March 2013
More photos here

 

Thursday 14th March
To Balham Station, where there was no queue at the ticket office and where my train was waiting to take me to Clapham Junction, and where the train to Gatwick (Eastbourne actually) pulled in just as I approached the platform, and had plenty of seats. Smooth. My trip this time is an organised tour, courtesy of Travel Editions lead by an art historian who I've taken three fascinating fresco-centric courses with this past year or so, called Clare Ford-Wille. The first of these courses was on early fresco cycles, taking in Giotto and the Scrovegni Chapel, so there's a certain logic at work here.

After checking in with Clare by the check-in desk, and checking in, it was through security, where I had an interesting chat with the chap patting me down. I know - how rare is that? Interesting because he revealed that the no.1 area for smuggling in stuff on the body is around the crotch. Because there's lots of space (I tried not to take this personally) and one can stash stuff in one's underpants and around one's waistband. Educational! I also learnt that when the board telling you what gate to go to tells you it's going to tell you this information 30 minutes after your plane is due to depart it means your flight is delayed. By an hour. So after the yummy Pret Masala Vegetable Wrap (with peas and paneer cheese) there was also time for coffee and a cake and a read. Somewhat perplexed by Costa not having a plate for my carrot cake, I also learned how to eat fork-needing cake out of one of those big paper takeaway bags. It involves some careful circular tearing.

The flight was quick enough, and at the carousel at Verona airport I checked in with Barbara the tour leader, mingled with some fellow trippers and, pausing only to admire the fluffiest and cutest drug-sniffer dog ever, it was onto the bus and off to Padua. A dusky evening drive... distant mountains, a streaky sunset, industrial estates, wondering how the bus driver woman could drive in those high heeled boots...the usual stuff. Checking in at the Hotel Plaza was smooth, and my room was spacious and quiet (apart from someone playing bongos opposite) with a good solid marble desk and a print of, of course, a fresco over my bed. Then it was swiftly downstairs for welcome drinks, a quick and comprehensive intro to the Scrovegni from Clare, and our dinner. As the only veggie in the whole group of 26 I was singled out as a troublemaker...well no actually I wasn't, but I was a bit of a marked man. The food was fine (mozzarella, tomato and olive salad, minestrone, grilled vegetables, tiramisu) but the conversation better, with Barbara the tour leader a sound source of good stories, and a good amount of Venice love on our side of the table making for some fertile and interesting chats. And arty bonding. Tomorrow, the Scrovegni Chapel (see right) for 2 time slots!
 

 


 



 

     


Friday 15th March
After taking ages to get to sleep last night I was woken around 7 by a noisy shower - I refer to the plumbing fixture rather than a bunch of idiots. But we do have early starts timetabled over the next few days so I suppose I'd better man up, as they say. A superior breakfast (featuring non-apricot-jam-filled croissants and real orange juice) and then off for a brisk stroll to the Scrovegni Chapel. We negotiated the airlock, with the AV presentation while you wait and get detoxified, and then bundled in and, well, it was as wonderful as expected. After having seen so many images in books and on screens over the years it was all much bigger than I'd imaged - the space itself and the panels. You get 15 minutes, but our tour leaders had booked us two consecutive slots, and still it wasn't really enough time. We were given nifty little receivers with headphones so we can always hear what Clare's saying no matter where we're standing or which direction we're facing, and she doesn't have to shout.  After some time in the shop, where I could not resist the Giotto oyster card wallet, we went in the Eremitani church, where the Ovetari Chapel has the remains of frescos by Mantegna, largely destroyed when the chapel was tragically flattened by allied bombs in World War II, it having been next to a Nazi headquarters building.

We next made our way to the Santo (Basilica di Sant'Antonio) which was going to be our first afternoon visit and then split up to various lunch venues. Me, I had a parmesan and rocket pizza with some good arty gossip on the side. The Santo is big and a bit overpowering in the range and all-overness of its decoration. Good to have Clare to cut through the mass, and wonderful to see Altichiero's follower-of-Giotto gems of frescoes here and in the next door Oratorio di San Giorgio. The man is seriously underappreciated and so it was seriously disappointing that the shop only had the attractive little book about him and these fresco cycles in French and German. Also in the main church is a huge chapel containing Saint Anthony's remains, with large panels on the walls carved by Tulio Lombardo and Sansovino. You can get behind the tomb, where people press their hands against a large black marble panel (or press their baby's up against it) and pray. All very Catholic. The basilica has a couple of fine cloisters and next door to the oratorio is a Scuola hall with some very early, and rare, fresco work by Titian. Admirable rather than lovable, they show the miracles of Saint Anthony, a not unusual subject in these parts.

