“There is one moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First freedom, and then glory – when that fails
Wealth, vice, corruption, – barbarism is last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page”
Byron, Childe Harold
This morning I am summoned by bells. And if the clock tower is on time then I wake at 148 o’clock. Back on the Tom-track the issues of time and rhythm seem important today: where last night the central palazzos were quiet, almost discrete, centres of Campari-spritzer drinking, this morning they are bustling market places. I am returned to the rhythm of “squares” with their daily dialectic between commerce, communication and cold-beer-contemplation. That is to say, betwixt the fruit stalls and the evening cafés and gelato shops, and the mid-afternoon longeurs of siesta-time, there is a sense of “time” that drifts back from today, and the Sisley store and Vodaphone shop around the corner with its lone busker playing lounge versions of “Layla”, to a medieval Padua, long before Tom. It is the sense of Italy “time” and its permanence as the way of life here outside the big cities.
Because I quite dread the NASDAQ of Venice I feel quite strange saying that the absence of foreign tourists last night – it was pretty much a solid Italian I heard spoken all over town – was disappointing. But it was: Padua has given us so much in its long and distinguished history; it’s a lovely town, “faire” as Tom would say. So where is everyone? Venice, I am sure.
Close to the hotel is the Palazzo della Ragione, the first stop. This morning is a riot of peaches and barter, haggles and oranges. Climbing marble stairs above a vaulted market the sound of a battery powered amp playing acoustic Nirvana sounds out above the din of commerce. The single first floor room of the Palazzo is big: not Fontainbleu big; but plenty enough. Once this was where judges held court. For a hundred years or so the high ceiling was a riot of “real sky” complete with the stars and planets as they were known in the 1300s. Design was by Pietro d”Abano, professor of medicine and natural philosophy at the University; actuality by the genius Giotto. All was lost in a great fire in 1420.
With Renaissance restoration and a raising of the ceiling came what I see now – give or take a myriad of smaller restorations. The effect is stunning: four walls, north, south, east and west covered in frescos that tell the story of “time”. They show what we’d call the human archetypes depending on the season, the month – the time. For Middle Age Humanity, that is. August (Leo) is depicted as a young woman with ears of wheat: she’s wearing a long dress. The month is about fruit picking. [I note my month, November (Sagittarius) is described: “this allegory probably represents a boar hunt.”
There is a man playing the bagpipes, a woman on the guitar. Scholars in their studies, religious scenes, and enough visual story-telling to keep JK Rowling in plots for decades. And three visitors.
Everything in the hall is about looking up, except the modern exhibition by a group of modern architects of mock-ups for a new Paduan theatre. These are displayed on Plasma at ground level, and most of the simulations look like the kind of buildings that are destroyed in episodes of Thunderbirds, in the 1960s. There’s a big horse with big balls, as well.
Without a map we get lost; without a guide-book we don’t know what we look at. Without a text book we don’t know what Palazzo X or Basillica Y has or means. Without sitting down for weeks with many text books we can’t know if that Meaning is Significant. I look at the frescos in the Palazzo della Regione with bemused wonder: as spectacle they work, as visual narratives I actually need to be on a ladder just to get at the details – or looking at a book. And once I can see them I have a million ways to misinterpret those details – the bagpipes, for example.
“December: this month shows a peasant slaughtering a pig. Capricorn: the sign is shown, in Medieval tradition, as a rampant goat. Saturn: this planet is depicted as an old man biting his fingers, in the first of his two houses.”
I wonder how much scholarship time I would need to put in just to understand those three sentences in any meaningful way? And would it help anyone?
Across the square and around the corner is the Palazzo Bo, home to those rioting Bovistas that ran naked in protest at the Jesuit college in 1591. Here is some of the university, old and new. A modern abstract sculpture involving Galileo isn’t as interesting as a wooden frieze which reminds me of an art work I once saw in the ruins of Sarajevo’s post-Yugoslav wars library. I can imagine the students running around as I make my way through empty side streets towards the location, if not the house, where Galileo lived. There is a modern sign on the Via Galilei, and, a few buildings down, a nice store selling “Sanderson” fabrics. Behind the gates to what was once the medical faculty of Renaissance Padua’s university is a 60s housing block.
Americans in skull caps are finally sighted near what was once the Jewish ghetto.
“Padua provided one of the richest opportunities for Jews to familiarize themselves intellectually and socially with some of the best of European civilisation. From the sixteenth century until well into the eighteenth, Jewish students came there from all over central and eastern Europe and returned to serve in their communities and elsewhere. The experience not only provided socialisation among Jews from varied backgrounds but also required them to interact with Christians from all over Europe.”
Today one man says: “Don’t bother going inside [St Anthony’s Basillica] just get the brochure and look at the pictures. Inside the – inevitably huge – tour-bustling basilica the same thoughts of time and rhythm are augmented by a nagging question about looking at anything religious. The thoughts of time lead me to write my first ever mathematical equations. I don’t think they would impress Galileo.
T + Tr + RL = H
T + RL – Tr = P
Where T = Time, Tr = Tourist, RL = Religious Location, H = Hell, P = Purgatory.
This leads on to the more advanced equation T + Tr + D + RL = CH squared
Where D = Digital Camera, and C = Complete
As I don’t believe, I look to religious art or architecture for other things: occasionally, as say with Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi, they are highly moving – but for aesthetic, that’s to say, humanly constructed, reasons. As I wander St Anthony’s carefully trying to avoid relics and Saints, for goodness sakes it is the twenty-first century, after all, and half a mile away Galileo’s house merits a meagre brown sign, I try to imagine if Tom’s belief system allowed him access to something more like understanding here.
In the circular ornamental park, the Prato della Volle, complete with narrow canal and dinky bridges, and surrounded by basilicas, and ancient buildings of all kinds, another American, a woman, shouts: “I want that old building in the picture.”
In a way I’m sort of with her, though I’ve been looking at “Old buildings” for eight weeks now; and by now Tom had been looking for over twelve. I imagine a world to come when the camera, when pointed at an object, identifies it using GPS and a global database of “place”, so that once downloaded a tourist, or a scholar, or an exile, can say: “that’s me in front of the “Osservatario Astronomica” in Padua.
It’s closed, of course, when I get there. Open only at weekends. Next door in the modern Astronomy Faculty the receptionist is online and engaged with a roll-player game that involves headphones. He points leftwards, but doesn’t say the building is closed.
Edwin Muir writes: “One of the most disturbing sources of late-Renaissance anxiety was the collapse of the traditional hierarchical notion of the human self…individuals during the Renaissance looked inward for emotional sustenance and outward for social assurance, and the friction between the inner and outer selves could sharpen anxieties.”
Most of all: “the sense of sight lost its primacy as the superior faculty, the source of “Enlightenment”
It is strange how “sight” is now so greatly the “superior faculty,” seeing or photographing, posing or rebuilding the body – to be looked at. The difference betwixt 1608 and today being that while we all look through the telescope these days, we often have absolutely no idea what we are looking at, merely that we have. That we look, and are looked at. Anything else is just talk…