I like to consider myself somewhat of a museum tiger. I can spend hours in succession exploring the collections of the largest museums in the world. But Padova’s Musei Civici or Eremitani Museums were just too much for me. They are anything but boring, but simply too large to visit in one day, especially when combined with a visit to the Cappella degli Scrovegni next door and the adjacent church of the Eremitani. The Eremitani Museums make use of the large halls and cloisters of the former Augustinian monastery of the Eremitani or ‘hermits’. The museums have a splendid picture gallery or pinacoteca, an archaeological section dealing with Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, a large collection of coins and a multimedia room in the basement. In the multimedia room, one can watch a short movie about Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) and the Cappella degli Scrovegni which is a lot better than the movie in the waiting room of the chapel itself.
Since we had limited time, we decided to skip the archaeological section and the coins and go straight for the picture gallery on the first floor. It took us a full two hours to see all the art and I am not even sure we actually saw everything. Especially interesting are several objects that used to be in the Cappella degli Scrovegni. The gallery for instance has a statue of Enrico Scrovegni (died 1336), the man who commissioned the chapel, that used to be in the chapel’s sacristy. The statue, some 180 centimetres tall, shows Enrico standing, with folded hands. It is clear that the statue used to be painted once.
In this part of the gallery we also find Giotto’s damaged, but still beautiful depiction of God the Father on two wooden panels nailed together (see the image above). This panel used to be in the Cappella degli Scrovegni as well, where it was part of the triumphal arch. Since I saw the panel there too, I assume it has been replaced with a copy in the chapel. The original is certainly in the Eremitani Museums. We see God seated on his throne, holding a sceptre in his left hand. He is wearing a magnificent golden-trimmed white robe.
The picture gallery also has a crucifix from the Cappella degli Scrovegni, which was made by Giotto as well. The crucifix is 224 centimetres tall and was perhaps part of a choir screen of some sort which is now no longer present in the chapel. Although painted on two sides, the reverse side is so damaged that here we can only still discern a Lamb of God in the centre. The images on the obverse side are, however, in excellent condition. We see a long and emaciated Jesus Christ in the centre, with blood gushing from his side. Near his right hand is the Virgin Mary, wringing her hands in grief. On the other side we see Saint John the Evangelist, who looks equally tormented. Above Christ is God the Father, calm and serene. The whole object closely resembles the crucifix that Giotto painted for the Ognissanti church in Florence. The Florentine crucifix had long been attributed to a follower, but after an extensive cleaning process, Giotto’s authorship has been established with certainty.
The Eremitani Museums also have a unique collection of panel paintings by Guariento di Arpo (died 1369 or 1370). Guariento is often seen as the court painter of the Da Carrara family, a noble family which was in charge of the city of Padova until it was annexed by Venice in 1405. In the 1350s, Guariento executed a series of paintings for the private chapel of the Carraresi in the western wing of the Reggia Carrarese, the palace of the Da Carrara family. Some of the panels ended up in other museums or private collections, but most were ultimately moved to the Eremitani Museums. The panels showing the Madonna and Child and those depicting the evangelists (see below) were probably part of the ceiling of the chapel. There are also several panels featuring groups of angels (see the image below). Together these probably formed a sort of frieze that connected the frescoes on the walls of the chapel to the roof.
Although I have so far only discussed Medieval art, there is much more to see in the picture gallery. Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of a Young Senator is worth our attention, and so are several works by Tintoretto or Veronese. The gallery has an interesting painting of Saint Patrick by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), as well as statues by Antonio Canova (1757-1822). Being Dutch, I was pleasantly surprised that the gallery even has a painting of the seventeenth century Dutch stadtholder Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625). Maurice was a well-known general in his days, widely praised for his military innovations (although many of these should actually be attributed to his cousin Willem Lodewijk). This presumably explains the presence of a painting of a Dutch prince in an Italian museum. The painting was executed by an anonymous artist.
All in all, we certainly enjoyed ourselves in the Eremitani Museums, even though we skipped some parts of them. We will be back some day to admire the rest!
This post is mostly based on two publications: Francesca Flores d’Arcais, ‘Giotto’, and Davide Banzato, ‘Giotto en de 14de-eeuwse schilderkunst in Padua’. Additional information came from my Trotter travel guide to North-East Italy.
Update 4 September 2022: text and images have been updated.