The Reggia Carrarese is the complex of buildings from which members of the Da Carrara family governed the city of Padova in the fourteenth century. Unfortunately virtually nothing is left of this complex. In 1405 Venetian troops took Padova, causing the Carraresi to lose power (and in a couple of cases their lives as well). The new Venetian rulers took over the palace complex, but over the centuries it was neglected and ultimately largely demolished. What has, however, been preserved is the Loggia dei Carraresi, in which we find the former private chapel of the family. The chapel has beautiful frescoes by Guariento di Arpo (1310-1370), who is often considered the court painter of the Carraresi. In 2021 these frescoes were declared UNESCO World Heritage, together with other fourteenth-century frescoes in Padova. The Cappella della Reggia Carrarese can be visited for free under the supervision of a guide (a donation is of course appreciated). Do note that the chapel has limited opening hours.
The Reggia Carrarese
The Da Carrara family ruled over Padova between 1318 and 1405, albeit intermittently, certainly in the beginning. Although the first signore from the family, Jacopo I da Carrara, won himself the nickname Il Grande (‘the Great’), he was forced to formally step down after a mere year because of pressure from Verona, which was hostile to Padova at the time. His nephew and successor Marsilio da Carrara (1324-1338) initially held authority over the city as vicarius of Cangrande I (1311-1329) and Mastino II della Scala (1329-1351), lords of Verona. Thanks to a treaty with Florence and Venice, Padova managed to escape from the clutches of Verona in 1337. Marsilio died a year later and was succeeded by his cousin Ubertino I da Carrara (1338-1345). Padova owes much to Ubertino. He fostered the relationship with Venice, launched many building activities, improved road and water connections to the city and stimulated trade and industry. During his reign the wool and paper industries of the city flourished. Ubertino’s tomb can still be admired in the church of the Eremitani.
Ubertino was also responsible for the construction of the Reggia Carrarese north of the cathedral of the city. In 1343 the first palace was completed, the so-called Palazzo di Ponente (‘western palace’). During his lifetime the construction of an adjacent palace was started, the Palazzo di Levante (‘eastern palace’), but this was not completed until the reign of Francesco I da Carrara (1350-1388). The second palace was originally intended for receiving court officials, but later it became the women’s wing of the Reggia. Both palaces were connected by a large colonnaded courtyard. Ubertino furthermore had an elevated corridor built, the traghetto, that connected the Palazzo di Ponente to the city walls. The corridor allowed the Carraresi to reach the Castello Carrarese in the southwest of the city in times of need. The traghetto – the name literally means ‘ferry’ – was 186 metres long, between 7 and 9 metres high and about 3 metres wide. A man on horseback could make use of it. In 1777 the corridor, already in disrepair, was demolished.
While the Castello Carrarese was the military centre of Padova, aimed at defending the city, the Reggia Carrarese was the heart of the civil administration. After Ubertino died, his distant relative Marsilietto Papafava da Carrara had led this civil administration for little more than a month when he was murdered on the orders of Jacopo II da Carrara. Jacopo II then ruled over Padova from 1345 to 1350, and was himself assassinated in the latter year. His tomb can also be found in the church of the Eremitani, complete with a poem from the famous poet Francesco Petrarca. Jacopo’s son, the aforementioned Francesco I da Carrara, had the longest reign of all the Carraresi. He was in power from 1350 to 1388. His wife Fina Buzzaccarini (1328-1378) was responsible for one of the most important works of art in the city: she hired the painter Giusto de’ Menabuoi from Florence to paint a spectacular fresco cycle for the Baptistery of Padova. Buzzaccarini had plans to turn the Baptistery into a family mausoleum, but unfortunately things took a different turn.
Francesco I’s foreign policy was aimed at expansion, and this led to tensions with Venice and Milan. In the end he stepped down in 1388 in favour of his son Francesco II. To differentiate between father and son, the former is usually called Il Vecchio (‘the old’) and the latter Il Novello (‘the new’). In 1389 Francesco Novello was expelled from Padova by the Visconti of Milan, but in 1390 he managed to retake the city with just a handful of soldiers. His reign subsequently ended when the Venetians captured Padova in 1405. At the start of 1406 Francesco Novello and his sons were strangled in a Venetian dungeon. The last of the Carraresi bravely tried to defend himself with a wooden stool, but was quickly overpowered. This brought an end to rule of his family over Padova. The Reggia Carrarese slowly withered away and nowadays the Loggia dei Carraresi is basically the only tangible evidence that there ever was a palace complex here in the past.
The Cappella della Reggia Carrarese
The only part of the Palazzo di Ponente that is left is the Loggia dei Carraresi, a double loggia that can be reached from the Via Accademia. On the first floor we find the Cappella della Reggia Carrarese, the former private chapel that was built during the reign of Jacopo II, so somewhere between 1345 and 1350. The chapel was used by the family itself, but also by important guests. Our sources often mention the visit in 1354 of Charles IV, king of Bohemia and future Holy Roman emperor. We may doubt whether the inhabitants were very happy with his visit, as Charles forced them to cede the head of Saint Luke the Evangelist to him, an important relic that was translated to Prague. It is not entirely clear whether Guariento had already painted his frescoes when Charles visited the chapel, but they are usually dated to the years 1355-1360. In addition to the wall frescoes Guariento executed a number of panel paintings featuring the Madonna and Child, the evangelists and the (arch)angels. Some of these have been preserved and are currently on display in the Musei Civici Eremitani.
