What does the impact of mankind look like when you get far enough above the Earth to remove all signs of human habitation except the permanent ones? One sometimes discovers interesting things on Instagram – one account I’ve recently found and enjoyed is @SquareofItaly. Brainchild of Ottavio Rusalen, a 25 year old from northern Italy, the account features savvily selected, beautiful satellite images of Italy. I asked him if he’d be willing to share a few reflections here in an interview.
Palmanova is a late Renaissance star fort!
Who are you?
My name is Ottavio Rusalen and I am from Gorgo al Monticano (a small town in the province of Treviso), I’m 25 years old and I work in a marketing and communications agency.
Hey so do I! You also spend your spare time on Instagram despite doing it for work… Do tell us, what is @squareofitaly?
Square Of Italy is the first (and only) project dedicated to observing Italy from satellite level. I refer to it as a project because it’s not just an Instagram account – I hope to develop it into a book, a traveling exhibition in Italy, and a blog to develop some of the themes that come out of observing landscapes that we can see from high above.
The island of San Michele in Venice | Landsat
So what is the goal of this project?
The project’s goal is to discover Italy from a totally different point of view compared to that presented by many of the self-defined photographers on Instagram. Beyond this, I hope to sensitize viewers about the impact that humankind has on the environment and on what is around us, as well as to admire the beauty of the Italian landscape and generate respect for it and for the great gift that this nature gives us.
The Ferriera di Servola, near Trieste, is the only producer of cast iron in Italy | Digital Globe
How do you source your images? What tools do you use? Do you do any editing?
Well I can’t give away all my secrets! Let’s say that if you read the captions you can figure out how I get them… My research begins simply by “traveling” around Google Maps, though I also use blogs or newspapers since some images are connected to news items. I do a tiny bit of editing just to make the image usable online, but nothing invasive – it has to be as natural as possible.
The man-made Bilancino Lake in the Mugello area of Tuscany | Google Earth Pro
The project has been very successful on Instagram. In a world prepared for images #fromabove through the diffusion of drones, how are your satellite images different?
I think that the Instagram page is appreciated because it’s a different theme than what you usually see. It’s true that they are “from above” pictures, but the aspect that unites all of them is that they have been “taken” from satellites. Another secret to its success, I think, is that the images are primarily of Italy (though I occasionally feature other places in the categories #squareofworld and #squareofeurope); there are no other pages of which I know that focus on Italy in this way.
Siena from above | Landsat
Tell us about the images of Italian cities you have found.
No doubt that what hits me the most is the geometry of so many Italian cities. I never stop wondering at the perfect lines with which some areas are drawn.
Florence from above demonstrates the geometry of a Roman city and its later Medieval developments | Google Earth Pro
But you don’t only focus on cities… What about natural sites?
The natural areas are a bit harder to source for this project because often it’s hard to find a shape in them. But in Italy there are plenty of natural areas that seem to have been drawn with a ruler!
The Trapani salt mines are a WWF protected area | Google Earth Pro
You also look beyond Italy to some fascinating places in the rest of the world – I was amazed by the golden ratio worked into the planning of a residential area near the port of Alkmaar! What differences have you observed comparing Italy to other places in the world?
Often the difference comes simply from the age of the places we’re looking at. Many Italian centers appear more “messy” from above because they were built ages ago, when urbanism didn’t impose straight lines [editors’ note: or didn’t exist at all], while in the new world you can see much greater study of spaces and shapes in urbanistic projects.
The residential area at the port of Alkmaar in Holland | Google Earth Pro
Follow Ottavio and his project at Instagram.com/SquareofItaly.
A new year has dawned and with it, travel plans for the year (or more) to come. Over the Christmas holidays (now a distant memory!) I brainstormed with my Mom about some of the amazing Italy experiences that I’ve been lucky to have over time, and we have rounded them up for your inspiration (yes, Mom helped me with this post). Be this your first trip to Italy or one of many, these are some of the things to do in Italy that we believe one should do at least once.
