The small oratory of San Michele is all that remains of a church of which the history may go back all the way to the sixth century. The church was largely demolished in the nineteenth century, but a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary and featuring colourful fourteenth-century frescoes by Jacopo da Verona was fortunately spared. In 2021 the frescoes, together with other fourteenth-century cycles in Padova, were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage. The oratory was opened to the public in 2000, but then had to be closed again because of persistent problems with damp. These problems have reportedly now been solved, and since 2018 the small building can be visited again for a couple of hours a day. There is a modest entrance fee.
The earliest history of the building is unclear. It is possible that a church dedicated to the archangels was founded on this spot as early as the second half of the sixth century. The cult of the archangels was popular in the so-called Exarchate of Ravenna, the Eastern Roman territories in Italy that had been retaken from the Ostrogoths and were governed from Ravenna. In 568 the Germanic Longobards invaded Italy and quickly occupied much of the peninsula. The church of the archangels in Padova must have been built before 602, for in that year the city was captured by the Longobards and virtually wiped off the map. It is, however, not inconceivable that the Longobards themselves were responsible for the construction of the first church. They too had a special relationship with the archangels, especially with Saint Michael the Archangel (San Michele). See for instance the sanctuary dedicated to Saint Michael on Monte Gargano in Puglia, which has been UNESCO World Heritage since 2011 as one of the Longobard Places of Power (568–774 A.D.).
However this all may be, an ecclesia sanctorum Archangelorum is first mentioned in an official document in 970. This church of the holy archangels was heavily damaged in 1390 during a confrontation between troops from Padova and Milan. The conflict between the two cities had the following background. Between 1350 and 1388 Padova had been ruled by Francesco I da Carrara, also known as Il Vecchio (‘the old’). His policy of expansion had brought him at loggerheads with Venice and Milan. In 1388 Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan forced Francesco to step down in favour of his son Francesco II, also known as Il Novello (‘the new’). A mere year later, Francesco Novello was deposed again by the Milanese and incarcerated. However, he managed to escape, raised a small army and retook Padova from the Milanese garrison in 1390. The Milanese had entrenched themselves in the castle of Padova, the Castello Carrarese (see below). The castle was opposite the San Michele, which explains why the church suffered heavy damage.
In the years after 1390 the church was restored or rebuilt. On that occasion one Pietro de’ Bovi had a chapel built, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Pietro’s name has been preserved on an inscription in the San Michele (PETRVS OLIM BARTHOLOMEI DE BOBIS). The inscription also mentions the year in which the chapel was completed, i.e. 1397 (which is rather curiously written as M III LXXXXVII). Lastly, the inscription gives us the name of the painter who executed the frescoes for the chapel, a certain JACOBVS VERONA, or Jacopo da Verona. The painter and his work will receive more attention below. Eight years after the completion of the chapel the Venetians conquered Padova and the city became part of the Venetian terra firma. At the beginning of 1406 Francesco Novello and his sons were strangled in a Venetian dungeon.
In 1479 the church passed into the hands of the congregation of the Holy Spirit, a congregation that had settled on the minuscule island of Santo Spirito in the Venetian lagoon. In 1508 the famous architect Andrea Palladio – who had been born in Padova – was baptised here in the San Michele. Then in 1656 the congregation of Santo Spirito was dissolved again by Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667). The Venetian authorities sold most of the art and furniture of the San Michele to finance the war against the Ottoman Turks on Crete. The Turks had invaded the island in 1645 and had quickly taken most of the cities. But the capital of Candia (modern Heraklion) remained in Venetian hands and was besieged by the Ottomans between 1648 and 1669. In the meantime the church of San Michele passed to the patriarch of Aquileia and then to several Venetian families. In 1797 Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved the Venetian Republic. The church lost its status as a parish church in 1808 and was closed to the public in 1812. In the next couple of years the San Michele was largely demolished. Only the chapel of the Virgin and a part of the nave were left standing.
