The Scuola del Santo (also known as the Scoletta, ‘little school’) is the seat of the Archconfraternity of Saint Antonius of Padova. Saint Antonius (or Anthony) died in 1231, and according to tradition the confraternity was founded a couple of years after he was canonised in 1232. The first written evidence we have dates from 1298. Originally the brothers and sisters met in the chapterhouse of the monastery next to the grand basilica of Sant’Antonio. It is possible that they were the people that commissioned the great painter Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) to decorate the chapterhouse with beautiful frescoes. The confraternity subsequently relocated to the Cappella della Madonna Mora in the basilica. In 1427 it then decided to build its own oratory next to the existing oratory of San Giorgio. The new oratory was completed in 1431. In 1504 it was decided, with 83 votes to one, to add a storey to the oratory that could be used as a meeting hall. This Sala Priorale was then decorated with several frescoes and a couple of canvases. In 1736 the Scuola del Santo was connected to the oratory of San Giorgio by means of a small white building with a loggia and staircase built by Giovanni Gloria (ca. 1684-1759).
The Sala Priorale or meeting hall of the Scuola is the artistic highlight of the building. To visit the hall one needs a ticket, which also gives access to the San Giorgio and to the museum of the basilica of Sant’Antonio. The hall has a nice coffered ceiling and is decorated with fifteen frescoes and three paintings (oil on canvas). These works all date from the sixteenth century, with one exception, which is a painting by the eighteenth-century painter Antonio Buttafuoco. All frescoes and paintings deal with the life of Antonius of Padova, and especially with the miracles he is said to have performed. Most famous are three frescoes from 1511 that were painted by a very young Titian (ca. 1488-1576), who at the time had just embarked on a decades-long career. Two frescoes are attributed to Titian’s brother Francesco Vecellio (died 1560).
Titian’s first fresco is about the miracle of the speaking baby. The mother of the child has been accused of adultery by her jealous husband, but Saint Antonius grants the child the power of speech, so that it can exonerate the woman. On the fresco we see the saint kneeling and holding the baby in his hands. The child appears to speak to the woman’s husband. According to tradition it told the man that he was himself the father. A conspicuous element in the background, in the top left corner, is a statue of the Roman emperor Trajanus (98-117).
The two other frescoes by Titian can be found at the end of the left wall. The one at the back is again about a jealous husband, this time in Tuscany. The man, a knight, beat his wife and ultimately stabbed her with a knife. Later he repented and asked Antonius for forgiveness. He was indeed forgiven, as can be seen in the background of the fresco. Moreover, thanks to Antonius the woman recovered from her wounds, which would otherwise have been lethal. A very special element of the fresco is the raised right arm of the woman. The arm is actually a plaster relief that protrudes a bit and was later painted. Scientific research has proven that the arm even has its own shadow.
The third fresco is about a young man from Padova named Leonardo. He had confessed to Antonius that he had once kicked his mother. When Antonius remarked that a foot involved in such a heinous crime deserved to be chopped off, Leonardo took these words literally (were they based on Exodus 21:15, where it is stated that whoever strikes his father or mother must be put to death? In that case, the young man got off light). Leonardo decided to saw off his own foot, but Antonius managed to reattach it to the leg again.
We do not know much about Francesco Vecellio. It is for instance not clear whether he was an older or younger brother of Titian. Of the two frescoes attributed to him in the Scuola that about the heart of the usurer is the most interesting (usurers were explicitly excluded from membership of the confraternity, as were adulterous men and women). According to tradition the usurer was about to be buried in a Tuscan town when Antonius intervened. He claimed that the man had no heart and therefore had to be buried outside the town. After all, the usurer had bled people dry for most of his life. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”, said Antonius, quoting Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:21). A surgeon then established that the man indeed lacked a heart (centre of the fresco). Next, a member of the family discovers the organ in his treasure box (left of the fresco).
A conspicuous element of the fresco is the Roman (triumphal) arch in the background. I have not been able to find out whose heads are on the arch, but they personally reminded me of Antinous and the emperor Hadrianus (117-138). The bearded Hadrianus would match well with the fresco (by Titian) that features Trajanus. However, is it really plausible that Antinous and Hadrianus, who are currently symbols of homo-erotic relationships, were depicted in a religious building? It should be noted that the sexual connotation may have been entirely absent at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Perhaps the relationship between Antinous and the emperor was seen as the ultimate form of brotherhood back then. And that, of course, is a very suitable theme for the hall of a confraternity.