1/ Visit the Uffizi
The Birth of Venus now has a different point of view
I have a love-hate relationship with the Uffizi. It’s got Botticelli and Michelangelo, some Raphael and Leonardo, some amazing Venetian pieces by Titian and Tintoretto… the famous Giotto and Cimabue comparison… It’s a Renaissance art historian’s dream collection, but since it’s also the top destination on every tourist’s Florence and Italy list, it’s generally too crowded for its own good. Although the new director has been trying to improve the visitor experience and flow (including by introducing new lower priced off-season tickets amongst other things), it’s still a museum with too little signage and seating. If you don’t have Ren Art 101 memorized, you might find my little guide to the Uffizi handy – I list the most important works in there to help you get through without feeling exhausted.
2/ Go Hiking in the Cinque Terre
Vernazza in the Cinque Terre
Speaking of love-hate relationships, how about the Cinque Terre? Another bucket list topper, and possibly one of the most beautiful places in Italy. I’d say on Earth, but I don’t know enough about other countries to judge. The way the shimmering sea reflects light that bounces on to the characteristic colourful houses of these towns perched above is essentially indescribable. The hiking paths are, in my opinion, relatively challenging unless you’re used to climbing infinite stairs, but they offer spectacular views and so much satisfaction. Between Easter and October, this place is super crowded (if you have to go, follow these simple travel hacks), so do yourself a favour and visit the Cinque Terre in the off-season.
3/ Learn how to make and cook pasta properly
Learned to make this ravioli with Cooking with Friends (no longer in operation, unfortunately)
If you’re coming to Italy for any amount of time at all, I humbly recommend learning how Italians make pasta. Your family will thank you, forever. A lot goes in to the right quality and shape of pasta, matching the sauce with that (and the time of year!), and cooking it until it’s perfectly al dente, but not too much (and god forbid, not overcooked). Any cooking class in Italy will do the trick as you’re sure to make at least one pasta dish. Many cooking classes also teach you how to make fresh pasta, either the long and fun fettuccine, or maybe some classic filled ravioli. After just one lesson, I’ve got the ravioli down pat and, if I had more time, I’d make them more often as it’s really easy!
4/ See Venice before it sinks
The view of Venice’s grand canal from Fondaco dei Tedeschi
They say Venice is sinking, and the cruise ships don’t help. Venice is, however magical (so maybe magic will help it stay up?). If you’ve never been there, you must go, especially if you love stumbling upon world-famous altarpieces in dark churches (a few of those are listed in this Venice weekend art-lovers itinerary). Know that it will be crowded and, if that bothers you, try to avoid the busiest times of year (basically, summer). On the other hand, if you do go there in summertime, you can catch the alternating Venice Biennale dedicated to either art or architecture. I do recommend staying in Venice itself, because when the sun goes down, the daytrippers leave and you can experience the silence of the canals at night. If you have a bit more time in the area, spend a day or more in Padova to see Giotto’s little gem, the Arena Chapel.
5/ See where people lived in caves
A donkey in Matera :)
Matera is one of the strangest places in Italy – come to think of it, almost as strange as Venice, if you stop to consider that they want to the trouble of building a city on stilts. In this case, people dwelled in caves until half a century ago (and would have continued to do so if the government hadn’t declared them unhealthy). Rather than building something magnificent on difficult terrain, Materans adapted to life in this remote landscape by using what nature gave them, and not much more. This UNESCO Heritage city will be European capital of culture in 2019 – get it before it gets crowded?
6/ Go to the Viareggio Carnevale
Trump float at 2017 Carnevale
In the same way as, in the States, Halloween melds into Thanksgiving and straight into Christmas, Carnevale is the way to break up the period between Christmas and Easter. As soon as the panettoni are off the shelves, the cenci and fritelle start coming out, even before their official season starts. This feasting on sweets, that preceeds Lent, and a few kids in wigs is all you’ll see of Carnevale in many cities, but there are a few places in Italy that really do Carnevale. Viareggio’s Carnevale is one of the most famous. It started with a procession of ox-drawn carts in 1873, which went on for a few years and grew in size. Now the “carts” (or carri) are the size of a small house, blasting music and hosting dancers much of the time, while making some political commentary. Last year I finally went to the Viareggio Carnevale and found it really interesting to learn about its history and economic impact on the city. I really recommend staying at the city’s top hotel, the Principe di Piemonte, because if the weather is awful (which it generally is) you can take advantage of the very nice spa and other facilities instead.
