From Giotto’s work in the Scrovegni Chapel to that of the artists who followed him in the city, the fresco cycles in the ‘Padova Urbs picta’ nomination are an example of extraordinary creative genius. In Giotto’s case, that genius resulted in: the rejuvenation of the tradition of fresco painting; a new depiction of pictorial space (in particular, the exploration of the relationship between the space in a painting and the actual space of its architectural setting); a new attention to the portrayal of human feelings and emotions; the adaptation of sacred art to serve the secular celebration of prestige and power.
While in Padua over the years 1303-1305, Giotto would paint his absolute masterpiece: the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel, which is now also the best- known and best-preserved of all his fresco cycles. After having completed the fresco cycle in the Franciscan Basilica at Assisi, the artist had worked for Pope Boniface XIII in Rome and ultimately moved to Padua, where he developed new ideas that would rejuvenate the tradition of fresco painting. The fourteenth century, in fact, would see the emergence of the use of perspective in the modelling of pictorial space. At times, the command of perspective might be rule-of-thumb but this was still a total innovation, and its potential in the representation and organization of pictorial space was first exploited by Giotto, in Padua. Perhaps in part thanks to contacts with figures at Padua University, the artist was able to develop his ideas on the pictorial depiction of three- dimensional space, and his handling of both interior and external scenes began to demonstrate a new skill in overcoming the two-dimensional plane of the painted surface: with an unprecedented degree of realism, figures were now painted within spaces that projected in depth. Thus Padua in the first years of the fourteenth century was witness to a new way of perceiving and depicting space, in part thanks to the recovery and re-application of notions that had been known to classical antiquity. Throughout the fourteenth century, artists within the city – such as Giusto de’ Menabuoi and Altichiero da Zevio – would develop the use of perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface.
Another innovative feature in Giotto’s Scrovegni frescoes had been his attention to the depiction of human feelings and emotions. Never before had an artist shown such refinement in making each figure an individual, portrayed not solely as a physical body of defined volume and anatomy but also as a fully-fledged person whose reactions and feelings were captured with great psychological insight. Giotto was the first to attempt to people his scenes of biblical narrative with fully-rounded human beings, and this was another aspect of his art that would be developed upon in later fresco cycles within the city, in particular those by Jacopo Avanzi, Altichiero da Zevio and Jacopo da Verona.
Giotto’s work in Padua also marked the beginning of pictures which aimed to depict religious subjects within the context of everyday life and contemporary history – a tendency which in literature might be said to have begun with Dante’s Divina Commedia. When depicting scenes from the Bible, both Giotto and those who worked with him or after him would include not only saints and prophets, patriarchs and madonnas, but also recognizable contemporary figures and depictions of the clients who had commissioned the work (perhaps together with members of their family). At first, these depictions were only intended as portraits, but soon these contemporary figures were shown participating in the lives of the saints or biblical events; indeed, characters in the gospel narrative might even be depicted with their features.