Visitors enter the oratory through the remains of the nave. The nave itself also has a few remnants of frescoes, but these are not as interesting as the fourteenth-century frescoes in the chapel of the Virgin, which is alternatively called the Cappella Bovi. As was already mentioned, these frescoes were painted by Jacopo da Verona. Very little is known about him. Scholars assume that he was born around 1355 and died after 1443, aged at least ninety. So Jacopo lived to a ripe old age, but only one work has been attributed to him with certainty, and that happens to be the fresco cycle in the oratory of San Michele. Jacopo da Verona may have been a student or assistant of Altichiero da Zevio (ca. 1330-1390). In the past he was often confused with Jacopo Avanzi (died 1416), who worked with Altichiero in the basilica of Sant’Antonio. However, it is now fairly certain that Jacopo Avanzi and Jacopo da Verona were two different persons, who just happened to share a common first name.
The frescoes in the chapel show the visitor episodes from the life of the Virgin. Unfortunately they are quite damaged, and I personally thought the light in the chapel could have been better too. If you enter the chapel, you will first see a large fresco on the right wall featuring the Nativity (above) and the Adoration of the Magi (below). Some scholars believe the three Magi or Kings are actually portraits of Francesco I, his son Francesco Novello and his grandson Francesco III. It should be noted that the first Francesco was already dead in 1397: he passed away in 1393, aged 68. Francesco Novello was 38 years old in 1397 and Francesco III about 20. These ages seem to match quite well with the supposed ages of the old, middle and young king. On the right side of the fresco the Torlonga is visible, a high tower that was (and still is) part of the Castello Carrarese. Other lovely details are the archer taking aim at a deer and the horse that is about to run amok (far right).
On the back wall (which is the outer wall) an Ascension of Christ has been preserved. On the ground the Virgin Mary and the eleven remaining apostles are kneeling while watching the Ascension. We continue to the left wall, where we see frescoes of the Pentecost (right) and the Dormition of the Virgin (Dormitio Virginis; left). An interesting element of the Dormition scene are the four citizens painted on the right. They are possibly members of the De’ Bovi family. In the sky we see Christ holding his mother in his arms. The two have been painted inside a mandorla that is taken up to heaven by angels (see the image on the right). On the left wall we also see a saint, dressed in black and sporting a white beard. He may be Saint Benedictus of Nursia (ca. 480-547), who was added later.
Lastly there are the frescoes of the inner wall. At the top Jacopo da Verona painted an Annunciation. A rather striking element is the loggia between the archangel Gabriel (left) and the Virgin Mary (right). In front of the loggia a woman can be seen working in the garden. Unfortunately her head is gone. It is possible that this part of the fresco was painted a secco, i.e. onto dried plaster. This technique is less durable than buon fresco. Below the woman in the garden we see Saint Michael the Archangel, who gave his name to the oratory (see the image above). Above him the Hand of God is holding a pair of scales that Saint Michael uses to weigh the souls of the dead. The fresco to the right of him shows the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It is a sixteenth-century addition. Below it is the inscription with the names of Pietro de’ Bovi and Jacopo da Verona, and the year 1397.
Opposite the San Michele, on the other side of the river Bacchiglione, are the remains of the Castello Carrarese with its impressive Torlonga. The history of the castle goes back to the ninth century. When he ruled over Padova between 1237 and 1256, Ezzelino III da Romano (see Veneto: Monselice) built a new and stronger castle here, which was abandoned after he was expelled from the city. Under the Carraresi (1318-1405) the castle was restored and put into use again, and the involvement of the Carraresi fully justifies the name Castello Carrarese. The castle was included on a fresco by Giusto de’ Menabuoi (ca. 1320/30-1390) in the aforementioned basilica of Sant’Antonio. After the Venetian conquest of 1405 the Castello Carrarese fell into disrepair. In the eighteenth century the Torlonga was converted into an astronomical observatory (currently a museum), while the castle itself served as a prison from the nineteenth century until the Second World War.