Oratory of St. Michael


Standing in a small square of the same name, the Oratory of St Michael one sees nowadays has undergone alterations which have radically changed the architectural appearance of a church whose origins are said to date back to a period sometime between the sixth and the second half of the seventh century. Some argue that its foundation could be seen in relation the Byzantine presence in the city (569-602): within the territories linked to the Exarchate of Ravenna, the Byzantine influence resulted in a spread of veneration of the Holy Archangels, and this church could have been an expression of such veneration. Others say that the foundation of the church dates from later, during the Longobard era. Yet whatever the truth, we do know that, up until the middle of the eleventh century, the church was still known as Ecclesia Sanctorum Archangelorum.

By the late fourteenth century, the church had come within the da Carrara sphere of influence, and when, in 1390, a fire which broke out during the Visconti forces’ siege of the Carraresi Castle badly damaged the building, the Bovi family (in 1397) financed work to extend the church and decorate the interior. As one can see from a stone plaque in the wall before the entrance, the frescoes were the work of Jacopo da Verona, an artist whose presence in Verona is documented in 1388, 1394 and 1404 (according to some scholars he lived until 1442). Initially considered a minor artist, he was often confused with Jacopo Avanzi from Bologna, who settled in Padua around the same period. However, we know that Jacopo da Verona worked with Altichiero da Zevio on the frescoes at the Oratory of St. George, and that he probably came to Padua following that artist. He is also credited with some works now in the Castelvecchio Museum (Verona) and some important illuminated manuscripts. The St. Michael frescoes, however, are the only works that can with certainty be attributed to him alone.

In 1479, the Oratory of St. Michael came under the governance of the Venetian Congregazione del Santo Spirito and would remain so for almost two centuries, until that congregation was suppressed by Pope Alexander VII in 1656. This made the oratory the property of the Venetian Republic, which however then auctioned it off to help pay for its war against the Ottoman empire. Ownership thus passed to Girolamo Dolfin, the Patriarch of Aquileia, and thence to various other Venetian families: the Mocenigo, the Soranzo, the Pisani and the Ruzzini. In 1792 the walls were whitewashed and in 1808 the building ceased to function as a parish church; four years later it was totally closed to the public. Then, in 1815, Francesco Pisani, who owned the palazzo alongside it, decided to demolish the oratory, and all that survived was part of the nave and the chapel with the frescoes by Jacopo da Verona.

In one sense, the frescoes here are closely bound up with the history of the technique itself, given that just one year after they were finished, in 1398, the important Tuscan artist Cennino Cennini, a painter at the court of the last Carraresi lord of Padua (Francesco II), would write the very first treatise on different artistic techniques. That work provided future generations with the technical know-how necessary for fresco painting, and thus might be said to have set the seal on the extraordinary history of that medium within Padua.

A fresco attributed to Cennini, detached from its original wall and now part of the collection of the Musei Civici di Padova, was perhaps created for the nave of this church, work on whose fresco decoration continued into the sixteenth century.