Padova

 

Padua: The Oldest City in Northern Italy

Padua is the capital of its own province in the region of Veneto in Northern Italy. It has a population of about 212,000, and is only 12 meters above sea level. It is located only about half an hour by train from its more famous neighbor, and once rival, Venice, but this university town deserves its own attention and a visit. It is also an easily trip from Verona, Vicenza and Ferrara. Like many Italian towns with long histories, Padua was not built for cars, so you will see that its residents and students often zip through the historic center on bicycles, easing the streets of the traffic that often makes many old cities oppressive.

Unfortunately, much of the northern part of Padua was bombed out during the Second World War, but there is still a beautiful historic center to the town, which includes parts of the University, one of the oldest in Italy, said to be founded in 1221. The university was attended by such noted scholars as Petrarch, Dante and Galileo. Padua was also the setting for Catherine’s home in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, not to mention where poor Romeo took refuge when hiding from authorities in Romeo and Juliet. Walking down the streets, one finds canals and bridges, arcaded walkways and ornate architecture reminiscent of Venice and the East.

Long claiming to be the oldest city in Northern Italy, Padua is believed to have been inhabited since the 9th century BC. It is considered to have been an important center of paleoveneto civilization. The city was listed as a Roman municipium as early as 45 BC, and there are still remnants of the Roman amphitheatre to testify to this. It was invaded by Attila and the Huns in around 452, and fell under the influence of the Byzantines in 540. Its history continues like this, with Padua falling under the control of different warring bodies including the Magyars and the Franks. Finally calming down at the beginning of the 11th century as the citizens established a constitution under the leadership of the Carraresi government, although wars continued with nearby Venice and Vicenza over water rights. In the 19th century Padua was occupied first by the French and then by the Austrians until joining with the new Kingdom of Italy in 1866. Throughout its history, one finds sieges and invasions too numerous to recount here, but let us say that it has all contributed to the richness of Padua’s history.

Main Attractions

Prato della Valle

This piazza is one of the best known symbols of Padua. It is an enormous elliptical square, and at about 90,000 mt², it is considered to be the largest in Europe next to Moscow’s Red Square. Students and families alike enjoy the park-like atmosphere among the 78 statues that line the center garden and the canals that run through it. Nearby, one finds the basilica and abbey of Santa Giustina, which was founded in the 5th century on the tomb of Saint Justine of Padua, its namesake. Within are tombs and relics of various saints and a vast art collection, including the Martyrdom of St. Justine by Paolo Veronese.

Cappella degli Scrovegni

Built in 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni to atone for his father’s sins, it is most famous for its frescoes of the New Testament Cycle within painted by Giotto from 1304-1307. The frescoes are narrative in nature and have a strong sense of depth, still revolutionary at the time. Looking closely, one can even find Giotto himself pictured in the Last Judgment, in the front row, the fourth from the left. Advanced booking is required, but it is worth the effort.

Il Museo Civico

Housed in the old church of the Eremitani, built in the 13th century, this museum has a vast collection including archeology, with objects dating back as early as the 6th to 1st centuries BC. There is also a collection of paintings with works by Giotto, Guariento, Bellini, and Titian among a long list of others. Of special note is the collection of small Renaissance bronzes, typical of Padua.

Santa Sofia

Santa Sofia is an example of Padua’s rich history. The oldest church in Padua, its apse is a great example of Byzantine architecture, while within one finds elements of the Romanesque-Gothic styles in the basilica. The church was first built in the 9th century, to be rebuilt in the 11th.

Basilica di Sant’Antonio

Padua is home to the beloved Saint Anthony, who came as a young friar to work in the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini, which was donated to him in 1229. After Saint Anthony’s death in 1231, his body was displayed in the church for pilgrims to see. There were so many that in 1232 construction was begun to enlarge the church into what is now called the Basilica di Sant’Antonio, where his body is kept even now. The church is made up of seven domes around a large cupola. Even today, pilgrims line up to visit the saint and say a prayer. The high altar was done by Donatello from 1445-1450. Within one also finds Venetian marble reliefs of the 16th century and frescoes by Giusto de’Menabuoi, painted in 1382, among other things. There is even the Museo Antoniano, on the premises, which houses art that was once in the church. Across the piazza, one finds Donatello’s statue of Gattamelata, an equestrian bronze made in 1453. Also on the piazza is the Oratorio di San Giorgio which houses some beautiful frescoes painted by students of Giotto and also frescoes by a young Titian. Not far from the piazza, one finds the Orto Botanico which was established in 1585 and is considered Europe’s oldest botanical garden.

Palazzo della Ragione

Be sure to visit this palace in central Padua that was first built in 1218 to serve as Padua’s law courts, to later be rebuilt in 1306. The building stands upon arches and the upper floor is surrounded by an open loggia. It has one of the largest surviving medieval halls upstairs, at almost 815m by 27m, with a height of 24m. Referred to as Il Salone, its walls are covered in allegorical frescoes. Within, in addition to the permanent exhibit, one finds traveling art shows.

L’Universitá di Padova

The university itself is central to the feel of the town. For almost 800 years it has been accepting students from around the world to study there and their presence is strongly felt in the city. Especially noteworthy is the University’s policy to accept Jewish students into its faculty of Medicine back in 1000 AD. This was the only university to do so at the time, and led to a large Jewish section of town which includes a synagogue built in 1552 that has been recently restored. The university has some museums of interest including the Museum of Physics which houses the oldest collection of scientific tools that were used in teaching in Italy. The is also the Museum of Geology and Paleontology, the Museum of Machinery of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the G. Colombo Planetarium. If you are more interested in human history visit the Museum of Archeology and Art of the Faculty of Arts, which includes remains from ancient Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt, and also articles found locally.

Caffè Predrocchi

This coffee house is a legend in Padua and has been the center of the city’s culture, economy and history since its opening in 1772. It has no doors and it has never closed since its opening. Within one finds various signs of its colorful past including the scars of shots fired during the uprising of 1848 in the Sala Bianca. It is now owned by the city, but continues to be a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.

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