Elegant Padova -- known in English as Padua -- is home to an ancient university, a Basilica that is an important centre for pilgrims and a chapel containing one of the world’s greatest art treasures. Use this website to help you plan a visit to this fascinating northern Italian city and find your way to the other beautiful towns and villages in the Veneto that are perhaps less well known to tourists.

Friday, November 5, 2021

The colourful life of Padua archaeologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni

The Great Belzoni’s powerful physique helped him remove Egyptian treasures

Giovanni Battista Belzoni during his time as an archaeologist in Egypt
Giovanni Battista Belzoni during his
time as an archaeologist in Egypt
Among the many notable Italians to hail from Padua is the explorer and pioneer archaeologist of Egyptian antiquities, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who was born in the city on 5 November, 1778, when it was part of the Republic of Venice.

Belzoni became famous for his height and strength and his discovery and removal to England of the seven-ton bust of Ramesses II.

Born into a poor family, at the age of 16 he went to find work in Rome and studied hydraulics. He was planning to take monastic vows but in 1798 French troops occupied the city and he moved to the Batavian Republic, now the Netherlands, where he earned his living as a barber.

He moved to England in 1803, allegedly to escape going to prison. He was six feet seven inches tall and had a powerful physique. For a while he earned his living as a circus strong man under the name The Great Belzoni.

He also exhibited his models of hydraulic engines and went to Cairo in 1815 to offer hydraulic engines for use in irrigation to Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt.

But two years later he embarked on another new career, excavating Egyptian tombs and temples for their treasures. It was said he damaged other less valuable objects in the process, which was later frowned upon.

It took 17 days for 130 men to tow the bust of  Ramesses II to a boat bound for England
It took 17 days for 130 men to tow the bust of
 Ramesses II to a boat bound for England
At Thebes he obtained the colossal sculpture of the head of Ramesses II for the British Museum. It took him 17 days and he had to use 130 men to help him tow it the river where it was loaded on to a boat bound for England. In the nearby Valley of the Tombs of Kings, he discovered the tomb of Seti I and removed the aragonite sarcophagus for the Sir John Soane Museum in London. This became known as Belzoni’s Tomb.

While he was in the process of removing an obelisk from the Nile island of Philae, it was taken from him at gunpoint by men working for the French.

He explored an island in the Nile, known as Elephantine, and the temple of Edfu. He also cleared the entrance to the great temple of Ramasses II at Abu Simbel. He was the first to penetrate the pyramid of  Khafre at Giza and he identified the ruins of the city of Berenice on the Red Sea.

Belzoni returned to England in 1819 and published an account of his adventure – Narratives of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia. It was a two-volume work published in 1820.

The explorer and archaeologist died in 1823 at the age of 45 in Gwato, now called Ughoton, in Nigeria on his way to Timbuktu. In 1825 Belzoni’s widow exhibited his drawings and models of the Royal tombs of Thebes in London and Paris.

There is a road named after Belzoni - the Via Giambattista Belzoni - to the east of Padua's city centre.



Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Padua’s Ghetto

Fascinating area preserves Jewish heritage in the city

A narrow, cobbled street in the Ghetto area of Padua
A narrow, cobbled street in
the Ghetto area of Padua
A small district known as the Ghetto, situated within Padua’s historic centre, still has many shops where craftsmen follow the traditional occupations of Jewish residents in the city.

Jews are recorded as living in Padua as far back as the 13th century. The city was one of the great centres of medieval Judaism, with a celebrated rabbinical academy where students from all over Europe came to study.

Students were also attracted to Padua by its very old medical school, which was the only one to accept Jews.

In 1548 the Venetian authorities decided to require all Jews to reside in an area near Piazza delle Erbe that was called the Ghetto. However, Jewish students were still allowed to graduate from Padua’s prestigious university.

From 1609 all four streets leading to the Ghetto were closed at a certain hour of the evening and guarded gates isolated the district during the night.

