Region: Veneto - Province: Padova
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Starting from the sixties in the 13th century, Padua had experienced an exceptional upsurge of its political, military and diplomatic role in the mainland of Veneto. Exactly in the years immediately prior to Giotto's arrival in Padua, the city had grown to become a major urban centre, ranking among the first fifteen in the country. This exceptional golden age, which was never equalled, allowed the city to go beyond a regional, narrow cultural milieu.
Following the shift from the Communal to the seigniorial rule, Enrico Scrovegni - a rich banker and merchant from Padua - made the attempt to become Lord of the city; by building a public oratory with private funds, he wished to leave an unambiguous mark of his political strength not only by comparison with the other noblemen, but also with regard to the Republic of Venice.
To adorn the Chapel, which was dedicated to Santa Maria della Carità and had been built initially to complete the family's Palace, Enrico turned to two of the greatest artists of the age. He commissioned 3 marble statues for the altar showing Our Lady and Child between two deans to Giovanni Pisano, whilst Giotto was entrusted with painting the walls.
Giotto was already renowned as an artist; he had worked for the Pope in St. Francis' Basilica in Assisi and in St. John's in Lateran in Rome, whilst in Padua he had worked in St. Anthony's Basilica and the Communal Palace (called "della Ragione", i.e. Palace of the Reason).
There is no wealth of documentary information on the Chapel. There is the purchase instrument, dated 3 February 1300, of the piece of land on which it was built, which included the remains of the old Roman amphitheatre; however, there is no record concerning directly the building and decoration of the monument.
The Chapel is a simple brick building in line with the local tradition of masonry; it is a barrel-vaulted rectangular room, of no especially imposing size, ending in a nearly quadrangular chancel with groined vault that is preceded by a triumphal arch. The walls are smooth and without any architectural partition. The fact that two areas are marked for worship - the front one up to the two side altars, which was meant for the people, and the other, smaller one located between the altars and the triumphal arch, which was reserved for the Scrovegni family - probably mirrors the dual objective pursued by the owner in building this Chapel. On the one hand, he wished to redeem his family from the sin of usury by symbolically returning the profits he had attained; on the other hand, he wished to use the new building as a burial chapel, which is probably shown by the barrel vault representing a starry sky, which looks peculiarly similar to the burial monuments of Ravenna. Although the public function of the building ultimately prevailed, the co-existence of these two components is an unmistakable feature of the paintings by Giotto, which were created between 1305 and 1310, and is mirrored by the multi-layered interpretation of the images as positioned all around the observer.
The frescoes painted by Giotto cover all the walls in accordance with a complex iconographic plan that is focused on the stories of the Virgin and Christ; on the rear side of the façade there is the huge Last Judgment, which is the final piece in the history of man's salvation. In the absence of pre-existing architectural partitions, the space is subdivided exclusively by means of the paintings; this is why some scholars have suggested that the chapel - which is so well suited to accommodating the paintings in a unified whole - may have been designed by Giotto. The paintings are framed by a monochromatic frieze with small coloured medallions, as if the wall were the page of a huge illuminated manuscript. The sequence of the stories does not follow the almost ritualistic order enshrined in iconographic tradition; the scenes are co-ordinated though independent, and follow one another as stanzas in a poem.
The barrel vault shows, within shield medallions against a starry sky, half-length figures of Our Lady and Child, a Blessing Christ, and Prophets and Saints. On the lower layer of the walls there are fourteen monochromatic paintings of allegories of Vices and Virtues, each bearing its own name and accompanied by Latin scrolls of an explanatory nature. Finally, there are the Stories from the Gospel; the sequence includes thirty-seven episodes concerning the Stories of Joachim and Anne, Christ as a Child, and the Passion (except for the Last Judgment) and develops over three different layers. On the triumphal arch there is painted, up above, the figure of God as Eternity surrounded by Angels, as a celestial introduction to the Annunciation scene painted on the two sides of the arch. Underneath there are the Visitation and Judas' Betrayal, and finally two fake architectural spaces painted in perspective and without any representation. These are the so-called "coretti" - two extraordinary wall paintings optically focused on the apse, which are intended as a painted spatial extension. They are an absolute novelty in the development of Medieval painting, and also testify to the full mastery of the laws of optics by Giotto, who employs them skilfully in different manners throughout a unified pictorial composition.
The whole iconographic cycle was completed by the great master in about two years with extraordinary quickness, thanks to his exceptional mastery of painting techniques and an innovative organisation of work, which he had already tested in Assisi and is implemented here to its fullest degree.
The first reference to Giotto as the author of the paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel - which actually has never been questioned - can already be found in documentary sources of that age.
Since the Chapel was bought by the city of Padua, in 1880, the frescoes have been the subject of unrelenting care; several conservation actions were undertaken in the 19th and 20th centuries. From the 1970s to nowadays, accurate researches and monitoring activities were carried out on the situation of the building, air quality, pollutants, and conservation of the frescoes - thanks to the close co-operation between local Municipality, Superintendant's Office and Central Institute for Restoration. After the new access pavilion was built and an air processing system was installed, it was possible to manage the considerable number of visitors in such a way as not to jeopardise conservation of the frescoes. The latest checks showed that the situation had stabilised and allowed carrying out a conservation action on the frescoes, which was completed in 2001 by the Central Institute for Restoration.
Protection of the monument is ensured by the national legislation on protective measures (Legislative decree no. 42/2004 containing the "Code for Cultural Heritage and Landscape") as well as by the management mechanisms aimed at allowing conservation.