7/ Climb up Florence’s Duomo
The Duomo Secret Terraces Tour!
It’s 463 steps to the top but if you want to have the best view of Florence, you should climb up the Duomo (or alternately, the belltower). When I had the privilege of visiting the Duomo museum before it opened a few years ago, curator Monsignor Timothy Verdon talked about how he wanted to create closer ties between museum and the Duomo, and that many more people walk up the dome than visit the museum and the other parts of the complex. That may be changing as the word’s out on how great the museum is, but it’s still worth a note to say DO spend half a day or more seeing all the parts that make up this “whole”. Walking up the dome is, yes, about the experience and seeing Florence from above, but it’s also technically more about the dome itself, I think. If you’re interested in putting the Dome more into context and also visiting a newly opened area of the Duomo climb (from which I took the photo above), take a Secret Terraces of the Duomo tour by one of just a very few tour providers who hold the key (literally!) to this special place.
8/ Get blown away by patterns in Palermo
Immacolata Concezione al capo
I didn’t know I’d love Palermo as much as I did until I got there and started exploring it on foot. Ruled by everyone and their uncle, be he Byzantine or Ostragoth, Arab or Spanish, it’s a city that breaks all the rules and does it with style. I particularly loved the Palermitan Baroque style, which is light-filled, with lots of pink marble, pattern and drama. The other highlight here, in my opinion, is the mosaic work, which can be found in numerous locations in the city and, for something really spectacular, the Duomo of Monreale just a short trip outside the city. If you love hustle and bustle, street food at all hours, tons of art clashing with street culture, and not spending a lot of money, Palermo should be on the top of your list.
9/ Make (and drink) real Italian coffee
I think that spending any time in Italy makes one into a food snob, and most certainly also a coffee snob. I used to spend a lot of time in late high school and early university, sitting in coffee shops drinking those tall tubs of “American coffee”. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of why my stomach is so bad now that I can’t drink the stuff at all. On my first trip to Italy, I fell in love with the creamy cappuccinos taken standing up at a marble bar (at the time, the fancy bar in Florence’s piazza San Marco made the best one in town). When it wasn’t possible to go out for one, I bought a Bialetti Moka, and quickly learned the tricks of making Italian coffee in a moka. If you want to get really serious about it, there’s a certification course you can take from the Institute of Coffee Tasters. Or, just sip your mornings away in the best bars around Italy and hit up the barista to learn the tricks of the trade!
10/ See how the Romans lived
Touring the Colosseum with Context Travel
Personally, my favourite historical periods are the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. I’ve always found the Ancient periods to be harder to understand, maybe because they require more imagination and information to understand the functions of the objects and spaces that come down to us today. (Also, most Archaeological Museums in Italy are underfunded and hence have terrible labeling and display.) Lately I’ve been reading the Cicero Trilogy on my Kindle so I’ve got a new urge to see the Forum and imagine the book’s characters there. Walking through central Rome’s amazingly well preserved monuments like the Colosseum and the Imperial Forum is absolutely a don’t miss experience. While they’re impressive and legible on their own, I’d recommend taking the Colosseum Tour with Context Travel here in order to understand it properly and in context – I love their small group tours with an academic slant.