The Ghetto was officially abolished in 1797 after Napoleon’s proclamation of the equality of all citizens.

By the 19th century there were three synagogues in the district, reflecting the number of Jewish people then living in Padua.

Piazza delle Erbe, close to the area of Padua where Jewish residents were required to live
Piazza delle Erbe, close to the area of Padua
where Jewish residents were required to live
The number of Jewish residents was greatly reduced in the 20th century and today there is only one synagogue still open for worship, at number 9 Via San Martino e Solferino, where the offices of the Jewish community are also located.  

This synagogue was originally built in 1548 but has been restructured several times. One of the four original gates to the Ghetto, crowned with the lion of Saint Mark, stands nearby.

Full equality for Jewish citizens was achieved in 1866 when Padua was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.

The former Ghetto has kept much of its original appearance, with the tall narrow houses in Via Arco evoking how the Ghetto must have looked in the past.

The Jewish Heritage Museum at  26 Via delle Piazze, just off Piazza delle Erbe, has precious objects on display that were taken from the two former synagogues no longer in existence, some of them dating back to the 15th century.


Thursday, March 11, 2021

Church of the Eremitani frescoes

The day a major work of art was ruined by bombs

Mantegna's Stories of St James was one of the works destroyed
Mantegna's Stories of St James
was one of the works destroyed 
Padua was badly bombed by the Allies on this day in 1944 and the Church of the Eremitani was directly hit, causing devastating damage to the 15th century frescoes painted by Andrea Mantegna in one of the side chapels.

It was one of the worst losses suffered by Italy’s cultural heritage during World War II as Mantegna’s frescoes were considered a major work of art.

Mantegna, who was born in Isola di Cartura near Vicenza in 1431, was commissioned to paint a cycle of frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel, one of the side chapels, depicting scenes from the lives of Saint James and Saint Christopher. The commission marked the beginning of his artistic career when he started work at the age of 17 in 1448. He was in his mid 20s by the time he had finished the cycle in 1457.

Tragically, the German invading army had established their headquarters in Padua next to the Church of the Eremitani, which was why the chapel and the wonderful frescoes were so badly damaged.

They were reduced to more than 88,000 separate pieces and were found mixed in with plaster and bricks on the ground.

A detailed photographic survey of the work had been made previously and it was therefore possible later to reconstruct the artist’s work and recompose part of the cycle depicting the Martyrdom of Saint James. Other frescoes by Mantegna had been removed before the war to protect them from damp and they have also now been reinstated.

In other chapels, 14th century frescoes by Guarentio and Giusto de’ Menabuoi miraculously survived.

The Church of the Eremitani found itself nextdoor to a German army headquarters
The Church of the Eremitani found itself
next door to a German army headquarters
La Chiesa degli Eremitani, or The Church of the Hermits, is a former Augustinian Gothic-style church close to the Cappella Scrovegni in Piazza Eremitani in the centre of Padua.

The church was built for Augustinian friars between 1260 and 1276 and dedicated to the Saints Philip and James.

The friars remained in the church and adjoining monastery until 1806 when Padua was under Napoleonic rule and the order was suppressed. The church was reopened for services in 1808 and became a parish church in 1817.

The church has a single nave with plain walls decorated with ochre and red bricks and has a vaulted wooden ceiling. It houses the ornate tombs of two lords of Padua, Jacopo II da Carrara and Ubertino da Carrara, designed by Andriolo de Santi.

The 15th century side portal is also known as the Door of the Months because of the four panels by the sculptor Nicolo Baroncelli depicting allegories of the months.

The Musei Civici agli Eremitani (Civic Museum) of Padua is now housed in the former Augustinian monastery to the left of the church.

(Picture credit: Church of the Eremitani by Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons)




Saturday, February 13, 2021

Jacopo Bassano's Padua masterpiece

The Basilica di Santa Giustina holds one of painter's greatest works

Jacopo Bassano, who died on 14 February 1592, painted altarpieces for many churches in Padua, Treviso, and Belluno.

