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Padua's pleasurable paradoxes

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"Padua has," said Padre Paolo, "a field with no grass, a cafe with no doors and a saint with no name."

Now I had seen the field, and it has grass. I had been to the cafe, and its doors were closed. And I had long realized that the saint is one of the best known in Christendom.

Come to think of it, the 30-ish guy making this assertion looked more like an actor or athlete than a stereotypical priest. He was not dressed in priestly uniform, unless his clerical collar was hidden under his casual sweater, and like all young Italians, he spent a lot of time on a cell phone. Nevertheless, Padre Paolo Floretta should know what he's talking about: His alma mater is across the street from that cafe, his office is near that field and his boss, so to speak, is that saint.

There is yet another paradox to Padua: It is a fascinating town, rich with history and art, and pretty. It has friendly, witty people and a hip, university-town demeanor. But few Americans visit it.

When you're only 30 miles from Venice, people tend to overlook you. Padua is in northeast Italy, in the Veneto, a region framed by the Alps and the Adriatic Sea and famous for Vivaldi, Valpolicella wine and Venice, with its serene glories. But Padua (population 203,000) is a major commercial center in the Veneto and a repository of remarkable religious art. It is a rewarding destination in itself, as its residents proudly will tell you and as my wife, Janice, and I found out.

We met Padre Paolo one evening in the middle of our eight-day stay here in March, as we sought to expand our knowledge of the Veneto beyond Venice. The Franciscan, who travels frequently to the U.S., had been recommended by our parish priest in Washington. "He loves to practice his English," we had been told. He also likes to show off Padua, and he took Janice and me on an hourlong nighttime walking tour through the historic streets and piazzas of the old city.

Padua's earliest residents were the Veneti, a pre-Roman people who created settlements in the area as early as 1200 BC. (Evidence of their art and culture can be seen in the city's large Civic Museum.) The city gradually fell under Rome's influence in the 1st century BC, developed as an independent city-state in the Middle Ages and came under Venice's influence in the 13th and 14th centuries. With Venice, Padua was conquered by France in 1797, and in subsequent decades control of the city alternated between Austria and the Kingdom of Italy until the unification of Italy in 1870.

For art historians, Padua mainly means Giotto. The city used to have more examples of the works of this early Renaissance master, who lived from 1267 to 1337, but most were lost to one calamity or another. His remaining pieces are carefully guarded in the Scrovegni Chapel, at the north edge of the city on the site of a former Roman arena. The chapel was commissioned in 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni, who, some say, had it built to atone for the sins of his father, an infamous usurer.

Giotto under wraps

The chapel is a hermetically sealed universe. As part of the extraordinary precautions to preserve its frescoes, only 25 people at a time are permitted to enter, and then only by appointment. We first spent 15 minutes in an air lock, watching a video that summarized what we were about to see. Then we were allowed to enter the chapel, which is about the size of a small-town community church, walking over special carpeting.

Under a painted starry sky, fresco panels, remarkably realistic for their time, display the lives of Christ and Mary and the Bible's teachings on virtues and vices. The predominant theme is redemption: those who are redeemed and those who aren't. The younger Scrovegni clearly wanted to be among the former, because Giotto depicts him presenting the chapel to Mary at the lower edge of a wall-sized "Last Judgment." Before it seemed possible, our allotted quarter-hour was up, guards shooed us into an exit chamber — also an air lock — and the chapel door closed behind us. Another door opened, and we were out on the street again.

Seeking refreshment, Janice and I then went to that cafe with no doors and found that it did have doors, and they were locked. The padre's description of Caffè Pedrocchi is not so much false as outdated. For more than eight decades after coffee merchant Antonio Pedrocchi opened it in 1831, the cafe was a round-the-clock gathering place for students, artists, writers and patriots. Shortly after World War I, however, its owners adopted more conventional hours.

We gave it another try the next morning and discovered that it is the mother of all Starbucks. Sculpted lions guarded the entrances. In a ground-floor salon, well-dressed espresso sippers studied newspapers under bronze and glass chandeliers while a piano and violin duo performed. Behind the bar an imperturbable barista satisfied competing requests for cappuccinos and pastries.

But it is the upstairs, the piano nobile, that sets Caffè Pedrocchi apart from your average decaf-skim-milk-latte place. It has a grand ballroom with a white ceiling decorated with gilded stucco lyres that are matched by little gilded bees on the wall. The wooden floor crunched underfoot as we moved through a series of smaller themed rooms used for social gatherings and business meetings. The Moorish room, once a ladies' waiting room, was decorated with painted mirrors and florid scrollwork.

Although the connection between coffee and college students seems eternal, the University of Padua, whose principal building lies across the street from the cafe, predates the introduction of coffee to Italy by several centuries.

