PADUA, NURSERY OF THE ARTS
“Pronto! pronto! per favore, Senoras.” A woman hurried over to us motioning frantically for us to move to the side of the walk and to be still for a moment.
Behind her appeared a bearded man rolling a motion picture camera. Around the corner two boys -- dressed in tights, short velvet pants, white shirts, and velvet capes with voluminous hats on their young heads -- strolled casually in deep conversation with one another. The man with the camera held a microphone on a long pole close enough to pick up their dialogue from Act I of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“Tranio, since, for the great desire I had to see fair Padua, nursery of the arts, here let us breathe and happily institute a course of learning and ingenious studies,” said Lucentia to his servant upon their arrival in Padua.
The director, who’d been operating the camera, apologized for ‘shushing’ us and said he felt it was so important to use the medium of television to keep cultural values alive for young people, to teach them about 16th century Padua.
The history of Padua goes back to 1000 B.C., and it has always been committed to learning and to the arts, giving asylum to Petrarch, Giotto, Donnatello and Montegne, who all did commissions there. Immortalized by Shakespeare -- who, ironically was never in Italy -- for most of the world, Padua lives otherwise hidden in the shadow of Venice, 25 miles east. Yet, were it located anywhere else, it’s ‘virtues’ would not go so unnoticed.
Set on the flat plain below the Euganean hills, and beyond them, The Alps, Padua is a small city surrounded by agricultural lands. It’s skyline is one of faded orange and brown tile roofs, dotted with spires of the Basilica of St. Anthony and other churches, and the unique signature of the Veneto region -- a combination of soaring Gothic and the soft curved domes of Venetian-Byzantine style.
I had arrived on the train from Venice that morning. The ride takes only 30 minutes. It was July and very hot. The train swept us past vineyards, cornfields and acres of bright gold sunflowers Sweet scents blew through the open windows along with dust and smoke from the train’s engine.
An old man sat across from me gesturing and muttering to himself. He was bald, rigidly bent, and wore dark sunglasses. Periodically in his musings, he’d pull on his very large ears as if to make a point that only he could possibly understand.
I’d left Venice with mixed feelings. The magic realism of the city enchanted me. I’d wandered for hours down its canals, watching the light and color play in the water. However, I wasn’t sorry to leave the crowds of tourists thick as pigeons in San Marco Square. I doubt I’d ever have thought to visit Padua if I hadn’t been invited by a native Paduan. I wondered what to expect since so little has been written about it, barring Shakespeare, of course.
A rustling of paper drew my attention back from my thoughts to the old man. He’d pulled out a brown bag from which he drew out a very large red tomato, cheese, and a thick slab of bread. I smiled to myself as I watched him enjoy his meal, completely absorbed in his own world, bread crumbs thick down his shirt and in his lap.
Padua, I told myself, would be like the old man’s bag, I’d have to wait and see what treasures it had hidden from the eyes of the world.
My Paduan friend, Graziella picked me up at the train station and swept me into the heart of the city. Walking arm in arm through the narrow passageways of the old city, she pointed out the names and dates of palaces, and theatres dating back to the 13th century. The winding labyrinthine streets were cool and quiet, shaded by two to three story buildings, close in. Above our heads window boxes jutted out from the sides cascading voluminous displays of predominately red flowers against the soft tones of the walls; oranges, yellows, ochres and occasional greens. For several blocks in the city center, no cars were allowed, so we were free to move comfortably on our way to the palace of her friend, whose family home I’d come to photograph.
Often the line of buildings opened up to squares where linen covered tables and chairs meandered out from small cafes. The scent of roasting coffee was thick in the hot mid-day air. Windows displayed bright colored pictures of gelato in wafflecones, green glass olive oil bottles, bowls of cherries and peaches, and long loaves of bread.
As we came to a nondescript wall, Graziella suddenly stopped, pushed the button of an intercom set next to a large iron gate, and spoke quickly in Italian. A buzzer sounded and the lock of the gate clicked open, swinging silently in to a dark passage. We walked in to find another set of gates. Again the buzzer and click, and we passed into a large courtyard and saw such a splendid sight inside this private world that I gasped.
Graziella laughed and put her arm around my shoulder. “Do you like it?”
“Like it? It’s incredible,” I said.
The palace had four wings. In the center was a large square with trees, but mostly plain. On the top of the buildings stood 30 gold statues of men and women. To our left a long marble walkway was flanked by several beautifully sculpted statues of heroic figures, set into alcoves. The colors were soft and muted; whites, and beiges, accented by gold. At the end of the walk was a grand staircase of 30 steps lined with pillars and arches and accented by a thick red rope tie.
The owner gave us a tour of the inner rooms. Built in 1750 by the Veneto architect Girolamo Frigemelica, all of the furnishings were original and most of the rooms were frescoed in the style of the period; gorgeous blues, pinks and golds, with country scenes and angels everywhere. Truly breathtaking. Below the present structure, was a 13th century one, below that a Roman villa and chapel, and below that one was the wall of a home, from 800 BC !
At dinner that night Graziella told me that there are many other places like the one we’d seen today. That the four square mile center of the city is made up mostly of such hidden treasures, and the plain walls we saw as we walked by were made in a time in history when protection from invading neighbors was still a concern. Today they protect the privacy of the occupants.