Bassano's painting of Santa Giustina was executed in about 1560
Bassano's painting of Santa Giustina
was executed in about 1560
Visitors to the Basilica di Santa Giustina, the large church in the southeastern corner of Prato della Valle in Padua, can see Bassano's Santa Giustina enthroned with the saints Sebastian, Antonio Abate and Rocco, which was painted by him in around 1560 with the help of his son, Francesco.

It is considered one of his best works and also one of the most original examples of the Venetian Mannerist culture. 

Bassano was born in about 1510 in Bassano del Grappa, a town about 50km (31 miles) north of Padua, and is said to have been christened Jacopo dal Ponte, although his statue in the town names him as Giacomo da Ponte. His father, Francesco il Vecchio, was already a successful painter in the town and had established a workshop that produced mostly religious works.

Jacopo became an apprentice in his father’s workshop while still a young boy. He made his way to Venice when he was about 20, where he studied under Bonifazio de Pitati, who was also known as Bonifazio Veronese.

While in Venice, he met famous artists, such as Titian and il Pordenone, and his work from this period shows Titian’s influence and demonstrates his lifelong appreciation of the great artist’s work. Jacopo Bassano’s earliest paintings also show his love of the brilliant colours used by Titian.

Bassano’s Supper at Emmaus (1538), originally commissioned for a church, uses rich luminous colours that distinguish the figures from their background. Unusually, he places Christ towards the back of the scene, allowing the figures around him to play a more significant part. He dresses them in 16th century clothes rather than in robes in the classical Roman tradition. He includes food on the table and there are a dog and a cat in the picture, showing he has drawn on contemporary life for his inspiration rather than just sticking to the stylistic conventions of his age.

The Basilica di Santa Giustina is a former abbey adjoining the wide Prato della Valle piazza
The Basilica di Santa Giustina is a former abbey
adjoining the wide Prato della Valle piazza
After his father’s death in 1539, Jacopo Bassano returned to Bassano del Grappa and took over the running of the family workshop. He married a local woman, Elisabetta Merzari, in 1546.

His painting of The Last Supper in 1542 shows the influence on his work of Mannerism and indicates that he had seen the paintings of Durer and Raphael because his figures seem alive, with muscles and sinews, in the style of the two great artists.

After about 1550 he started experimenting with light and he was one of the first painters to paint a ‘nocturne’, a scene taking place at night time, which was to make his paintings even more highly valued.  He also tended to place his subjects in a natural landscape with carefully painted trees and flowers.

His four sons, Leandro Bassano, Francesco Bassano the Younger, Giovanni Battista da Ponte and Girolamo da Ponte, all worked in his workshop and followed him closely in style and subject matter.

The Basilica of Santa Giustina, which is the ninth largest Christian church in the world, is at the corner of Prato della Valle where it is joined by Via Avazzano and Via Ferrari. 

A portrait of Jacopo Bassano by his son, Girolamo da Ponte
A portrait of Jacopo Bassano by his
son, Girolamo da Ponte
The church contains the remains of Santa Giustina, a devout young woman who was martyred in 304, and is also home to the tomb containing the body of St Luke the Evangelist, who was credited with writing the Gospel according to St Luke. Next door to the basilica there is a Benedictine monastery with frescoed cloisters and a famous library that can be visited by arrangement.

After Jacopo’s death in 1592, his sons produced numerous works in his style, making it difficult for art historians to establish which pictures were created by Jacopo Bassano himself and which were the work of his sons.

His work is considered unique because it incorporated diverse artistic influences. He is believed to have learnt from Durer, Parmigianino, Tintoretto and Raphael, even though he lived permanently in Bassano del Grappa, mainly by seeing their prints, of which he became an avid collector.

Bassano del Grappa, where Jacopo Bassano was born and died, and from which he got his professional name, lies at the foot of Monte Grappa in the province of Vicenza and is an easy day trip to make from Padua. The town is famous for inventing grappa, a spirit made from the grape skins and stalks left over from wine production, which is popular with Italians as an after dinner drink to aid digestion. A famous sight in the town is the Ponte degli Alpini, a bridge designed by Andrea Palladio.


