between the artistic cultures of Tuscany and Lombardy.
Menabuoi probably arrived in Padua in 1368-1370, the period of Guariento’s death, and soon became the preferred artist of the Carraresi court. Amongst his first commissions in the city was that from Traversina Cortellieri to paint a cycle of frescoes in the Eremitani funeral chapel of her son, Tebaldio, who had died young while on a diplomatic mission for the Carraresi court. Thus two of the major commissions Menabuoi received in Padua were from women, something that was far from usual in fourteenth-century Italy. It was even less common for the commission for a family mausoleum to come from a woman.
Today, entrance to the baptistery is via a small portico that was added later in the fourteenth century (what one sees now is a replacement for the original, destroyed in the Second World War). However, in Menabuoi’s time, access was via the west wall of the building, through a doorway surmounted by an acrosolium tomb; the work of the sculptor Andriolo de Santi, this too was commissioned by Fina Buzzaccarini. The position was no accident – all citizens entering had to pass under the tomb and were thus reminded of those who were the Lords of Padua; nor is it an accident that the tomb was destroyed after the Carraresi were defeated by Venice in 1405. Nevertheless, in spite of this attempt to eradicate the very memory of the previous lords of the city, a clear memorial to Fina Buzzaccarini remains within the Baptistery frescoes, where she herself is portrayed in various scenes.
The continuity between Giotto and Giusto de’ Menabuoi is to be seen not only in the common religious themes they depicted but also in the “atmosphere” they create within these two religious buildings. In both cases, the visitor becomes part of events that unfold around him, with figures from the gospel narrative depicted alongside contemporary aristocrats, artists and intellectuals. As already mentioned, one of these latter was Francesco Petrarch, who in those very years was introducing his Paduan friends to a text by Vitruvius that may well have been drawn upon by Menabuoi himself in his pictorial compositions. With regard to such influences, one should also point out that in the years 1382-1385 Padua was also home to Biagio Pelacani da Parma, whose studies of perspective would be of exceptional importance for no less a figure than Filippo Brunelleschi. Whilst no direct link with Giusto can be established, the presence of such a man teaching in the city gives one some idea of the cultural atmosphere in the Padua of the day.
Located in the heart of the city’s religious life, the work on the interior of the Baptistery marked the definite consolidation of the tradition of fresco painting in Padua. For art historian and layman alike, the paintings here seem to re-interpret the frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in a new key – a key influenced by the refinements of the International Gothic style that, thanks to Guariento and then Menabuoi himself, would be a feature of the work produced for the Carraresi court.