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.

Summertime in Magical Venice

Venice, Italy, is a magical place. My wife and I spent memorable days there during a dream vacation trip to Tuscany in 2005. I had never been to Venice before…physically. I had traveled there and fallen under its spell many times emotionally, thanks to the beautiful David Lean film, Summertime, which starred Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi and made its debut in 1955.


Summertime was only the second major Hollywood film ever to be filmed entirely on location abroad. The first was The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara (1952). In those days, well before the low-fare jet age, considerable time and expense was required to locate an entire cast and crew in Europe for weeks of filming.

Thank goodness, the studios for both films took the gamble and did it…and in color, too! What they produced was as good as it gets in the movie business. Summertime is the most beautiful travelogue on Venice you will ever see…and much more. I say that without reservation. The beautiful cinematography of Jack Hildyard is richly deserving of the Oscar it won. The luscious photography combined with the deft character-studies which emanate from the director, David Lean, and the cast provide a “whole” which is much more than the sum of its excellent parts. Then there is the music, music which fits the film beautifully, music which stays in one’s head for a long, long time. I saw this film as a teenager in 1955, with my parents and sister, and I recall that it made an impression on me even then – especially the lilting, breezy,  theme, Summertime, which is woven throughout the film and adds immeasurably to the overall effect.

When I decided to write this post on Summertime and our personal travel impressions of Venice, I replayed parts of the DVD version  just to check on a few details for this piece. And, although I have watched the film many times, I found myself being drawn, once again, back under its magic spell – a trip that is hard to resist. It is that kind of film.

What is it about this film that does that to me, I ask myself? I  feel what it is; I merely need to find the words to express it adequately, here. It is the gorgeous photography, it is the beautiful musical score, it is the innate charm of Venice itself; ultimately, what makes the greatest impression on me is the film’s masterful portrayal of that frightening, yet bittersweet, human condition – feeling alone and lonely. The film opens with Hepburn’s portrayal of an exuberant secretary from Akron, Ohio, named Jane Hudson, riding the connecting rails to the Venice train station on this, her vacation trip of a lifetime. Her excitement is palpable as she energetically chats with her seat-mate, disembarks from the train, and works her way through bustling crowds to her lodgings. There, on a gloriously sunny terrace amid the canals, she meets the classy, worldly hostess, Signora Fiorini, who operates Pensione Fiorini. They are briefly joined on the terrace by some of the other boarders: An attractive young couple, Eddie and Phyl Yaeger, and elder “typical tourists” from Kankakee, Illinois, of all places – the McIlhennys.

After introductions, much animated conversation about being in Venice, and drinks on the terrace, the McIlhennys from Kankakee and the young artist, Eddie Yaeger and his radiant wife, are off in different directions to see the sights of Venice. In very short order, Jane finds herself alone on the still sunny, but now deserted terrace of the pensione…with no one to talk to, and no one to be with. She is a woman in her late forties or early fifties, never married and none-too-sure about what she already senses during her brief time in Venice: Namely, that her nineteen-fifties era, middle-America attitudes and up-tight notions of sexuality may not be the norm in Venice.


The scenes of Jane on the terrace, feeling so alone and lonely in Venice, of all places, are beautifully portrayed. A spell is cast by the combined effects of Hepburn’s acting, the soft musical interludes of the lilting theme, Summertime, the gently lapping waters whose laconic sound is occasionally interrupted by the muffled voices of nearby gondoliers;  it all works magically to portray just how alone one can feel in the most unlikely of circumstances.

As Hepburn’s character watches young couples stroll over the nearby canal bridges, hand-in-hand, playfully laughing – immersed in Venice and in each other, her loneliness suddenly seizes her. Now the camera is following her as she makes her way through throngs of people to Piazza San Marco, the focal point of all of Venice…and home to most of its pigeons. She is in search of whatever Venice has to offer to relieve her anxiety and despair, feelings which undoubtedly spring from a late-in-life realization that she has missed-out on something essential to human happiness.