Friday, January 22, 2021

Visit Este

The small town that inspired the poet Shelley

The historic town of Este in the province of Padua, with its varied and interesting architecture, is an excellent choice for a day trip from Padua as it takes under an hour by train and about 40 minutes by car.

You can walk into the centre of the town from the station in a few minutes, arriving in Piazza Maggiore, Este’s main square, in time for a drink before lunch.

The remains of the castle surrounded by gardens
Este is a wonderful example of ‘small town Italy’, with reasonably priced restaurants and bars, and plenty of things to see. It is unspoilt and relaxing to be there as it doesn’t get overcrowded with tourists.

To understand its 3000 year history, during which it has been ruled by Romans, Barbarians, important families during the medieval period, the Venetians, the French and the Austrians, you could not do much better than visit Este’s highly regarded Museo Nazionale Atestino. Right in the centre of the town, the museum is housed in Palazzo Mocenigo, a 16th century palace that incorporates part of the walls of the castle into its fa├žade. There are said to be 65,000 items of historical significance in the museum’s collection.

Este’s castle was built in the 11th century by the Este family, who eventually moved on to Ferrara, where they built another, perhaps more famous, castle.

Este’s original castle was destroyed in the 14th century and then rebuilt by Ubertino da Carrara, Lord of Padova. He used it as a defensive outpost against the ruling families of Verona and Milan.

After Este and Padua were taken over by the Venetians, the castle was partially demolished and a wall and towers are all that remain today of the 14th century structure. Inside the walls, there is a beautiful garden, which is open to the public and is a lovely place to sit and rest, particularly when the rose garden is in full bloom.

Piazza Maggiore is in the centre of town
Este’s most important church, the Duomo of Santa Tecla, was erected in the 17th century on the site of an earlier church. It is well worth a visit, if only to see the large painting by Giambattista Tiepolo depicting Santa Tecla praying for the deliverance of Este from the plague.

While in Este you can also see the Villa Kunkler, which was rented by the English poet, Lord Byron, in the early years of the nineteenth century. He allowed his fellow poet and friend, Percy Shelley, to live there with his family between 1817 and 1818. Shelley was so inspired by the natural beauty of his surroundings he wrote some of his best poetry there, including Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills. Inspired by Este he wrote:

‘Of old forests echoing round

And the light and smell divine

Of all flowers that breathe and shine:

We may live so happy there,

That the Spirits of the Air

Envying us, may even entice

To our healing paradise

The polluting multitude:

But their rage would be subdu’d

By that clime divine and calm,

And the winds whose wings rain balm

On the uplifted soul, and leaves

Under which the bright sea heaves;’


Friday, January 1, 2021

Capodanno in Italy

Toasting the New Year the Italian way

New Year’s Day is called Capodanno in Italy, which literally means ‘head of the year’.

It is a public holiday and schools, Government offices, post offices and banks are closed.

After a late start following the New Year’s Eve festivities, many families will enjoy another traditional feast together. This year is obviously different, with the option of booking a restaurant for a big family meal off the agenda because of Covid-19 restrictions.

It is still possible to attend church services - another tradition before the festive meal - but anyone leaving their home under the current lockdown measures has to fill in a certificate before venturing out with police entitled to check their purpose is legitimate.  As well as going to places of worship, Italians can leave their homes only for essential shopping or to seek healthcare.

Italy is in what has been determined as 'red zone' restrictions, much like those imposed in March last year after the first outbreak of the virus. The measures will be eased for one day on 4 January, allowing non-essential shops to reopen, but are due to be re-imposed on 5 January ahead of another traditional celebration, the Feast of Epiphany.

Rai Uno traditionally broadcasts a New Year’s day concert live. This year it came from Teatro La Fenice, the famous opera house in Venice.