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Giotto's Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua, c. 1305, Part 1 Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: We're in the Arena Chapel, a small private chapel that was connected to a palace that was owned by the Scrovegni family. Dr. Harris: It was the Scrovegni family who commissioned Giotto to decorate this chapel with frescoes. Dr. Zucker: It's called the Arena Chapel because it's next to an Ancient Roman arena. Dr. Harris: When you're inside it, as we are now, I have to say that it's taller than I expected and that feeling of being enclosed by images that happens when you're in a space entirely covered with fresco. Dr. Zucker: There are lots of narrative scenes, but even in between those scene's are trompe l'oeil, faux marble panels. We get the sense that there is inlaid stone, but, in fact, this is all painting. Dr. Harris: That extends even onto the ceiling where we have a star-studded blue sky with images of Christ and Mary and other Saint's and figures. Dr. Zucker: The Arena Chapel is organized in a very strict way. Three registers begin at the top and move downward. I think of it as kind of a spiral that is, it tells a continuous story. It begins with Christ's grandparents, it goes in to the birth of Mary, her marriage, and then when we get down to the second register we get to Christ's life or ministry. Then, the bottom register is the Passion, these are the events at the end of Christ's life and immediately after his death. Dr. Harris: All of this is thanks to, strangely it might seem to us today, a sin, the sin of usury that weighted heavily on the conscience of Enrico Scrovegni who's palace was next door and who owned this land and built this Chapel and hired Giotto. His father was a usurer, Enrico, himself was a usurer. Dr. Zucker: What this means is he charged interest. Just like when you borrow money from a bank you're charged interest. When you put money on a credit card you're charged interest and so in a very Catholic environment being a banker made you a lot of money but it also, within your belief system, would send you to Hell. And Dante, the great, late, Medieval poet in his most famous poem, The Divine Comedy, singles out Scrovegni's father for one of the more treacherous parts of Hell. Dr. Harris: So Enrico was really worried and for this reason he did, in Catholic belief system, a good work. He built this Chapel, this was his way of atoning for the sin of usury hoping that this would help his soul to go to Heaven. We see Enrico, himself, here in this Chapel on the wall over the entrance where Giotto painted The Last Judgement, we see Enrico kneeling handing the Chapel over to the Virgin Mary. Dr. Zucker: He's handing it to the three Mary's, the Virgin Mary in the middle. Dr. Harris: Notice where Enrico has put himself, he's on the side of the blessed. In The Last Judgement you see Christ at the very top, and the damned are on Christ's left and the blessed are on Christ's right and that's where we find Enrico. Dr. Zucker: And the Impetus for the entire cycle can be seen at the apex of the triumphal arch on the opposite wall with God, who he calls Gabriel to his side telling him to go to the Virgin Mary and announce to her that she will bear humanities savior, that she will bear Christ. Dr. Harris: Interestingly when Giotto painted God he inserted a panel painting. That is not fresco, it's interesting that he choose to paint it in a style that was more conservative, less earthly within the style that we see in the frescoes. Just to go back to that annunciation and this wall, we begin to see the illusion-ism that we see throughout the cycles. If we look to Mary and the angel, Giotto has created an architectural space for each of them. These are not panel paintings with gold backgrounds that suggest a divine space, these are earthly settings for Mary and the angel. Dr. Zucker: There's another great example of the way that architecture and the sense of space is constructed, even in this era before linear perspective. Two scenes below the Enunciation are these wonderful empty architectural spaces, these rooms, that have oil lanterns that hang from their ceiling and there is such a delicate sense of space of light and shadow. It is this bravura example of naturalism and it shows Giotto's interest in the world, the present, the physical space that humanity occupies. (piano playing)