11/ Get buffalo mozzarella from the source
The cows that make buffalo mozzarella
Have you ever visited a cheesemaker? I’ve been to a few places that make pecorino and seen a lot of cute sheep, but going to a buffalo mozzarella farm is a whole other ballgame. Mozzarella di Bufala is a DOP protected product made in the Campania area of Italy, with a rich history that goes back to the 12th century (though the first citation of the name mozzarella is in a book from 1570). In the Campania region in and outside of Naples, you’ll find plenty of good producers – Caserta and Paestum may be two of the most famous areas. My family and I were visiting the archaeological site at Paestum when we got pretty hungry, so went to Caseificio Barlotti, where you can visit the farm animals (and smell them) right where they make the cheese and serve it in a small restaurant. Besides being as fresh as it gets, I discovered my love of smoked mozzarella!
12/ Immerse yourself in the Dolomites
The Dolomites are a UNESCO Heritage Site
The Dolomites are incredibly beautiful at any time of year. In the winter, the snow capped mountains dazzle for their seeming inaccessibility, yet we drive in, ski on them, and enjoy spa resorts there. In the spring, coloured flowers carpet the hillsides and the hiking paths become inviting; they stay like that (but get hotter and less floral) in the summer. Fall can get cold early, but has its joys as well. The Italian Dolomites are of course vast, so you can choose the area you prefer to visit and won’t run out of places to return. I’ve been twice lately to the Val Pusteria, known in winter for the Kronplatz ski area, which I found particularly rich with both natural and cultural beauty. I’ll be writing more about that soon!
13/ Visit a Chianti Classico Winery
Me in the vines at Dievole. Photo Michelle Davis.
Last year, you may recall that I decided to start drinking wine after over 20 years of tee-totaling. The decision wasn’t one I took lightly, but living in Tuscany for this long, it seemed ignorant to exclude such an important part of the local culture. Tuscany’s landscape is very much shaped by mankind, sculpted with cypress trees dividing properties, and parceled into orderly stripes of vineyards and patches of olive groves. The Chianti Classico area is where Tuscany’s reputation for quality wine started (the original “Chianti” zone grew over a few hundred years, and was hence restricted by legislation in more recent times). I’m now really enjoying visiting wineries all over Italy (see, for example, wineries to visit in Maremma). Many have structured wine tours you can book online. I’ve been managing social media for Dievole, near Siena, for a few years, and I highly recommend and love Dievole’s picnic and wine tasting tour, because you can easily feel at home there with that delicious lunch and spectacular view.
14/ Drive along the Amalfi Coast
The famous Amalfi Coast
Historically, it seems that Italians purposefully chose to settle in some of the most hard to reach, inhospitable places of the country. Or maybe it’s just that with lots of hills, mountains and coastline, so much of the country is, well, anti-highway. The Amalfi Coast road is not for the faint of stomach; the two-lane road clings to the side of the hill and in plenty of places you wonder if it’s not actually one-way, yet it’s packed with busses, motorini and more. Like the Cinque Terre in Liguria, vines are built terraced into the hill and the people know what hard life is like. Here, as a visitor, it’s all about the views, the limoncello, the anchovies and the very impressive villas and luxury hotels. If you time your visit right, I think the most amazing thing would be to attend a concert at the Ravello Festival, performed on a terrace that juts out over the sea at Villa Rufolo. But at just about any time of the year, this area of Southern Italy is worth a visit.
15/ Analyze the Sistine Chapel, alone
After Hours Vatican Museum Tour | Context Travel - YouTube
The problem with a list of experiences you must do once in your lifetime is that a lot of these great places get pretty crowded. I’ve been to the Vatican Museums and seen the Sistine Chapel many times, though it’s been years since I have visited, as I seem to get more intolerant of crowds with age! In this article about how to avoid tourists in the most touristy places in the world, Context Travel docent Agnes Crawford gives some tips on how to make the Vatican experience most pleasant – for example, the best time to visit is Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday in the afternoon. But probably the best thing to do, if you can afford it, is to book the Sistine Chapel just for yourself! I’m not going to kid with you, it costs $4000, but if you’re taking a once in a lifetime trip with your family, this may be better than anything else you can do with your money, IMO. It’s on my bucket list for this year, that’s for sure.
