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The Scrovegni Chapel

Santa Maria della CaritÓ
(Arena Chapel)
Piazza Eremitani

A small chapel dedicated to Santa Maria Annunziata stood here originally, at least since 1278, and a procession and mystery play celebrating the Annunciation was held here on the feats day every 25th of March.  In 1300 banker Enrico Scrovegni bought from the noble-but-impoverished Dalesmanini family an enormous area of land which included the chapel and the eastern part of the Roman Arena, which was of a size and appearance to match the Arena in Verona. Scrovegni built a palace and rebuilt the chapel. It was dedicated to Santa Maria della CaritÓ at the Feast of the Annunciation in 1303, when rebuilding began, and consecrated on 25th March 1305, by which date the fresco decoration by Giotto and his workshop had also been completed. It is now better known as the Arena Chapel or the Scrovegni Chapel. It was built next to the palace as a family oratory, but was also used for the long-established service during the Feast of the Annunciation.
Enrico Scrovegni's fortune was derived from money lending, and usury was at the time thought to be a sin so grave as to exclude those guilty of it from the benefit of Christian sacraments. There is a widely held and written-about belief that Enrico built and changed the dedication of the chapel in penance for his father's sin of usury. His father, Rainaldo, had been a social climber nonetheless famous for singing lewd songs in his youth. Later he was one of the usurers mentioned in Dante's Inferno - his arms (a blue sow on a white field) were placed in the seventh circle of the Inferno. (Dante and Giotto are said to have been friends, with Dante staying in Giotto's house.) But the theory that Enrico built the Arena Chapel to make restitution for his father's usury has been questioned in recent years. He was law-abiding lender and had set aside funds in his will for any challenges after his death, and Enrico himself had not exactly scrimped on bequests and philanthropy already. Enrico died, and was buried, in exile in Venice on the 20th of August 1336, having been the victim of double-dealing allies, including Giacomo and Marsilio da Carrara. He had fled Padua in 1320, ahead of his to his formal banishment in 1328. He was buried initially in the Camaldolese monastery of San Mattia on Murano, but his body was moved to a tomb in the apse here three months after his death, on 23rd November 1336. It features a Virgin and Child and two Angels, by Giovanni Pisano from c.1303ľ18.

Giotto was also an architect and so it has recently been argued that he may have designed the chapel too. But it is also argued that the architect was Fra Giovanni Eremitano, who lived in the neighbouring Eremitani and is said to be the monk holding the model of the chapel with Enrico Scrovegni in Giotto's fresco of The Last Judgement on the entrance wall (see detail right). The palace later passed to the Foscari family and was demolished in 1827, the chapel having also then been slated for demolition two years later.
Fragments of the palace remain in Padua - the Palazzo del Monte di PietÓ has six bays in the arcade at the left of its fašade and a bit of doorway in its wall.

It is thought that, having been brought here by the Franciscans to work in the Santo after his work at Assisi, it was whilst working there that Giotto met Enrico Scrovegni - he also frescoed a Scrovegni family chapel there - which led to his commission to decorate the Arena Chapel. It seems that Giotto and his workshop worked fast, as the decoration is thought to have been finished at the same time as the consecration in 1305. The chapel has a rectangular barrel-vaulted nave, six tall windows along the right-hand side and a three-light window high in the fašade. The small chancel was finished later with fresco decoration by a a lesser Paduan painter. It is flanked by a pair of small side altars, also of a later date. Above the arch, the image of God the Father is actually tempera on panel, and this panel is a window shutter.
To the left of the chancel arch and the Annunciation is another window (visible in the photo left) whichthe female members of the Scrovegni family would have worshipped behind, having walked down a corridor from their palazzo next door.
The interior space seems designed  for decoration with frescoes, possibly on Giotto's advice, with a lack of architectural embellishment and windows facing south-east. Giotto's frescoes here, painted c.1303-5, are unarguably his finest work, and certainly the best preserved, with thirty-seven scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus. They are also one of the very rare uncontested examples of his work. But they were only really  universally accepted as of unique importance and quality in the 20th century, as the quote below from Ruskin illustrates. Vasari never even saw them, Padua being so small and far from Florence. Their centuries of neglect were  halted in 2002, when the chapel reopened after restoration.
The vivid blue star-studded ceiling has painted medallions - Christ surrounded by four prophets (including John the Baptist) on the half nearest the altar; the Virgin and four more prophets nearest the entrance. The series depicting the life of the Virgin begins at the top left of the right-hand wall. By the time the series reaches the left hand wall it's into the life of Jesus.

Ruskin wrote
The drawing of Giotto is, of course, exceedingly faulty. His knowledge of the human figure is deficient.

Lost art
A painted Crucifix (see right) and a panel of God the Father, both by Giotto and painted for this chapel, are now in the Eremitani Civic Museum next door. The Crucifix is signed by Giotto, is painted on both sides (the reverse being pretty ruined and featuring a painting of the Mystic Lamb and symbols of the Four Evangelists) and was probably painted at the same time as the frescoes. It may well have been placed on a screen between the nave and presbytery. It was restored in the early 1990s.

Opening times
Monday to Sunday 9.00 - 7.00
Pre-booking is essential

You wait in an air-conditioned waiting-room watching a video for 15 minutes (to 'stabilise the interior microclimate') then enter the Chapel for a 15 minutes, so visits last about 30 minutes.

Laura Jacobus Giotto and the Arena Chapel 2008   All you'll ever need to know, and more.
(This is now eye-wateringly expensive second-hand but a new edition has long been promised)

A mid-18th century watercolour by Marino Urbani showing the chapel (centre) when it
was attached to the Scrovegni family palazzo, then known as the Palazzo Foscari.


South Wall

North Wall


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