Seated alone at a small table amidst many busy small tables at an outdoor café on Piazza San Marco, she is surrounded by a sea of people – all sorts of people from all sorts of places – mostly couples and small groups, all obviously enjoying the magic of Venice and its famous Piazza. As she deeply breathes in the exuberance of the crowd and the physical beauty of her surroundings, she becomes aware of a handsome, middle-aged, well-dressed Italian at a nearby table. He also has been sitting alone, reading his newspaper, and has just become aware of this obviously American woman whose features and palpable anxiety immediately intrigue him. His bemused, male European stare and demeanor create an immediate flustered response from the uptight Miss Hudson who quickly and clumsily gathers her things and beats a hasty retreat to a solitary back-alley. There, she seats herself on the stone steps of a small canal and stares forlornly into its lapping waters. Scene ends.

Before long, Miss Hudson and the dapper Italian gentleman are serendipitously reunited when she spots a brilliant red glass goblet in an antique store window, goes into the small shop to inquire, and comes face to face with Signor de Rossi. To her great surprise, he is both the  interested gentleman she encountered at Piazza San Marco and the shopkeeper. The opening picture of this post shows them in front of the shop’s window which looks out on Campo San Barnaba.

Doing Some Research Before Our Trip to Venice

When Linda and I planned a four-night stay in Venice as part of our 2005 Tuscany vacation, I wondered whether the descriptions in the film were accurate – about the places filmed. Our map soon told me that there is indeed a Campo San Barnaba and showed the way to it. Linda and I both agreed: We would have to go check it out…and we did. Before setting out to see if we could find the Campo San Barnaba and perhaps the actual little shop in the film, we took the time to see and “feel” Venice for a day or two.

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The Grand Canal with the Dome of Santa Maria della Salute

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Mosaics: The Glories of Venice Portrayed

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Serenity: Off the Beaten Path

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Piazza San Marco: St. Mark’s Basilica

It took little time for Venice to envelop us both in her magic – for us to “feel Venice” in the words of Renato di Rossi. Venice quickly captured our hearts and spirits. As we strolled hand-in-hand, had dinner in Piazza San Marco, and dined after dusk on a small intimate piazza off the beaten path, we were so glad we were there… together. I could not help but think of Summertime and poor Jane Hudson, initially alone in regal, bustling Venice with no one to share its splendor.

Jane finally does find romance and companionship with Renato di Rossi for the duration of her stay. But, alas, it is a romance which must end when her two weeks are up. Signor di Rossi is married with a son, but separated from his wife. Jane discovers this early-on, with little help from di Rossi, and, although it flies in the face of her middle-America values, has an idyllic, passionate affair with di Rossi for the duration of her time in Venice. She knows it must end.

The stark contrast between Jane’s values and the casual attitudes she finds abroad make for an interesting drama, early-on. On her last day, she pries herself away from di Rossi’s charms and Venice’s tenacious hold. The final scene finds Jane, with great sorrow and some misgivings, on-board the train pulling from the station as di Rossi futilely tries to catch the moving train to hand her a gardenia at the last possible moment. She leaves Venice without the gardenia, but carrying memories of a romantic idyll in Venice which she could not possibly have envisioned for herself.

Finding Signor di Rossi’s Antique Shop on Campo San Barnaba

We dedicated one afternoon to make our way to the supposed site of Renato di Rossi’s little antique shop on Campo San Barnaba. That open-square area is not near Piazza San Marco and our hotel, but Venice is certainly not that big in area, so it did not take long to trek there.

Would we find anything resembling the little shop in the movie? Yes, we did, and here is the proof – with Linda standing in the doorway. The small shop and its building had ostensibly changed little from the way they were exactly fifty years prior to our visit when director Lean and company filmed on that spot. The shop, which was closed that afternoon, displayed “regional tourist goods” in the window, not antiques, but we were both excited to see that very little seemed to be different after fifty years. Even the Ponte S. Barnaba with its wrought-iron railings was there, obviously visible through the front window, just as in the film. It was fun!

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Site of Signor di Rossi’s Antique Shop in Summertime

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“Other” Red Venetian Goblets We Saw in Venice

I heartily recommend this movie. I have it on the DVD from The Criterion Collection. That version has all the brilliant color of the original release – the result of extensive efforts to restore the finest original print they could find to begin with. The color and naturalness will dazzle you. To see what could have been lost but for the magic of digital restoration, take a look at the original film trailer (furnished) which was not restored: Thank you so much to all who were responsible for preserving this film.


As always, I have no connection with any product I endorse in these posts. My only motive is to make my readers aware of something that, in my opinion, they might enjoy or benefit from.