A brilliant day has dawned. We caffeinate and croissanate at a café mere steps away from our front door. We have a 9am spot for our designated quarter hour in the Scrovegni Chapel, but it’s a little hard to find due to my mistrust of the obvious. Enormous care has been taken to preserve and protect these frescoes of Giotto’s; building stabilization, climate control, and the meticulous restoration of the work itself. Joss and I must sit for a preliminary fifteen minutes in a acclimatizing room with thirty other 9am-ers, that’s how strictly controlled the environment is. Then we’re led into the Chapel and for fifteen minutes we are spiritually transported. Not an inch of the interior is without decoration. It is Giotto’s masterwork, an epic rendering of the stories of Jesus and of Mary, as well as Heaven and Hell. This is a world treasure of the first magnitude. I’m an atheist, but this is humbling, exquisite, and human. Storytelling at its most profound.
Padua is a relatively charmless city, certainly compared to the beauties we’ve seen. Though architectural modernity encroaches on the old infrastructure with abandon, Padua has many and various treasures. A walk through the Eremitani Museum, of which the Scrovegni Chapel is part, yields some amusing curiosities, but serves primarily as a way to come down from Giotto. Walk it off. I particularly loved a 14th century angelic bowling league, a golden-winged heavenly host earnestly holding black spheres in their laps. What I wouldn’t give for one of their bowling shirts.
The city’s old piazzas hold daily markets. The fruit and vegetable market in Piazza dei Frutti is gorgeous. The corresponding clothing market carries no navy blue crewneck sweaters that I could see. Padua’s Duomo is big. That is all. Following a quick sandwich of speck, we are up on our feet. “Oh, Joss. This. Let’s go here. Palazzo Bo.” She gives me a ‘Palazzo . . . Bo?’ look.
Palazzo Bo is the heart and soul of the University of Padua, the second oldest in Italy founded in 1222. It was the University’s first permanent building, built on the site of La Taverna Bo (Ox). Doing the math, its 800th anniversary is in five years. A guided tour starts in a half hour. We visit a couple of ‘Great Halls’ that look immensely dignified and very Renaissance, where no one ever took off their robes. Galileo Galilei instructed here and his putative podium is on display. In 1678, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman anywhere to be awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree.
The room I really want to see is the oldest operating theater in the world, constructed in 1594. We are ushered into the pit of it and are allowed a couple uncomfortable glances upward. Still, fantastic. Anatomical lessons only took place in the winter, as a precaution. Dead people may be free from pain, but over time they do get exceedingly ripe. In the next room, we gather round a wooden model that serves as a decent surrogate. Padua’s medical school taught men from all over Europe, including William Harvey of England, who discovered the circulation of the blood. Its law school served the same international student population.
“Where to next, Dad?” “How far is Orto Botanico?” “Spell it.” Twenty minutes later, we’re at the gate of the world’s oldest botanical garden, established in the 16th century by the University for the study of medicinal plants. Centered on a spurty fountain, four large square subdivided plots lie within a circular perimeter, around which stands a grove of specimen trees, including an ancient fucking palm that Goethe kvelled about. The vegetation in the Orto Botanico is definitely past its peak, but the place offers us one more evocative connection to antiquity.
Not far is the Basilica di Sant’Antonio, the elaborate final resting place of St. Anthony of Padua. What makes this church different from all the others we’ve seen is the fact that it’s a center of active faith. People by the thousands come here to pray to ‘The Saint’ for medical miracles. There are creepy relics behind the altar and offertory candles of all sizes, used and unused. Worshipers bow their heads and press their palms against his tomb. On either side are spontaneous collages of photographs of the healed. Joss bridles at the religion stuff, but seeing it in action, seeing people honestly place their trust in the whatever has a bit of a mollifying effect.
Months ago I made a reservation for the two of us at a restaurant, Le Calandre. I want our trip to end with a really great meal and Le Calandre has three Michelin stars. Tasting menus, here we come! The menu (only mine had prices) offers three tasting menu price points or, as our waiter explains, if we wish, a complete eleven-course meal. We opt for the doable seven-course option. It will cost us two hundred and fifty euros apiece. Trepidation soon gives way to the giggles. The food is crazy good and we’re just having so much fun. Three hours later, we call a cab.