I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Thursday, April 14, 2011


This morning I took the train to Padova because I had a 12:15 reservation to see the Giotto frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel. It's only a half hour train ride, but it felt like much more of a journey, going from the strange splendors of Venice to a city equally ancient, equally Italian, but one that obviously belongs to this century, with buses and cars and stoplights. Even though there weren't nearly as many people on the street as there were in Venice and few tourists, the traffic made it feel so much more crowded.

Which made it seem even more appropriate that you have to sit in a waiting room for fifteen minutes of decontamination before you're allowed into the chapel. The frescoes are amazingly well-preserved, but they're also very fragile; I think the psyche needs to decontaminate as well to go from the noise and bustle of the 21st century to the quiet of the 14th.

And it was quiet. The visit is only fifteen minutes and there's no guide or commentary, just 25 of you alone in a room with Giotto, no one speaking above a whisper.

No photos, of course. (No bags, for that matter, or jackets, though we were allowed to keep our shoes.) You can see images of the frescoes here, but photos are a poor substitute for seeing it in person. The paintings are the only decoration, with three tiers of images on both sides of the chapel depicting the life of Mary, and a huge Last Judgment covering the entire wall by the entrance. There are windows on one wall, so the frescoes were meant to be seen in natural light, and the colors change as you move, shadows seem to get deeper,there are flashes of iridescence. Enrico Scrovegni built the chapel to atone for his family's sins -- his father was the usurer Dante described in the Inferno -- and he may have practiced usury himself. (Then, it was a deadly sin; today we call it working on Wall Street.) I hope his sins were forgiven; his atonement is certainly spectacular.

Dante actually visited Giotto during the period he was painting these frescoes, and legend has it that he asked Giotto how a man who created such beautiful pictures could produce such plain children, and Giotto replied, "I made them in the dark."

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