In 1779 the Loggia dei Carraresi and chapel passed into the hands of the Accademia Galileiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti. The history of this society goes back to 1599, although it was only named after Galileo Galilei, its most famous member, in 1997. At the end of the eighteenth century, the board of the academy decided to create a larger meeting hall by demolishing the east wall of the chapel. This lamentable decision led to the loss of nearly half of Guariento’s frescoes. Only two fragments have been preserved, i.e. Adam and Eve before God the Father and Joseph explaining a dream to the pharaoh of Egypt (see the images above). Our guide rightly pointed out that the pharaoh looks nothing like an Egyptian. Guariento obviously had little knowledge of Ancient Egypt and was anything but an expert on traditional pharaonic dress. So what did our painter do? He painted the man as a European monarch, complete with a crown and ermine mantle.
Frescoes by Guariento
The frescoes on the west wall have fortunately largely been preserved, although the installation of windows on this side has led to the loss of some scenes here as well. The frescoes were restored in the 1960s and 1990s. They will no doubt require more maintenance in the future, as – much unlike the famous Giotto frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni – they are not kept in a special climate-controlled room. On the west wall Guariento painted two long bands with stories from the Old Testament. A novelty is that the stories were not painted within clearly defined frames: we are basically looking at a continuous scene in which each story morphs into the next. It is usually buildings or rocks that indicate that we are moving from one story to another.
On the far left of the top band we first see how Noah and his sons are blessed by God (Genesis 9:1). The three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, then witness their father’s drunkenness (Genesis 9:20). Regretfully not much is left of Noah himself. Only two legs and part of his clothes are still visible. However, we can be certain that it is Noah, as the colours of the clothes are identical to those that can be seen on the left fresco. Moreover, the three sons are present on both frescoes. After a short break because of a window the show continues with Abraham and three angels (Genesis 18:1). In the centre we then see a dramatic scene of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-25), followed by Lot’s wife, who becomes a pillar of salt because she looks back at the cities in spite of being warned not to do so (Genesis 19:26). The last story before the second window is that of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1). An angel grabs Abraham’s hand and points at a ram. The animal can be sacrificed instead of Isaac.
After the second window we see stories about Joseph, the son of Jacob. First he explains a dream to his father, then he goes to his brothers who are pasturing their flocks. The jealous brothers take his beautiful coat from him and throw him into a well. When they notice a caravan of Ishmaelites that is on its way to Egypt, they release Joseph from the well and sell him. On the far right we see the merchant from Midian paying twenty shekels for the young man (Genesis 37:28), with a very frightened Joseph looking on. Meanwhile one of the brothers kills a young goat and spills the blood of the animal on Joseph’s coat. The brothers can now tell their father a bogus story of how Joseph was devoured by a wild animal. The story was no doubt continued on the opposite wall, but unfortunately only the aforementioned fragment featuring the pharaoh has been preserved. From the Book of Genesis we know that Joseph ultimately became viceroy of Egypt and was later reunited with Jacob.
The lower band starts with a fresco of a wounded warrior, presumably Goliath who has been hit by a sling stone from David (1 Samuel 17:48-49). The fresco is followed by a scene that is unclear and unfortunately rather damaged. It may represent the Judgement of Solomon from 1 Kings. After the window we can just still see the prophet Elijah in his chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). The large scene on this part of the wall comes from the Book of Daniel. Its central figures are the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BCE) and the Jewish men Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The men refuse to worship a golden statue and are thrown into a fiery furnace by the king. An angel (depicted on the far right) then saves them from the flames, while the soldiers of the king are consumed by the fire. Our guide explained that the flames that originally surrounded the soldiers are now largely gone because Guariento had painted these on dried plaster (a secco). No doubt more elements were painted in this way, so they must have disappeared too. Nebuchadnezzar is for instance missing his crown on the left, but has it on his head again on the right.
After the second window the cycle continues with Daniel in the lion’s den, a story that is also from the Book of Daniel. Daniel himself is no longer visible, but a large part of the lion is. The king depicted above the lion must be Darius the Mede, who by the way is entirely fictive. The last scene is the dramatic decapitation of the Assyrian general Holofernes by a brave woman named Judith. By murdering the general she saves her hometown of Bethulia, which is visible in the background. The story comes from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith. The book has little to do with real history, but the story is inspiring and fascinating, with Guariento having painted it in a rather gruesome fashion. The most interesting detail is perhaps the dress worn by our heroine Judith. It seems likely that women at the court of the Carraresi were dressed like this as well.
 John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice, p. 268.