The city of Padova was known as Patavium in Antiquity. It suffered badly during the fifth and sixth century invasions of peoples like the Huns and the Longobards. The city opened its gates to the former in 452, while the latter almost completely destroyed it in 602. Padova was again destroyed by the Magyars in 899. The result of all this senseless violence is that little of Roman Patavium has survived until the present day. In the area where the old Roman forum was probably once located, we can now find a huge medieval building. This is the Palazzo della Ragione, the Palace of Reason. This huge hall is located in one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in all of Padova. North of the Palazzo is the Piazza dei Frutti (‘Fruit Square’), while to the south we can find the Piazza delle Erbe (‘Herb Square’). Both are known for their markets which sell anything ranging from fruit and vegetables to leather belts, purses, clothes, shoes and souvenirs. The galleries of the Palazzo accommodate all sorts of shops. If you need fresh meat, fish or cheese, this is definitely the place to be.
History of the Palazzo della Ragione
But since this is a history website, I will skip discussion of the local culinary specialties and focus on the Palazzo della Ragione itself instead. Construction of the Palazzo started in the late twelfth century and the building was completed in 1218 or 1219. The ground floor was used for all kinds of shops, which sold their products in either of the two markets mentioned above. The first floor was divided into three separate rooms where the Padovan law courts held their sessions until they were dissolved in 1797. Changes to the Palazzo were made by one Fra Giovanni degli Eremitani between 1306 and 1309. This Giovanni, an Augustinian monk, raised the walls and designed a new roof to replace the previous one. During this renovation, the building was provided with elegant galleries on the two long sides. The economy of the Commune of Padova was doing particularly well at this moment, inspiring a genuine building boom. Most importantly, the famous Florentine painter Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) was commissioned to decorate the hall on the inside with spectacular frescoes. More on Giotto below.
In 1420, a terrible fire destroyed both the roof and all of Giotto’s frescoes. Not a trace of his work remains today. The building had to be provided with a new roof, which is attributed to a little-known Venetian architect named Bartolomeo Rizzo. Rizzo removed the internal partitioning walls and thus created the huge single hall that we can admire today. Loyal to Venetian naval traditions, Rizzo created a vault that resembles the inverted hull of a ship. New frescoes were painted between 1425 and 1440 by the Padovan painter Giovanni Nicolò Miretto and his colleague Stefano da Ferrara (from Ferrara, obviously). The painters and their assistants painted more than 300 separate scenes on the highest parts of the four walls. These have stood the time, although they have had their share of misfortune too. For instance, on 17 August 1756 a hurricane blew off most of Rizzo’s roof and damaged the frescoes. The roof had been repaired by 1759, but restoration of the frescoes took a little longer. This project started in 1762 and was only completed in 1770.
The Palazzo and its frescoes underwent several more restorations in the second half of the twentieth century. The building seems to be in excellent condition today. Its great hall on the first floor, known as the Salone, is 81 metres deep and 27 metres wide. Most sources give a height of 27 metres as well, although it is not clear to me whether this number refers to the entire Palazzo or just the Salone (I assume the former). The Salone is in any case a huge hall, certainly one of the largest medieval halls in existence. It is often used for meetings and events, but when we visited the Palazzo della Ragione in July 2017, it was just a vast empty space.
Although his frescoes have vanished without a trace, we can be 100% certain that it was Giotto who worked on the Palazzo della Ragione. Somewhere between 1340 and 1350, a Padovan notary named Giovanni da Nono wrote a little book called the Visio Aegidii Regis Patavi. It was sort of a guide to Padova. In it, Da Nono gives a description of Giotto’s work:
“In these frescoes shone the twelve celestial signs and the seven planets with their properties, miraculously painted by Giotto, the best of painters; and other golden stars, with their properties, shone in the interior.”
There is some discussion about where exactly Giotto executed his frescoes. Was in on the highest part of the walls or on the roof? We shall never know, but the roof is certainly not impossible.
