On the Arena Chapel

It is a simple brick building, not a cathedral, library, palazzo or indeed anything other than a smallish rectangular space most probably created by the fresco painter himself, to house a fresco cycle, commissioned out of atonement for sin and filial piety.  It sits in a little park next to the old Roman arena, clad in the moody fog of Padova in late December.

The wealthy heir Enrico Scrovegni most likely asked Giotto to design & decorate the chapel in 1300, possibly to give rest to his father Reginaldo’s soul. Reginaldo made a fortune in banking, and as a usurer, earned the dubious honour of a place in Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell.  Sort of an early case of the 1% using the arts to ensure the 99% remember them in the rosiest possible light; and, of course, artists being only too happy to take their money, while slagging them off at the same time !

The iconography of the chapel is ostensibly the life of Christ ranging from the expulsion of Joachim from the temple, the lives of Mary and Jesus, through the Resurrection. Images of usury take prominence, including images of bankers and of Judas.

Giotto’s innovations in the chapel range from depicting the 60 odd panels of the story in a sequence that corkscrews around the viewer culminating in a Last Judgement on one wall, with the tomb of Enrico Scrovegni in the apse surmounted by a lovely sculpture by Giovanni Pisano.  However, the most interesting formal features are the drawn, accentuated, almost orientalised features of the mourning figures at the Crucifixion, which marry the stylisation of Byzantine art with a higher degree of modelling with colour and light, augmenting or even replacing the flatness of the Greek antecedent. Giotto also shows, within the cycle itself, if one compares the upper panels with the lower ones, an improving ability to realistically depict the bodily form as it sits under drapery & clothing. Lastly, he experiments with his presentation of architectural spaces in the panels, sometimes having a degree of recession/foreshortening, other times showing buildings with little or no recession: rather, with a radical 45 degree projection that almost pushes the buildings out of the walls.  In doing so, he is feeling his way towards realistic perspective, and the innovations of the Renaissance, while holding onto the formal conventions of the Romanesque/Medieval styles which accord more importance to the objects within buildings (the Ark within the Temple), to the functions of the buildings (the religious service within the Temple), to the figures that are central to the story (Joachim, turned away from the Temple by the priest, while another, more fortunate, receives the sacrament within), than to any particular fidelity to “reality”.

The accompanying museum is not to be missed, with its rich collection of archaeological objects from the Veneto, as well as a great deal of Venetian art, including top-flight examples by Titian, Mantegna, etc.