Padova: The Duomo

Duomo of Padova.

The formal name of Padova’s Duomo is the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. In an older post I called the Duomo “a bit of a disappointment”. Having revisited the building in July of 2022, I still stand by that judgment. Fact is, the Duomo is just a bit boring. The reason I have decided to dedicate a post to it anyway, is that the building has an interesting history and that I found a couple of nice late medieval funerary monuments during my exploration of the corridors and chapels. These are actually from the previous Duomo; the current building was only completed in 1754.


According to tradition Padova got its own bishop as early as the first century. This Prosdocimus was said to have been a student of Saint Peter who died around the year 100. He is usually depicted with a jug, which he supposedly used to baptise Saint Justina, a famous female martyr from Padova. Unfortunately there is a chronological problem with this tradition. Justina was martyred during the reign of the emperor Diocletianus (284-305), so some two centuries after Prosdocimus. Although the tradition is in many respects problematic, it is likely that the oldest cathedral of Padova dated from the fourth century. It was possibly destroyed when the Longobards took Padova in 602. A new cathedral was then erected in the seventh century, and the name of bishop Tricidius is often mentioned in connection with its construction. His cathedral went up in smoke during a Magyar attack in 899 or 900. In spite of all these setbacks, the people of Padova did not give up. They built another cathedral, which was consecrated in 1075 by bishop Uldericus (1064-1080).

Interior of the Duomo.

At the beginning of 1117 disaster struck again. The cathedral was heavily damaged as a result of the notorious earthquake of that year that caused enormous damage in Northern Italy. In the years that followed the Duomo was rebuilt in the Romanesque style. A fourteenth-century fresco by Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the Baptistery next door perhaps gives an idea of what the Romanesque cathedral looked like. We see a classical Roman basilica with a transept and a loggia with Romanesque rounded arches. The cathedral furthermore has a dome and a nice rose window in the façade. A couple of years later Giusto also painted a map of the city of Padova in a chapel in the basilica of Sant’Antonio. On the map several characteristic buildings can be distinguished quite well, but I think the Duomo was omitted.

Around 1400 bishop Stefano da Carrara, a natural son of the former Padovan ruler Francesco I da Carrara, had the cathedral restored and provided with cross-vaults. A century later plans were made for a new and bigger choir, that ultimately led to a complete rebuilding of the Duomo. The design for the new choir was made by the great architect Michelangelo (1475-1564), but as of 1551 it was executed by the far less famous architects Andrea della Valle (died 1578) and Agostino Righetto, who in many respects went their own way. The new choir was completed in 1582, and in the next decades the façade, nave, transept and side aisles were rebuilt. In 1754 the project was finished and the new cathedral was consecrated by bishop Carlo Rezzonico, who was elected Pope Clemens XIII (1758-1769) four years later. A conspicuous element of the Duomo is that it has two domes. The larger of the two was designed by Giovanni Gloria (ca. 1684-1759) and Giorgio Massari (1687-1766), and built in 1756. The façade of the cathedral was quite evidently never completed.

Funerary monuments

The Duomo is enormous, but as a consequence feels rather empty. It has a Late Baroque interior, but here and there I spotted some late medieval remnants. In the Cappella Giustiniani I for instance found a splendid marble sarcophagus from the fourteenth century attached to a pillar. The long side of the monument – the only side that is visible – has a central scene with a relief of the Holy Trinity, flanked by an Annunciation. The Trinity of course consists of God the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is sitting on a throne and is holding the arms of the cross to which his son has been nailed. Above Christ we see the dove of the Holy Spirit. To the left of the throne a small figure is kneeling, perhaps the deceased. At the edges of the sarcophagus we see an angel (right) and a saint (left), perhaps Saint Benedictus. The presence of two angels next to each other is quite illogical, and experts usually assume that the reliefs were made for two or even three separate funerary monuments. When the demolition of the medieval cathedral was started in the sixteenth century, these monuments were demolished as well. Parts of them were then reused and merged.

Sarcophagus, fourteenth century.

Tomb of cardinal Pileo da Prata.

