The story goes that a man was not happy about what his father had done; loaning money at exorbitant rates. So, he decided to do something about it and build a chapel, covering it with art representing scenes from the bible depicting how your life should be lived and what not to do, plus the repercussions.
That man’s Christian name was Enrico and his father was Reginaldo Scrovegni, a usurer of ill repute who, in the eyes of his son, had sinned with greed. However, Enrico himself was viewed by others as having sinned with pride; perhaps the chapel is reflective of that?
Whatever their sins, around 1302, Enrico commissioned Giotto di Bondone to do the frescoes inside and planned the Scrovegni Chapel as an extension of a mansion he built on the place where a Roman arena once stood that had been torn down to build apartments.
All was going well except the friars from the next door Church of the Eremitani (hermits) protested to the bishop that it was too grandiose, the bells way too loud and represented competition with theirs, so it was scaled down somewhat. For the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto was asked to depict a series of stories from the Old and New Testaments, culminating in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and the Last Judgement. The aim was to encourage visitors to the Chapel to meditate more deeply on Christ’s sacrifice and the salvation of mankind.
On the lower parts, Giotto planned a painted architectural structure in trompe l’oeil style with marble supporting the vaulted roof, decorated as a star-spangled sky, with framed stories of episodes in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ on the walls.
Giotto was one of the earliest artists to depict the illusions of real life, in terms of emotion and space; on a flat surface. Along with Cimabue, whom he may well have trained under, though his works are vastly different, Giotto is often regarded as the founder of modern painting, as he broke away from the static stereotyped conventions of his day. In fact, none other than Dante wrote, “Cimabue thought that in painting he commanded the field, and now Giotto has the acclaim…” In 1334 he was appointed surveyor to the Florence Cathedral and architect to the city. This was a tribute to his great fame as a painter not to having great architectural knowledge.
Enrico meanwhile got into conflict with the locals and eventually moved to Venice where he spent the rest of his life, though his tomb may be seen today at the rear of the altar, behind three statues by Pisano representing the Virgin and Child flanked by two angels.
These days each group is ushered into a small sealed theatre where much of the story behind the chapel is explained. Not only do you learn something for 15 minutes but the humidity of your body and any smog is filtered away so the air within the chapel remains pure. The biggest enemy, common to archaeological sites everywhere, is salt. With frescoes it gets into the paint and expands, slowly rupturing the surface and decades have been spent planning, studying and restoring the chapel, today visited by hundreds of thousands from all parts of the globe.
Only 25 people are allowed each half hour and I still can’t believe how lucky we were because I walked up to the ticket office and was told the next session was open and would be on in 10 minutes. Apparently you’re supposed to book ahead and it was obvious the groups after us were full.
As you finally enter this hallowed space you’re overcome by the colour blue, and no wonder. Giotto used azurite with malachite and the rare green–blue mineral mixite, giving the work this wonderful cool blue look as distinct from the warm blue provided by ultramarine that was typical of the period.
The innovative expressiveness of the faces is also a feature of the work though, if you pay careful attention, you’ll also note that many of the faces are the same shape and style. The straight nose, common lips and eyes can be overlooked when consumed by the overall body of work. You also don’t want to look too closely at the dachshund-shaped sheep!
Our cameras click away incessantly, knowing there’s little time to record and being grateful just to be able to take images of this masterpiece. It’s really special just to be here and Lorraine is almost overcome to the point of tears at the whole experience, her religious background playing a part. As a devout atheist, I’m just chuffed to be here to view this wonder of the art world and recoil at the horror of the scene from Hell. It definitely rates on the “Wow” factor scale.
Then, all too soon, we’re quietly ushered out and the experience is over but, it’s one of those you know you’ll never forget.