16/ Stay in a Trullo (in summertime)
An abandoned trullo in a field in Puglia
Although they look prehistoric, trulli (singular: trullo) are not documented in Puglia’s Valle d’Itria until the 17th century. But the origin may be older, and the legend behind this peculiar house shape is one of my favourite stories about Italian cleverness (the right word here is furbo – see this article by Girl in Florence about the word and its application). The legend is that house tax was based on one’s roof, so they built these dry stone walled circular huts with conical stone roofs that could be dismantled as quickly as the tax man was spotted by the nearest sheep farmer. Trulli were primarily rural buildings, with the exception being the town of Alberobello, a..
Some harvests are more celebrated than others. Here in Tuscany, my September social stream was dominated by people handling grapes, rows and rows of ripe fruits destined to become wine. As we move into November, we’ll be seeing plenty of olives becoming liquid gold. But what of the potato? Nobody ever really fêtes the lowly spud. While various northern Italian communities have fairs that celebrate the potato harvest in the Fall, when have you ever seen pictures of the actual potato in the field, and the story of how it gets to your table? Well, now’s your chance, because I went to see the source of numerous potatoes in Italy. They may be a bit dirty but they are so delicious!
I went to see where potatoes come from.
I’m in the Val Pusteria, a green valley tucked between the Dolomites and the Austrian Alps. People speak more German here than Italian, and when they talk about going to University in the South, they mean Trent, not Naples. Potatoes here are a way of life, a staple much more than pasta in a diet that has much in common with its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. To find out more about them, I contacted the largest Cooperative of potato farmers in the Alto Adige (FYI that’s the Cooperativa Produttori Sementi della Val Pusteria in Brunico / Bruneck). Here I learned that “not all potatoes are created equal” and figured out why some dishes I’ve attempted have failed – due to the wrong type of potatoes! In this mountain area, at about 600 meters or higher, growing potatoes is part of a long tradition, and the results are in the plate.
The end of September is when the potatoes were being harvested, and I may have been the only crazy tourist at the edge of a dusty field, observing the process. In part, this is because it’s not really all that pretty. But let’s start at the beginning.
The flowering potato plant (source: www.saatbau.it)
Potatoes are not planted from seed, but from seed potatoes: small, sprouted potatoes from the previous harvest. In Europe they are planted in a well drained field from mid April to mid May. These create leafy plants with pretty flowers that are white, pink or blue depending on the variety. After flowering, underground, the potato develops while the plant dies and dries up in about 6-8 weeks.
That’s why the field I saw looked just like rows of dirt – the plants, long gone, had left a few dried brown traces. But underneath, of course, are the potatoes, waiting to be unearthed.
Tommaso and Artur pointing to the potato field like the crazy non-farmer tourists that we are!
A special machine does the job, with a team of men on it. Potatoes are dug up and sorted on the machine, with three men who ride along and exclude any spuds that don’t make the cut. Set aside in large containers, these are then picked up and brought to the cooperative for sale (unless you’re cultivating potatoes for your own personal purposes).
A closer look at the special harvest machine
Here, whole truckfuls go through a large and very dusty sorting room, where they are categorized by size as well as of course by type. The coop takes care of storing them so you can taste them fresh all year long.
Sorting and storing – the job of the cooperative
Some fun potato facts
Amongst the things I’ve recently learned about potatoes:
NASA sent a potato into space to find out if it sprouts in zero gravity. The answer is yes.
When the potato plant was first imported to Europe in the 16th century, it was appreciated as an ornamental plant and an aphrodisiac. Classified as a nightshade vegetable, it was thought by some to be the work of the Devil himself.
The potatoes we eat are classified into three macro-categories: firm, moderately firm, and mealy. Each has its own purposes: the mealy ones are ideal for gnocchi, but don’t try to make a baked potato with it! That’s my mistake – you need the firm kind (which are hard to find further south here in Italy).
If you keep fruit near potatoes, they release ethylene gas, which causes the potatoes to sprout. They are best kept in a paper or jute bag, somewhere dry and cold.