In the transept of the cathedral we find the tomb of cardinal Pileo da Prata (ca. 1330-1400). He was a cousin of Francesco I da Carrara and bishop of Padova from 1359 until 1370. Next he was appointed archbishop of Ravenna. Pileo became involved with the Duomo of Padova at a very young age, first as a canon and then as an archpriest. During his episcopate Pope Urbanus V (1362-1370) gave permission to establish a chair in theology at the University of Padova. Pope Urbanus VI (1378-1389) in his turn created Pileo da Prata a cardinal in 1378 and gave him the Santa Prassede as his titular church. Urbanus, who ruled from Rome, was involved in a desperate struggle against Clemens VII, who had his seat in Avignon and considered himself the legitimate pope. This struggle is also known as the Great Western Schism (1378-1417).

Pileo da Prata ultimately lost Urbanus’ favour. The pope was an utterly paranoid man who had his own cardinals executed. Pileo was therefore forced to defect to Clemens. Much to Clemens’ dismay he subsequently defected again, from Avignon to Rome, after Urbanus’ death. The cardinal now supported Urbanus’ successor Pope Bonifatius IX (1389-1404). He died around 1400 and was buried in the cathedral of Padova. Parts of his tomb have been preserved and these are very beautiful. The effigy of the deceased is lying under a sculpted baldachin. The sarcophagus is decorated with seven busts of saints, five on the front and one on each side. The saints on the front have been identified as Justina, Prosdocimus, Nicholas of Myra, Daniel of Padova (a deacon under Prosdocimus) and Antonius. We do not know the name of the sculptor, but experts believe they see the hand, school or influence of the Venetian artist Pierpaolo dalle Masegne in the figures. The tomb is often compared to that of Bartolomeo da Porto in the church of San Lorenzo in Vicenza. The similarities between the two tombs are indeed hard to miss.

Tomb of cardinal Francesco Zabarella.

Also in the transept is the tomb of cardinal Francesco Zabarella (1360-1417). He was archpriest of the Duomo, but never served as bishop of Padova. He owed his promotion to bishop of Florence in 1410 and to cardinal in 1411 to the infamous antipope John XXIII (1410-1415). The 1409 Council of Pisa had complicated the Great Western Schism a bit further. The aim of the council was to have a single pope at the head of Catholic Christianity again, but the result was that it ended up with three popes instead. The first ‘Pisan’ pope, Alexander V, died quickly and was succeeded by John XXIII. Zabarella participated in the Council of Constance as a representative of this John. He lived long enough to see his benefactor deposed by the council, but died in Constance before it elected Oddone Colonna as Pope Martinus V (1417-1431), thus formally ending the Schism.

Thanks to his excellent relations with Cosimo the Elder, antipope John XXIII was granted a splendid funerary monument in the Baptistery of Florence after his death. Francesco Zabarella’s own funerary monument in the Duomo of Padova pales a bit compared to the monument in Florence, but we are nevertheless fortunate that it has been preserved. A conspicuous element are the three books at the feet of the deceased, a clear reference to his position as professor of canon law at the University of Padova. The painting of the Crucifixion (featuring the cardinal at the foot of the cross) and the fresco of the Annunciation on the arch are obviously not original. These works date from the seventeenth century. Topping the arch are statues of the Madonna and Child and four male saints. The Madonna is flanked by Saints Peter (holding keys) and Paul, but it is not clear who the other two saints are, and neither do we know who made the funerary monument.

Cappella di San Gregorio Barbarigo.

Lastly, I would like to mention the Cappella di San Gregorio Barbarigo in the left aisle. Gregorio Barbarigo (1625-1697), a Venetian, was bishop of Padova between 1664 and his death in 1697. He had a reputation for being an exceptionally pious man. Pope Clemens XIII, the man who had consecrated the cathedral of Padova (see above), beatified him in 1763. In 1960 he was subsequently canonised by Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), i.e. the real Pope John XXIII and not his notorious predecessor the antipope from the fifteenth century. The altar in the chapel is a work of the aforementioned architect Giorgio Massari.


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