If the days were hot and uncomfortable, the nights were divine. The warmth and humidity softened by darkness became like water one is swimming through. That night we were to see the daughter of a friend dance. We walked down a wide lane lighted by occasional lanterns and lined with towering 200 year old magnolia trees that smelled lemony sweet to see the ballet performance in a former gunpowder stoarage room of the city’s 13th century defensive wall.
For centuries, Padua and the Euganean Hills have been the site for learning, theatre and the arts. Venetian nobles built country villas throughout the area where pursuit of the arts, hunting, riding, and fishing formed a backdrop for their leisure.
The next day we went early to the city center where three separate squares--piazze-- operate daily. Piazza Dei Frutti (fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses), Piazza Delle Erbe (plants and herbs), and Piazza Cavour (clothes and dry goods). The three squares are surrounded by the oldest buildings in town; beautiful ornate structures in golden tones with rodiron balconies hanging out over the food stalls and an astrological clock tower that’s a center piece of honor.
As Graziella went off to do her shopping and then take food home, I wandered happily. Rows of tables draped in orange, yellow and green plaid covers were arranged beside the market stalls for breakfast. Large white umbrellas dotted the sky. Here old men lounged with their morning papers, occasionally looking up to watch a woman walk past.
Bright red tomatoes-- sweet smell of summer heat, sun-yellow squash blossoms lined up in perfect rows, purple plums begging to be touched, their fruit soft and yielding. The blend of fruit perfumes mingled brilliantly with the more sober vegetable essences. Looking, and tasting, I practiced my few Italian words on the stall keepers, who were all happily tolerant of my ignorance.
Near the markato are several renowned churches dating back to the 11th century. . Finding myself virtually alone to explore these beautiful monuments, I could hardly believe my good fortune as I remembered the mobs of tourists in Venice.
Leaving the chapel Scrovegni -- where the painter Giotto did his most important fresco series in 1304-06-- I was met by drums and guitars being amplified over 15 foot speakers on a huge outdoor stage. A couple of dozen dancers and musicians were rehearsing for a rock concert that night as part of a the city’s cultural program! Suddenly I had an image of Giotto painting in the summer heat, accompanied by the lively rock music, and I wondered what he would have felt. I couldn’t help believing that he’d have welcomed the entertainment.
The ancient chapel with it’s formal gardens and statues formed a backdrop for the lively music; beautiful young girls in tight jean shorts and tank tops danced in unrestrained self expression, a young man drew out the high scream of his guitar, rows and rows of brilliant orange seats, together created a picture in my mind like layers of an archaeological dig where each layer of previous life mingles with the newer and yet they’re one whole piece.
I did spend a day photographing the palace, but the other six were filled with seeing the many ancient sights and meeting and eating with new friends. I never had a mediocre meal, let alone a bad one. One night Graziella’s brother and sister-in-law, Francesco and Patrizia, took us to a place Francesco promised would be,“Out of this world”.
Padua sprawls for some distance from the center before you come to vineyards and cornfields, sunflower meadows and tomato patches, and 25 miles away, the Euganean Hills. We drove for twenty minutes through residential neighborhoods until we came to ‘La Siesta’ considered to be the best fish house inthe Veneto.
The outside dining area was large with plenty of space between the white linen draped tables. The silky warm night air invited us to sink into the comfortable chairs and give in to a leisurely romp through a menu of fish that I couldn’t have imagined; tiny red mussels that tasted like jewels from the sea, baby octopus that melted in your mouth and bore no resemblance to the usual chewy variety, a large white fish cooked in a thick coating of salt as light as clouds in the mouth. Regional wines matched the delicacy and variety of the fish.
My host and hostess spoke no English, and I, no Italian, so Graziella graciously translated, for what was to become the most stimulating conversation of my visit. Whether it was the warm night, the food, the wine, or some fairy magic of Puck from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, we immediately launched into a philosophic enquiry to match any I could imagine at the University of Padua where Galileo and Dante once taught. Gesturing grandly, Francesco would go off on a subject with such intensity and passion that I didn’t actually need to understand his words. I felt I knew his heart and could follow along like listening to a symphony; the notes are not important, it is the feeling. In response I was moved to express myself with as much intensity so that as the courses of divine food passed before us, so also did the energy of thought and feeling, rising to a crescendo of exhilarating passion. Graziella, caught in the middle, would laugh and pat my cheek to tell me she was happy. Patrizia spoke little but when she did it was with consideration and a quiet power that made me stop and think more deeply.
With many “chow’s” and “va bene’s”, and many kisses to each cheek, we left each other. I recalled the fervent exchange among University of Padua students I had noticed on the train from Venice and felt somehow closer myself to the free flow of feeling Italians are so famous for.
Padua has always been foreword thinking and it is also eminently practical; being both agriculturally based and having to survive continual invasions from other countries. It’s history is full of change, but it’s people have maintained certain qualities throughout; a passion for independence, philosophy, art and music, and a strong family life. It is a thriving city that maintains it’s connection to the past without losing its ability to move into the modern world.
As the archetypal, ‘nursery of the arts’, my experience of Padua was that it does indeed demonstrate as Shakespeare wrote in his play that I saw being filmed: “No profit grows where is no pleasure taken.”
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