Speaking of fruit, potatoes have a lot of vitamin C in them. The thing is, it’s found just below the fully formed peel, and it loses its potency as the potato ages. Sailors used to munch on raw, unpeeled potatoes, but that’s not a delicious option for us to get this vitamin now! As vitamin C is water soluable, the best way to conserve a potato’s nutritive value is to cook it in the oven with the peel on.
Segantini, the potato peeler | Click photo for source and copyright info.
Often the inspiration for iconography north of the Alps, one of the very rare historical images of the use of potatoes in Italy is G. Segantini’s “The potato peeler”.
Nowadays, the potato tends to remain in the background, or at most, on the side of your plate. I’ve consumed the two kilos of potatoes I bought freshly unearthed in the Val Pusteria and I’ve got to say, there are plenty of reasons to better integrate them in my diet! The trick is to pick the right kind, and to get it fresh!
Potatoes in the foreground!
Italy Blogging Roundtable
This month the Italy Blogging Roundtable (yup, we’re still at it!) decided to write about the Elements, and I’ve chosen potatoes as representative of the fruits of the Earth! My colleagues have chosen other elements and how they connect to their Italy experiences – check them out!
Amongst cities in the Veneto, Venice takes center stage. But in nearby Padua, visitors can enjoy important art and architecture without jostling hordes of tourists. Padua (Padova in Italian) is easily accessible by train from Venice and rich with its own historical splendor. It is home to one of the oldest universities in the world, a traditional open market, canals, churches and endless arcaded streets fit for wandering. Magnificent art aside, one of Padua’s greatest gifts is its authenticity. Here you can see locals and daily life mingle with the celebrated works of Renaissance masters. The following are ten good reasons to visit Padua, which you can easily do on foot and public transit.
1/ The Scrovegni Chapel / Arena Chapel
The Arena Chapel (image WGA.hu)
This is Art History 101— the Arena Chapel is a site that any self-respecting book or course on Western Art mentions. Known in Italian as the Scrovegni Chapel, it’s small and unremarkable from the outside, but its inside houses a renowned fresco cycle by Giotto. The chapel was built by Enrico Scrovegni, a notorious usurer who earned a mention in Dante’s Inferno. Some speculate that Enrico’s son commissioned the fresco decoration as a plea to atone for his father’s sins.
The walls depict episodes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin, as well as a rather medieval Last Judgment. The way narrative and volume are shown in the episodes on the walls are considered early stirrings of the Italian Renaissance (called Proto-Renaissance). Look for details of striking attention to realism and naturalistic expression. The Slaughter of the Innocents and The Kiss of Judas display a sense of poignant drama that was rare in art from the same period. The frescoes rendered in resplendent colors, and one can only imagine their original glory.
Visit the chapel and decide for yourself whether this masterpiece merits a ticket out of hell. Unlike other places in Padua, seeing the Scrovegni Chapel can be a bit of a hassle. In an effort to minimize damage to these fragile works, visitors are limited to fifteen minutes inside, and waits can be lengthy. Plan ahead and absolutely buy advance tickets.
2/ Basilica of Saint Anthony
Il Santo | Photo Wikipedia (modified)
Thousands of people visit Padua every year, but not all come to sightsee. For Roman Catholics around the world, Padua is an important pilgrimage site dedicated to Saint Anthony, who is known for his kindness towards children, the poor and the sick. The Basilica of Saint Anthony is his shrine, recognized by the Vatican and known locally as Il Santo, “The Saint”.
In the piazza outside Il Santo, it is fascinating to see pilgrimage alive and well. Plenty of shops and stalls sell figurines, postcards, and other saintly souvenirs. But don’t miss the big horse in the middle… Donatello’s huge equestrian statue for the condottiere Gattamelata is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.
The Basilica’s interior is a hodgepodge of architectural styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque. The high altar features bronzes by Donatello, including sculptures of various saints, the Virgin and Child, and the miracles of Saint Anthony. The saint’s remains are on display in glittering gold reliquaries. They hold a special significance for Saint Anthony as a “speaking saint”, who gave many sermons during his short life. Accordingly, pilgrims venerate his preserved tongue and jawbone.
