Ancient Padua offers a wealth of precious frescoes that helped define Italy’s & Europe’s artistic achievements

For excellence in fresco art, Padua, one of the country’s most ancient cities, will enthrall and enrich its visitors.

Called Padova in Italian, Padua, tucked around a wandering canal, is easily reached from Venice. A good deal of its artistic development — and cuisine — shares much in common with the much more explored lagoon city, but on its own, Padua deserves a day or two of exploration.

Giotto, a giant of Italian fresco painting, is celebrated in good part for his work in two towns. One is Assisi, where he decorated that Umbrian town’s basilica named after its native St. Francis. The other is Padua, where his artistry in the Scrovegni Chapel is considered a masterpiece of 14th century Italian and European painting.

So popular is the chapel’s frescoes, and so precious is its painting, that visitors are allowed only to stay inside for tightly controlled times: 15 minutes generally in Italy’s busier tourist seasons and 20 minutes in “off-season” or other times considered less in demand.

The chapel is small, and the frescoes so marvelous that if oohing-and-ahhing time weren’t limited, most people wouldn’t be able to crowd inside the aisle where visitors can stand and admire Giotto’s genius and be dazzled by the predominant, dreamy blue hue.

Giotto’s masterpiece is considered the most complete cycle of frescoes that the Tuscan artist did, and the chapel was his to do at the height of his artistic maturity.

The frescoes are a stunning complement to the chapel’s simple, rectangular architecture with barrel-vaulted ceiling. The upper cycles narrate religious scenes; beneath them run illustrations of Vices and Virtues.

The chapel was the wish of a wealthy banker and businessman from Padua, Enrico Scrovegni. He commissioned it to host his remains and those of his descendants after death.

All that gaping lets out a lot of breath, which can damage the ancient frescoes, which were painstaking restored and later reopened to the public in 2001. Reservations are mandatory — no same-day, spur-of-the moment tickets are sold — so that the number of visitors can be strictly controlled. In warmer months, evening viewing is also allowed, expanding the number of tickets that can be sold.

For those looking for “special admission,” the date to keep in mind is March 25, when the Catholic church marks the Feast of the Annunciation. Since the chapel was dedicated to the Annunciation, that day admission costs a token 1 euro.

But just touring the Scrovegni chapel without taking in at least some of Padua’s several other frescoed masterpieces would be akin to a tourist’s making a mad dash to admire Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and rushing right past such artistic glories like Raphael’s work in the Vatican Museums.

To fully appreciate the depth and importance of Padua’s contributions to European art, try to carve out some time to visit other landmarks.

Consider making the Oratory of St. George your next stop.

This tiny chapel’s origins are similar to that of the Scrovegni Chapel. A military commander, Raimondino Lupi, commissioned a funerary chapel near St. Anthony’s Basilica in 1377. He entrusted its decoration to an artist from Verona, another town in the Veneto region. The artist, Altichiero da Zevio, whose formation was steeped in Giotto’s style of a couple of generations earlier.

Seeing his work gives a sense of how Italian art was moving toward the Renaissance achievements that would stun the art world later in the next century. In illustrating the deeds of St. George, Altichiero’s style exhibits a kind of almost photographic realism.

Featured in the frescoes is the figure of literary giant Petrarch, in this view, swathed in a chocolate brown hood and mantle as he observes the saint baptizing a king.

Here, the oratory frescoes offer a dynamic of artistic movement. Emotions are vividly captured, as well as what was then a risqué naked figure of St. Lucy, as her detractors prepare a vat of boiling oil.

Critics consider Altichiero a talented innovator whose artistic intuitions were virtually a century ahead of his time.

Noontime is advised as a good time to visit the oratory, because the slant of the light entering the nave at that hour helps reveal many details of the frescoes.

Many associate Padua with St. Anthony, and the town basilica named after him was started in 1232 as a temple for his tomb. A wonder of architecture, the sprawling complex features six domes in the Byzantine style, a central dome, and two bell towers that have been likened to minarets.

While frescoes often define Padua art for the visitor, sculpture is a highlight, too.

Donatello’s artistic vision can be admired in the vast Piazza del Santo (the Saint’s Square) in front of the basilica, where his equestrian statue of a Venetian military commander has been described as the first great bronze sculpture cast in the Renaissance. Inside the basilica, an impressive altar is the work of Donatello, too.

Besides art and architecture, Padua boasts other points of pride. Its university, with its famed medical school, was established in the town in 1222.

Padua is part of the northeast Veneto region, which has some wonderful white wines and a cuisine that is often hearty, with dishes like polenta or rice, and several recipes making use of onions, beans, liver, fresh sardines, cod or maybe tripe.