It’s half past 9:00 in the morning and I’m at Santa Lucia station waiting for a train to Padua. It’s been a strange start to the day. I had a wonderful breakfast outside in the courtyard of the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo—a steaming cup of cappuccino with a dusting of cocoa powder on top, a bowl of cereal, and a warm apricot croissant. The sky was bright as I waited for the vaporetto at San Stae, but now clouds have rushed in with astonishing speed, swallowing up the blue.
I’ve passed through a dozen or more train stations on this trip, and in most of them there are TV monitors in the waiting rooms or by the tracks. There is one commercial in particular that keeps looping over and over, and I think it’s for a car insurance company. I haven’t paid much attention to the visuals, but the force of repetition has made the music stick deep in my brain. It’s an Ingrid Michaelson song and she’s singing: “I just want to be OK, be OK, be OK. I just want to be OK today.” It’s been driving me crazy for the past two weeks, but all of the sudden it seems like a reasonable request. By the time I board the train leaving Venice, there are raindrops sliding down the windows.
I’m making the trip to Padua primarily to see the Scrovegni Chapel. Built around 1300 by a wealthy family on the grounds of a sprawling estate, the walls have frescoes by Giotto—the same artist who painted the life of St. Francis in the basilica in Assisi.
I’m early for my 11:00 AM reservation and so I spend the time wisely in an adjacent room, exploring a multimedia presentation. Reginaldo Scrovegni was a nobleman of some disrepute. He was, in medieval parlance, a usurer, which is to say he loaned money and charged interest. Living as we do today in a capitalist society, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without such grease for the economic gears, but at the time this was considered a serious moral and religious offense, so much so that when Dante described “The Inferno” in his Divine Comedy, he placed Reginaldo in the Seventh Circle of Hell. He didn’t do it by name, exactly, but he referred to “one who had an azure, pregnant sow”—a reference to the coat of arms of the Scrovegni family. Everyone knew who he meant.
Reginaldo’s son Enrico was worried about his father’s mortal soul, and probably his own, since the wealth he inherited by tainted by usury. To atone for the family’s sins, a chapel was commissioned and Giotto was hired to paint its walls.
When my time is called, I move slowly with a handful of other visitors into the tiny space. I am allowed just 15 minutes here, so my eyes work quickly. There is a barrel vaulted ceiling decorated with gold stars on a field of blue that resembles the nighttime sky, and the walls are covered with scenes that tell of the “Life of the Virgin” and the “Life of Christ.”
At one end, there is the ubiquitous depiction of “The Last Judgment.” At first glance, the iconography doesn’t seem very creative. There’s an army of blue horned devils mutilating a mass of terrified and naked sinners, but of course there is. That’s to be expected. It’s the ring of fire encircling the scene that brings my mind back to the story of the chapel’s creation, and I imagine how intensely personal Enrico’s fear must have been. It is Dante’s vision come to life.
In a prominent and telling scene, Giotto shows Enrico, on bended knee, presenting the chapel to the Virgin—a likeness of this very chapel, precisely matching the details of its windows, doors, and roofline.
As I’m ushered out of the door, I think about how all of this was intended as an offering and a plea for absolution. Yet in the early and often sordid history of the Catholic Church, I suspect that the granting of indulgences was at least as wicked as usury itself.
If Antico Caffè Greco is a historical landmark in Rome, and the equivalent in Venice is the venerable Caffè Florian, in Padua it is Caffè Pedrocchi. Built in the early 19th century, it has long been frequented by professors and students in this university town, and it was the focal point of the riots of 1848. Thankfully, its grand salons are quiet today when I stop in for a sandwich and a cup of caffè alla menta—their signature mint coffee
I’m hiding out, really, biding my time to see if the rain will let up. When it doesn’t, I make the best of things, hopping from one arcade to the next, and when necessary, hovering beneath my umbrella.
I’ve hit an awkward time of the afternoon. I’d like to see the duomo and baptistery, but both are closed between noon and 3:30 for that most august of Italian institutions, the siesta. I consider my options and opt to take a turn through the markets in Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta before visiting the adjacent Palazzo della Ragione, the city’s medieval town hall. It’s a mammoth space, unsupported by columns, with a ceiling that stands through sheer force of will. The walls are covered with allegorical frescoes and there is an ancient sculpture of a horse, carved of wood, at one end.
The midday break is shorter at the Basilica of St. Anthony, so by the time I walk across town, its doors are open and I duck inside. I’m soaking wet and the zipper on my bag, already worn by years of hard use, has frayed and broken. There will be no way for me to keep my camera dry. I do my best to enjoy the church, but my energy is flagging and I think—at long last—that I have visited one church too many. I wrap my arms around my bag, pinching it closed, and slog as quickly as I can back to the train station, humming along the way: “I just want to be OK, be OK, be OK.”
When I reemerge from my hotel in Venice in the early evening, I find—much to my amazement—that the morning’s sky has returned, quite unannounced. As Henry James once wrote: “The charm was, as always in Italy, in the tone and the air and the happy hazard of things…”
Feeling renewed in every way, I roam through the city, across the Rialto Bridge, and through St. Mark’s Square to the Zattere, a wide waterfront promenade facing La Giudecca and the Venetian lagoon. I have a light dinner at Ristorante Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, and find it amusing when a tiny and very brazen bird lands on my table and helps himself to a slice of bread.
I move on to the Accademia bridge and set up for some night shots of the Grand Canal, looking down toward the majestic dome of the Salute church, and then as ever—because it would be unimaginable to do otherwise—I linger in St. Mark’s Square, under a quarter moon, listening to the orchestras play.
I am OK.