3/ University of Padua: Palazzo Bo and Anatomical Theatre
Palazzo Bo by Flickr user Alex
Padua is the location of one of the world’s oldest universities, just slightly younger than the University of Bologna. The institution has produced many notable individuals and accomplishments. Among them are the famed anatomist Vesalius, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, and Galileo Galilei. You can visit the university’s historic buildings, most notably the Palazzo Bo. This palace’s inner courtyard and Aula Magna (Great Hall) are covered with family crests, portraits, diplomas and other memorabilia. Look out for paintings of the Lion of Saint Mark—a reminder of Venice’s longstanding dominion over Padua.
Inside the palazzo, you can also see the world’s first permanent anatomical theater. The space is claustrophobic and you shudder to think what it must have been like to witness a sixteenth-century dissection on the table at the bottom of its telescoping levels. The builders planned for squeamishness: the wood-paneled railings are extra high to catch students who might faint away during class.
4/ Café Pedrocchi
Exterior of Café Pedrocchi | Flickr user Alex
Padua has no shortage of wonderful places to grab a cappuccino, but one you should not miss is Café Pedrocchi. Built in the eighteenth century, the ground floor is a stately affair with old-fashioned, formal wait staff. Café Pedrocchi was a hive of activity in the mid-nineteenth century, when the unification of Italy was still a new idea: the three columned rooms reference the newly formed Italy with walls of green, white, and red. The upper-level rooms are nothing less than a rollicking tour through various decorative styles. The architects clearly had a lot of fun designing rooms inspired by Etruscan, Renaissance, Pompeian, Baroque, Gothic and Napoleonic models. My personal favorite is the Egyptian room, though it is somewhat bizarre to see pharaohs and sphinxes looking out onto an Italian piazza. Café Pedrocchi is a little on the pricey side, but it is one of the most historic cafes in Europe so definitely worth at least one visit.
5/ Prato della Valle
Prato della Valle | Photo flickr user Ferdinando Marfella
Padua earns another superlative “-issimo” with the Prato della Valle. The largest public square in Italy, Il Prato is a vast elliptical space in the heart of the city. The square is ringed by a moat and decorated with sculptures of notable Paduans. Look for the figure at the very north end of the Prato—that would be Andrea Memmo, a Venetian who restored and funded the project. Today, it stands as an example of Italianate taste for Baroque theatricality.
By day, the Prato swirls with traffic, mopeds, bicyclists, and pedestrians. In the grassy expanse at the center, students from the University of Padua lay out to study or sunbathe. When night falls, natives of all ages fill the square to enjoy music, roller-skating, a cup of gelato or a simple passegiata—the stroll after an evening meal.
6/ Church of the Eremitani and Andrea Mantegna frescoes
Mantegna, Ovetari Chapel | Photo Wikipedia
Sometimes the works of art that impact us most strongly are those that have been altered, damaged or obliterated. While other sites like the Scrovegni Chapel narrowly escaped destruction in World War II, the nearby Church of the Eremitani didn’t fare so well. “The Church or the Hermits” as it’s known in English is a thirteenth-century Augustinian structure. Andrea Mantegna was commissioned to cover the interior walls of the Ovetari Chapel with frescoes depicting saints James and Christopher. The finished works were some of Mantegna’s finest, highlighting his use of innovative perspective and adherence to classical models. In its semi-destroyed state we can still imagine the incredible impact of the artist’s obsessive use of perspective.
However, the church had the misfortune of being located right next to Padua’s Nazi headquarters, and was hit by Allied bombers. Nearly all of Mantegna’s frescoes were destroyed, save The Assumption and The Martyrdom of Saint Christopher. This is not to say that the remaining works aren’t profoundly beautiful. Nevertheless, you are reminded of the wholesale cultural destruction caused by the Second World War, in Italy and around the world.
