Adventures in Padua; on the Trail of Galileo Galilei

Near the top of any listing of the greatest names in science is that of Galileo, Galilei. He is often referred to as the first “modern scientist.” Another richly-deserved title would be “most colorful scientific personality.” He was both of these. Much of my reading and study of science history has involved Galileo …and for good reason: He was that important and interesting a person.

In 2005, my wife and I took a wonderful vacation to Italy. Along with the must-see sights in Rome, Venice, and Florence, was an extended afternoon rail-stopover in the town of Padua – on our way to Venice. We planned to visit the famous Scrovegni Chapel with its artistically important frescoes by Giotto, and we set our sights on the University of Padua, where Galileo taught mathematics from 1592 to 1610. The University of Padua is among the oldest in existence, founded in 1222.

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               The Scrovegni Chapel                         Galileo Galilei by Sustermans

Despite having a fine, large map of Padua, we got totally lost – twice! The first incident, unlike the second, has nothing to do with Galileo, but like our Galileo adventure, it took place in Padua, Italy, on the same afternoon.

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First Stop, the Scrovegni Chapel

The Scrovegni Family Chapel in Padua is renowned for Giotto’s extensive frescoes which adorn its walls and date back to the early fourteenth century. Giotto’s depictions of events in the lives of Mary and Jesus marked a revolutionary departure from the earlier, stark Byzantine style to a more natural approach, one which conveyed depth in the renderings and human emotion in the subjects depicted. Art historians consider Giotto a key figure in the evolution of pre-renaissance art.

We initially had difficulty finding the chapel location, even using the usually effective directions from Rick Steve’s travel advisories. We were soon to discover that this was but the harbinger of trouble in Padua. Once on the chapel grounds, we saw no signs, but a small, outlying reception building some distance from the chapel, itself, looked like the obvious place to start. We sat down among a small group of people outside who looked as if they might be on the same 2:00 tour for which we had reservations. I went inside to get our tour tickets, and “verified” with the desk person where we should wait. With a general sweep of his arm, and very little English, he indicated, “Over there.” I surmised that “over there” was approximately where Linda was sitting outside with the small knot of touristy-looking folks. We were plenty early for the tour despite our initial misadventures in finding the chapel grounds, so I asked an obvious staff member who was visible, where the restrooms were. Again, a general sweep of the arm indicated “over there.” My fifty yard stroll around the corner of a distant building to “over there” was a wild-goose chase, sure enough, but I finally located the restroom much closer to where I had just been given “directions.”

As our 2:00 tour time got closer and closer, we noticed that the knot of people with whom we were sitting was gradually getting smaller, but there seemed to be no tour-guide in sight and no general direction of departure on the part of the “crowd.” There certainly were no signs posted. Sensing that something was terribly amiss, we went inside to inquire once more when and where the tour would begin. To our horror, we realized that the tour was already underway from some other location on the grounds. We hustled over to the chapel itself and could see a very small group inside a diminutive, glass-framed sun-room adjacent to the back of the chapel. The glass door was locked, but the tour guide inside could see us frantically waving our arms and finally came over to let us in, a disgruntled frown upon his face – but no match, I am certain, for the frown on mine.

We saw some beautiful and historically important art in the chapel, but at great cost to our equanimity and enjoyment. After the tour, we retraced our steps back to the nearby “reception building” looking for the obvious sign-postings we must have missed earlier. There were none in sight. Moving on!

 After a Deep Breath, on to the University of Padua,
Galileo’s Old Academic Stomping Grounds

Fresh-off the chapel misadventure, we resolutely headed-off on foot to the nearby University of Padua for a special glimpse of Galileo and his times. In addition to Galileo, the university is famous for its early programs in medicine and anatomy; its compact, cylindrical “anatomical theatre,” designed for viewing autopsy dissections, is world-famous and dates back to 1594. It was the first such permanent theatre in the world. It has been restored/preserved, in more recent times, to its original condition. Dissections of human cadavers were especially frowned upon by the Catholic Church; Padua provided one of the first opportunities for medical students to advance our knowledge in that respect. Many historic figures studied medicine, there, including the Englishman, William Harvey, who first explained the heart/lung/circulatory system in 1615 – a milestone advance in medicine.

We followed our map to the university’s location, yet caught no glimpse of anything that resembled a college or university campus. We retraced our steps, we went this way and that way to no avail – no signs, no university! Finally, feeling quite frustrated, we asked for help. We learned, despite the language barrier, that we were looking for “Palazzo del Bo” which is central to the university. Palazzo del Bo? Maybe we misunderstood and it was Piazza del Bo? At any rate, there was no palace and no open-area piazza anywhere to be seen! We asked once again for assistance. To our dismay, we realized we were standing literally right alongside our quarry. It was now clear that we had walked right past the University of Padua at least twice – without “seeing” it! How is that possible?

Italy 2005 021 The University of Padua – as seen from the street.

In hindsight, it is easy to understand how Americans can blunder. There is no “campus” as we visualize it. There are no visibly imposing buildings, no green lawns, student unions, or landscaping. What is visible from the street looks much like any other old building along the way, sandwiched in between other old buildings. Immediately upon entering the front archway/door, one encounters a compact, stone-paved quadrangle surrounded on all four sides by a double loggia, (Italian terraces) which surrounds the quadrangle. This is what we were looking for all along, but not at all what we were expecting! This is Palazzo del Bo.

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It was worth all the trouble! Galileo once walked this small quadrangle, the surrounding loggia, and, likely, taught mathematics in classrooms just off these very terraces. All along the elevated loggia were hung large family coats-of-arms, centuries-old and fashioned largely of terra-cotta – reminders of the university rectors and their staff who served, here, centuries ago.

It was a thrill for me to be here, up-close-and-personal with one of the greatest minds in the history of science. Linda enjoyed the historical ambience of the place, as well. We certainly marveled at the way we were deluded by our unfounded expectations of university campus grandeur, all-the-while chuckling over the whole incident. I suppose the two of us would appropriately relate to that book title of Mark Twain’s: “Innocents Abroad!”

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An excited “Innocent Abroad”
Galileo might have stood right here!

Alas, so much time was wasted being lost in Padua that we were not able to tour the university’s anatomical theatre – a big disappointment. Fortunately, we did find our way back to the rail station without incident in time to hop aboard for our next stop, Venice. For our views on Venice and the movie, Summertime, see my post of March 23, 2014, Summertime in Magical Venice available in my blog archives.

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