Padua, Italy—"Padua has," said Padre Paolo, "a field with no grass, a cafe with no doors and a saint with no name."
Now I had seen the field, and it has grass. I had been to the cafe, and its doors were closed. And I had long realized that the saint is one of the best known in Christendom.
There is yet another paradox to Padua: It is a fascinating town, rich with history and art, and pretty. It has friendly, witty people and a hip, university-town demeanor. But few Americans visit it.
When you're only 30 miles from Venice, people tend to overlook you. Padua is in northeast Italy, in the Veneto, a region framed by the Alps and the Adriatic Sea and famous for Vivaldi, Valpolicella wine and Venice, with its serene glories. But Padua (population 203,000) is a major commercial center in the Veneto and a repository of remarkable religious art. It is a rewarding destination in itself, as its residents proudly will tell you and as my wife, Janice, and I found out.
We met Padre Paolo one evening in the middle of our eight-day stay here in March, as we sought to expand our knowledge of the Veneto beyond Venice. The Franciscan, who travels frequently to the U.S., had been recommended by our parish priest in Washington. "He loves to practice his English," we had been told. He also likes to show off Padua, and he took Janice and me on an hourlong nighttime walking tour through the historic streets and piazzas of the old city.
Padua's earliest residents were the Veneti, a pre-Roman people who created settlements in the area as early as 1200 BC. (Evidence of their art and culture can be seen in the city's large Civic Museum.) The city gradually fell under Rome's influence in the 1st century BC, developed as an independent city-state in the Middle Ages and came under Venice's influence in the 13th and 14th centuries. With Venice, Padua was conquered by France in 1797, and in subsequent decades control of the city alternated between Austria and the Kingdom of Italy until the unification of Italy in 1870.
For art historians, Padua mainly means Giotto. The city used to have more examples of the works of this early Renaissance master, who lived from 1267 to 1337, but most were lost to one calamity or another. His remaining pieces are carefully guarded in the Scrovegni Chapel, at the north edge of the city on the site of a former Roman arena. The chapel was commissioned in 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni, who, some say, had it built to atone for the sins of his father, an infamous usurer.
Giotto under wraps
The chapel is a hermetically sealed universe. As part of the extraordinary precautions to preserve its frescoes, only 25 people at a time are permitted to enter, and then only by appointment. We first spent 15 minutes in an air lock, watching a video that summarized what we were about to see. Then we were allowed to enter the chapel, which is about the size of a small-town community church, walking over special carpeting.
Under a painted starry sky, fresco panels, remarkably realistic for their time, display the lives of Christ and Mary and the Bible's teachings on virtues and vices. The predominant theme is redemption: those who are redeemed and those who aren't. The younger Scrovegni clearly wanted to be among the former, because Giotto depicts him presenting the chapel to Mary at the lower edge of a wall-sized "Last Judgment." Before it seemed possible, our allotted quarter-hour was up, guards shooed us into an exit chamber — also an air lock — and the chapel door closed behind us. Another door opened, and we were out on the street again.
Seeking refreshment, Janice and I then went to that cafe with no doors and found that it did have doors, and they were locked. The padre's description of Caffè Pedrocchi is not so much false as outdated. For more than eight decades after coffee merchant Antonio Pedrocchi opened it in 1831, the cafe was a round-the-clock gathering place for students, artists, writers and patriots. Shortly after World War I, however, its owners adopted more conventional hours.
We gave it another try the next morning and discovered that it is the mother of all Starbucks. Sculpted lions guarded the entrances. In a ground-floor salon, well-dressed espresso sippers studied newspapers under bronze and glass chandeliers while a piano and violin duo performed. Behind the bar an imperturbable barista satisfied competing requests for cappuccinos and pastries.
But it is the upstairs, the piano nobile, that sets Caffè Pedrocchi apart from your average decaf-skim-milk-latte place. It has a grand ballroom with a white ceiling decorated with gilded stucco lyres that are matched by little gilded bees on the wall. The wooden floor crunched underfoot as we moved through a series of smaller themed rooms used for social gatherings and business meetings. The Moorish room, once a ladies' waiting room, was decorated with painted mirrors and florid scrollwork.
Although the connection between coffee and college students seems eternal, the University of Padua, whose principal building lies across the street from the cafe, predates the introduction of coffee to Italy by several centuries.
In 1222 disgruntled law professors from the University of Bologna moved here to start a school. The new university grew and, in 1493, took over an old hotel, the Hospitium Bovis, or il Bò. Galileo once taught physics here.
Around the Bò's courtyard we saw 400-year-old Latin-inscribed medallions next to current bulletin board notices for guitar lessons, apartments for rent and job openings. Some of the historic classrooms can be toured, including the 16th century anatomical theater where William Harvey, who discovered the human circulatory system in the early 1600s, studied. (Unfortunately, tours had been suspended at the time of our visit.)
Graduation fun and games
A notice in the Bò's courtyard warned against unseemly graduation festivities, but as we walked around Padua that weekend, we encountered rowdy bands of students, each focusing on some unfortunate colleague who was made to wear a laurel wreath, dress in outlandish costume — in some cases, almost no costume at all — and read from a long script, usually illustrated with scandalous caricatures.