7/ Historic Markets
A market in Padua | Photo Flickr Lorenzoclick
While visiting major cities in Italy, authentic experiences can be hard to find. Luckily, Padua has managed to keep many of its traditions alive, especially the daily market trip. If you visit the Piazza delle Frutte and the neighboring Piazza delle Erbe before 2pm, you will have a chance to relive that centuries-old ritual for yourself. These squares in the heart of the city offer a wide range of seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.
In between Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta is the imposing Palazzo della Ragione. A medieval town hall building, the interior is a vast open space suitable for official events and gatherings. The walls are illustrated with intricate fresco cycles on astrological and religious subjects. Don’t forget to find the “Stone of Shame”, where debtors were forced to sit and endure public humiliation. Beneath the Palazzo della Ragione are numerous covered stalls with butchers, fishmongers, bakeries and cheese shops. These are ideal for cobbling together an inexpensive lunch.
8/ Loggia and Odeo Cornaro
For an eclectic glimpse of the Paduan Renaissance, visit the Loggia and Odeo Cornaro, just steps from Il Santo. This complex of buildings was commissioned by Alvise Cornaro, a native son of Padua and a true Renaissance man. Cornaro was a nobleman who also nurtured interests in hydraulic engineering, healthy living, architecture, theatre, poetry and art. He built a loggia in Padua, and borrowed heavily from classical antiquity. The open porch was intended for theatrical performances and spectators once filled the grassy courtyard.
The Odeo is a smaller, more intimate space in an octagonal shape. Cornaro dedicated the Odeo to stimulating conversations, poetry and musical performances. The room reminds you of a small cave, and the walls are decorated with bizarre creatures and grotesques. In a city filled with patrician sculpture and religious painting, these comical works are both strange and highly enjoyable. Some believe that the excavation of Emperor Nero’s pleasure dome in Rome inspired Paduan artists to paint these fantastical works in the Odeo.
9/ Oratorio di San Giorgio and Scoletta del Santo
Fresco by Titian in the Scoletta (The Miracle of the Jealous Husband) | Photo Wikipedia
If you spend any time perusing art of the Veneto, you will become familiar with scuole and scolette, also known as confraternities. These were charitable and religious organizations; in the ones made up of elites, members commissioned richly decorated meeting halls. Adjacent to “Il Santo” are the Oratory of Saint George and the Confraternity of Saint Anthony. The Oratory building is also a funeral chapel for the wealthy Lupi family, and continues the heritage of fresco painting in Padua. The barrel-vaulted brick chapel and its interior walls echo the Scrovegni frescoes, though these works were completed by Altichiero da Zevio.
Right next door to the Oratory of Saint George is the Scoletta del Santo, or the Confraternity of Saint Anthony. If you are curious about the works of this Franciscan saint, you can view them as sensitively interpreted by Titian – alongside frescoes by his contemporaries. Museums around the world boast examples of Titian’s luminous oil portraits and altarpieces. However, the Scoletta del Santo offers a rare glimpse of Titian’s earlier work in the fresco medium. Titian depicts moving episodes from the life of Saint Anthony, including The Miracle of the Newborn Child, The Miracle of the Jealous Husband, and The Miracle of the Wrathful Son.
10/ Orto Botanico
Very odd things in the botanical garden | Photo Flickr Esther Westerveld
The Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden is the first of its kind in the world and is recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site. The garden was established in 1545 and has been in continuous use ever since. With an eye to nature as well as architecture, the garden’s layout is a square within a circle. The circular design ringed by water was meant to reflect contemporary maps of the world. Within its boundaries are over 7,000 plant species, some of which evince the Venetian Empire’s contact with far-flung cultures.
Over the years, the university has added enhancements like a library, walls, balustrades and gates. The layout remains true to its original conception—meant to be orderly and pleasing to the eye. But the Orto Botanico is not just another pretty place to see some flowers. Since its founding days, the garden has served as a repository for botanical knowledge, and its intersections with medicine, ecology, conservation and culture. Walking along the orthogonal paths, you gain a real sense of how Renaissance thinkers were striving to understand the natural world in new ways.