In 1222 disgruntled law professors from the University of Bologna moved here to start a school. The new university grew and, in 1493, took over an old hotel, the Hospitium Bovis, or il Bò. Galileo once taught physics here.

Around the Bò's courtyard we saw 400-year-old Latin-inscribed medallions next to current bulletin board notices for guitar lessons, apartments for rent and job openings. Some of the historic classrooms can be toured, including the 16th century anatomical theater where William Harvey, who discovered the human circulatory system in the early 1600s, studied. (Unfortunately, tours had been suspended at the time of our visit.)

Graduation fun and games

A notice in the Bò's courtyard warned against unseemly graduation festivities, but as we walked around Padua that weekend, we encountered rowdy bands of students, each focusing on some unfortunate colleague who was made to wear a laurel wreath, dress in outlandish costume — in some cases, almost no costume at all — and read from a long script, usually illustrated with scandalous caricatures.

And there was singing, always the same song. "Dottore, dottore," the students would chant, celebrating the honoree's new degree. When I asked Padre Paolo about the partying and the hazing, he recalled receiving his own philosophy degree. "It was horrible," he said. As for the song, it is a traditional — and vulgar — chant.

We encountered a less boisterous group at Isola di Caprera, a nearby restaurant. The family and friends of one graduate nearly took over the place, saluting her, drinking champagne and eating seafood risotto.

The risotto looked good, but the large bowl of soup I ordered was one of the finest, if least complicated, dishes I have had in Italy. Zuppetta Zi' Teresa (Aunt Teresa's "little" soup) consisted of mussels and clams of various sizes in a hearty broth. There was no soup spoon, just a stack of exquisitely absorbent bread.

Although a post-lunch nap would have been nice, we went to church instead. In many European cities the local cathedral is the focal point of religious expression, but Padua's Duomo is overshadowed not only by the Scrovegni Chapel but also by its own 13th century baptistery. It's like walking into the Bible.

The frescoes start at the peak of the cupola — with Christ at its center, surrounded by angels, saints and martyrs — and flow down the walls. There are apocalyptic beasts, the Creation, the lives of Christ, Mary and John the Baptist. Although my neck began to ache, I couldn't stop staring up.

We also paid a call on St. Giustina's Basilica. St. Giustina is one of Padua's patron saints, and, judging from the remarkably frigid temperature of the basilica's interior, she might also be the patron saint of refrigerator repairmen. The church is huge — the 11th largest in the world — and it looks as if a football field could fit inside. Despite the basilica's name, St. Giustina shares it with St. Luke, who is venerated in one of its chapels.

The basilica is adjacent to the "field with no grass," Prato della Valle (literally "meadow of the valley"). At one time the area was dominated by a Roman theater, but it deteriorated into an unhealthy swamp until, in the late 18th century, it was transformed into a grand 22-acre park.

The field is a broad pavement, which surrounds an elliptical moat, which encircles a center island, which, in turn, does have grass — but apparently that doesn't count. At the edges of the moat are 78 statues of foreign sovereigns and important figures in the town's history.

We visited the Prato on one of the first warm days of spring, when the grass of the island was crowded by students taking in the sun, flirting and nuzzling. Youngsters roller-skated on the pavement.

So that leaves only the third paradox, the unnamed saint. In Padua, when someone says "santo," everyone knows they're talking about St. Anthony. Thus the namers of the Piazza del Santo or Via del Santo or Trattoria al Santo didn't have to be specific. St. Anthony is the Great Communicator. A 13th century Franciscan priest, he was such a devoted evangelist that once, lacking a human audience, he preached to the fishes. He is the patron saint of many: fishermen, swineherds, Portuguese, expectant mothers, amputees, the poor, the elderly. He's the one you pray to when you've lost something.

His popularity probably explains the long line we found in front of his tomb inside the nave when we visited the Basilica of St. Anthony early one frosty morning. Many pilgrims go to confession there — on weekends there are as many as 50 priests on duty to hear them — then pray at the tomb and touch its wall. Niches in the apse hold the saint's tongue and vocal cords, mounted in intricate reliquaries of precious metals.

Construction of the church began about 1234 and continued for more than 100 years, with dozens of leading artists contributing to its decoration. Donatello sculpted the high altar.

While there are artworks of international importance here, in a room off the quiet basilica cloisters we also saw votives of ordinary folks — primitive art showing St. Anthony saving people from domestic perils (scalding water, overturned carriages, runaway tractors), shipwreck or robbery. And very personal contributions: crutches, presumably no longer needed.

Earlier, as we had crossed through the cloisters I had noticed a modern statue of St. Anthony, sculpted by Lorenzo Quinn, son of actor Anthony Quinn. The saint is shown reaching up to touch the hand of a hovering infant Jesus. A young woman had been standing there with her eyes closed, holding the saint's free hand. As we left the basilica, she was still there, still holding on.

Now, extending the chain of communication, in her other hand she held a cell phone.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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