Scrovegni Chapel


Right in the center of Padova (Padua), in the northern part of Italy, an unassuming chapel hides one of the most precious art treasures in the world. The cappella degli Scrovegni was built in the year 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni, an incredibly rich banker, as an annex to his family palace, now demolished. Enrico was the son of Rinaldo, a man so famous for his avarice that Dante portrayed him in his Divine Comedy as the epitome of greed. Rinaldo is found in hell, in the circle of moneylenders, and obviously wasn’t an especially beloved figure.

The reasoning behind building the chapel is a consequence of this, explicitly declared in one of the frescoes inside it. Enrico is shown kneeling before the Virgin Mary, offering a scale model of the chapel as an ex voto, an offering of gratitude and a sort of bribe to be pardoned of all his sins and be allowed through the heaven’s gates. This opportunistic (and very Italian) attitude also became manifest as the construction approached completion. The banker tried to slip in a transept and a bell tower which weren’t part of the original building plan, in order to be laid to rest in a splendid, family-owned church. The monks of the nearby monastery weren’t amused, however, and forced him to scale the building back to the agreed size and features. In fact, the current bell tower was added centuries later, and the man is allegedly buried elsewhere.

What is interesting in this sacred building, however, is not its history nor its importance for the diplomatic relations between the Scrovegni family and the Vatican. The wonder of the chapel is apparent as soon as you step inside, as its walls are almost completely covered with 57 splendid frescoes by Giotto. Giotto has been one of the most important painters of all times, introducing volumes, action, a better perspective and a new sense of color in painting.

The Scrovegni chapel is also one of the few fresco works he personally painted almost in its entirety, instead of just tracing the foundation art and leaving his apprentice to complete it. The very impressive result reads like a book in a downward spiral that also includes various trick paintings designed to create the illusion of a larger space around the viewer. The story begins with the cycle of Joachim and Hannah, running parallel with the life of Mary until they meet in an Annunciation scene with the archangel Gabriel. This leads into the cycle of the life of Christ, from the Visitation and birth (with the Halley comet used as the model for the Holy Star) to his death, ascension and the Pentecost. The final set of frescoes depicts the Vices and the Virtues one facing the other – with the “curious” absence of the vice of Greed, shoehorned in as one unspoken aspect of Envy. The final fresco is about the Final Judgment, with a special focus on the aforementioned Enrico Scrovegni offering the model chapel. It is arguable whether his effort earned him the Paradise instead of just making him the city’s laughingstock – but one thing is certain: without him the world would have been short of one of its grandest art masterpieces.