Playful Padua

By Rick Steves
Padua’s 60,000 students give a youthful vibe to the Italian city’s Renaissance squares. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)
Padua’s Basilica of St. Anthony is a fascinating mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. (photo: Rick Steves)

I’m in Padua (just half an hour from Venice, but a world away), and I really like this town. Padua’s museums and churches hold their own in Italy’s artistic big league, its hotels are reasonably priced, and the city doesn’t feel touristy.

Nicknamed “the Brain of Veneto,” Padua (“Padova” in Italian) is home to a prestigious university (founded in 1222) that hosted Galileo, Copernicus, Dante, and Petrarch. Pilgrims know Padua as the home of the Basilica of St. Anthony, where the reverent assemble to touch his tomb and ogle his remarkably intact lower jaw and tongue. And lovers of early-Renaissance art come here to make a pilgrimage of their own: to gaze at the remarkable 14th-century frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel.

When I come here, I like to ramble around Padua’s old town center. It’s a colonnaded, time-travel experience through some of Italy’s most inviting squares, perfect for lingering over an aperitivo. But it’s not old-time stodgy — this university town has 60,000 students and a wonderfully youthful vibe. No wonder Galileo called his 18 years on the faculty in Padua the best of his life.

All over town, young people — apparently without a lot of private space in their apartments — hang out and kiss and cuddle in public spaces. These students seemed very comfortable literally under the medieval tomb of one of their city’s historic fathers.

Since the students can graduate whenever they defend their thesis, I’ve never been here without little graduation parties erupting on the street all day long. Graduates are given a green laurel wreath. Then formal group photos are taken. It’s a sweet, multi-generational scene with family love and pride busting out all over.

Then, grandma goes home and the craziness takes over. Sober clothing is replaced by raunchy wear as gangs of friends gather around the new grad in the street in front of the university, and the roast begins. A giant butcher-paper poster with a generally obscene caricature of the student — and a litany of “This Is Your Life” photos and stories — is presented to the new grad who, with various embarrassing pranks being pulled, reads the funny statement out loud. The poster is then taped to the university wall for all to see (and allowed to stay there for 24 hours).

During the roast, the friends sing a catchy but crude local university anthem, reminding their newly esteemed friend to keep his or her feet on the ground. Once I hear this song (which starts like an Olympic Games fanfare and finishes like a German cartoon: oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah) and see all the good-natured fun, I just can’t stop singing it.

Eventually I stop humming this profane ditty to seek out Padua’s two main sights — the Basilica of St. Anthony and the Scrovegni Chapel. Friar Anthony of Padua — patron saint of travelers, amputees, donkeys, pregnant women, barren women, flight attendants, and pig farmers — is buried in the basilica. Construction of this impressive Romanesque/Gothic church (with its Byzantine-style domes) started immediately after Anthony’s death in 1231. As a mark of his universal appeal and importance in the medieval Church, he was sainted within a year of his death. Speedy. And for nearly 800 years, his remains and this glorious church have attracted pilgrims to Padua.

Gaze past the crowds and through the incense haze to Donatello’s glorious crucifix rising from the altar, and realize that this is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christendom. In the Chapel of the Reliquaries you’ll see the basilica’s the most prized relic — Anthony’s tongue. When Anthony’s remains were exhumed 32 years after his death, his body had decayed to dust, but his tongue was found miraculously unspoiled and red in color. How appropriate for the great preacher who, full of the Spirit, couldn’t stop talking about God.

On the opposite side of town is the glorious, renovated Scrovegni Chapel. It’s wallpapered with Giotto’s beautifully preserved cycle of nearly 40 frescoes depicting the lives of Jesus and Mary. Painted by Giotto and his assistants from 1303 to 1305 — and considered by many to be the first piece of “modern” art — this work makes it clear: Europe was breaking out of the Middle Ages.

A sign of the Renaissance to come, Giotto placed real people in real scenes, expressing real human emotions. These frescoes were radical for their 3-D nature, lively colors, light sources, emotion, and humanism. Because it’s so fragile, you must make reservations in advance to see the chapel. It’s wise to reserve at least two days in advance and easiest to do online.

From its student vibe to its early-Renaissance masterpieces, Padua is a great place to get chummy with the winds of the past — and connect with the pleasures of the moment.