After a walk back to the hotel some resting and typing was in order. In the evening I was feeling a bit sociabled out and tired after my sleepless night, so I had a bearings-getting stroll around and a windowshop and bought myself a cake called a Colomba, Back at the hotel I had some orange and spice redbush tea and cake and a shower and an early night.
 

 


           



 

     


Saturday 16th March
Off to the University of Padua this morning, where a local guide showed us around various rooms and cloisters (see right), including the huge hall where Galileo used to teach and the very steep operating theatre which we got to see from underneath - up through where the table would have been. Being next to a church with a graveyard made it easier to make deals for the provision of dead bodies to carve up, it seems, but this kind of work could only be done October to March as the rest of the year it would be to warm to keep the bodies fresh. The guide also showed us a statue of Elena Cornaro, the first woman to receive a university degree, and I earned some brownie points by asking her if Elena was related to Caterina Cornaro, who all us Venice buffs now about. The answer being 'yes'.

Then to the cute Cathedral baptistery (see below right), which had suddenly gone all scaffoldy inside, which was annoying as we had to peer around lots of poles, and the inside of the dome was completely closed in with platforms and so invisible from below. We did what we could to do some justice to Giusto de Menaboi's fine fresco work and his altarpiece. To sooth the disappointment caused by the scaffolding we managed an impromptu bonus visit to the Palazzo della Ragione, the huge hall (see below) above a covered market with every wall filled with frescoes that may not be lovely, but which are often odd - a soldier running a woman down on his horse, two women fighting, a woman holding two cakes...all related to zodiac signs we're told.

After lunch we coached it to the Abbey of Pomposa -  a fairly long journey made longer by having to avoid a cycle race, and by having to follow SatNav directions rather than logic. But it was worth it: a rather special, very old and little-known abbey, of which the main remains are a church (with its rather special campanile) (see below), some cloisters and a refectory. The latter has a fine (and odd) last supper, of course, and the fresco's sinopia (underdrawing) too. The church is chocka with scenes from the bible all done in oddly sandy and terracotta-y tones and so unusually warm, with an impressive inlaid floor. I was smitten by the wonderful decorative panels as much as the narrative scenes, I must admit. Worth a detour, undoubtedly.



 

 









 


 

     


Sunday 17th March
An early start to give us some good pre-flight time in Verona. First we  had an introductory walk around, guided by Clare of course, including a brief time (before a service was due to start) in the spectacularly decorated church of Sant'Anastasia (see right) to hastily admire some Pisanello frescoes. Then a coffee break in a bar off the beaten track which I'm not going to tell you the name of because I don't want you going there and crowding it out. Oh, all right it's called the Cappa Café and it's just by the river bank where you get the impressive view towards the Roman amphitheatre (see below right). A pretty-way return to our coach was followed by a trip to the church of San Zeno (see below). It's a bit out of town but it has some sweet carved panels around the door, a lot of good bits of fresco inside and a Mantegna altarpiece which is the highlight, but a bit distant behind the high altar rail.

The airport check-in and security scanning was as tedious as usual, but the wait at passport control was exceptionally long, caused by a bunch of attempted illegal emigrants, we were told. Which makes little sense. The flight was not delayed or slow though and the brie and grape sandwich with the black coffee and the free Twix was edible. But it being Sunday there was rail engineering work of course, which made things slow and crowded from Gatwick, but eventually home was reached, a fortifying chip-shop dinner was bought, cats greeted and an early night contemplated. The life of a committed art tourist is an exhausting one, I can tell you. The group had been a harmonious and friendly one, and many good art-based friendships were formed and promises to meet on future trips and courses made, as we went our ways separately from the carousel of baggage. It's another world, but I like it.

 





 




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