It is generally held that Giotto’s frescoes were inspired by the astrological theories of the learned doctor Pietro d’Abano (ca. 1250/57-1315 or 1316). Pietro d’Abano was a professor of medicine at the University of Padova, which had been founded in 1222. He was also deeply involved in astrology, which at that time was considered part of the scientific profession. His dabbling with the stars did get him into trouble with the Inquisition; d’Abano died in prison while awaiting his second trial. Giotto and Pietro d’Abano were contemporaries, and it is not inconceivable that the two of them met before the artist started executing his frescoes, but this remains a matter of speculation. Unfortunately we do not know when Giotto commenced painting his cycle. Sources like Francesca Flores d’ Arcais place Giotto’s work in the Palazzo after 1309, when Fra Giovanni’s project had been completed, most probably in 1312, a date that is mentioned in an early fourteenth century text. Other sources opt for a later date. For instance, the information provided by the Commune di Padova assumes that the frescoes were painted between 1315 and 1317.
This is mostly an academic debate, as the 1420 fire made short work of Giotto’s fresco cycle and reduced it to ashes. Some five years later, local painter Giovanni Nicolò Miretto and his workshop were hired to replace the Florentine artist’s lost frescoes. Since not a trace of Giotto’s work remains, it is hard to tell whether Miretto’s work is completely original or more or less involved a repainting of the cycle painted by Giotto. We do not even know whether Miretto had even seen Giotto’s frescoes. According to the Frick Library, Miretto and his team “completed more than 244 scenes depicting the professions and emotions influenced by the planets ruling the months of January, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December”. They were then joined by Stefano da Ferrara and his assistants in about 1430. These added 74 scenes related to the months of February, March, and April. The project was completed in 1440.
It is quite difficult to interpret the various scenes, as I have little knowledge of astrology and have never read any works by Pietro d’Abano. We see depictions of the months, of the planets and of the signs of the zodiac. In astrology, these constellations are believed to have an effect on human behaviour, which is depicted too. By closely studying the frescoes, we can obtain a lot of information about the professions and activities of people in the first half of the fifteenth century, as well as about the way they dressed. In the image included in this post (see below), we can for instance discern a lady playing a lute, two blacksmiths, a farmer cultivating his lands, soldiers equipped with a sword and buckler and two men fighting in a tavern. Near the left window is the month of October, near the right window we see the constellation of Scorpio. All in all, the significance of the frescoes for me lies not primarily in their beauty, but most of all in the fact that they provide us with a snapshot of life in Padova in the Late Middle Ages.
Only the upper three bands of frescoes are part of the astrological cycle. The lower band has frescoes with the insignia of the courts of justice, as well as depictions of the Virtues and the trial of the aforementioned Pietro d’Abano. I also spotted a large fresco of a Coronation of the Virgin on the west wall, as well as several Lions of Saint Mark (see above). Venice annexed Padova in late 1405, which explains the presence of this most Venetian of symbols.
Inside the Salone, one can find a large wooden horse. It is dwarfed by the hall itself, but interesting nonetheless. The horse bears a striking resembles to the horse in Donatello’s 1453 statue of Gattamelata elsewhere in Padova. It is therefore often mistakenly attributed to this sculptor from Florence, which is hardly surprising, given that the text on the pedestal reads OPVS DONATELLI (‘a work of Donatello’). In truth, the horse was constructed for a jousting tournament in 1466. The maker did, however, base it on Donatello’s statue, which can be found in front of the Basilica of Sant’Antonio.
Also in the hall is the so-called pietra del vituperio, the ‘Stone of Shame’. Debtors who were unable to pay up were forced to sit on the stone three times wearing just their underwear. They were then required to utter the words “Cedo bonis”, which means “I renounce my worldly goods” in Latin. The debtors were subsequently banished from Padova and given the same treatment if they dared return and were caught. The only difference was that the vengeful Padovans poured three buckets of water over their heads the second time.
The passages about Giotto in this post are mostly based on Francesca Flores d’Arcais, ‘Giotto’. The Frick Library and the website of the Museo Galileo in Florence provided valuable additional information about the Palazzo, as did the Commune di Padova’s brochures, which were provided to me in the Palazzo itself. Finally, a little extra information came from my Trotter travel guide to North-East Italy.
 Cited by Francesca Flores d’Arcais, ‘Giotto’, p. 223.