Padua, a city in the Veneto region, is often overlooked by tourists. Padua, or Padova, is on the Milan to Venice train Line between Venice and Vicenza.
But what’s more, there are many things to discover about this center for arts and education. The symbiotic tension between the church and University students prepared the city for the Renaissance, and Padua was at the forefront in modernizing education and medicine.
Let’s look at the trail.
Every visitor to Padua should visit Giotto’s fresco cycle inside the Scrovegni Chapel, consecrated in 1305. Like the better known Sistine chapel, the interior space is covered in frescoes, from a fantastic view of hell to slabs of faux marble. The space is temperature and humidity controlled and each tourist group is given 15 minutes inside. Tickets are required. When we visited you needed tickets in advance and you couldn’t take pictures. According to a reader who had a more recent visit, you can now buy tickets at the door and take all the pictures you want as long as you don’t use a flash.
Enrico Scrovegni was a banker like his father, a known usurer. But at the time, being a rich tightwad was evidently the larger sin. Camel, meet eye of needle. The chapel Enrico built was conceived to get him a first-class place in heaven, despite the basic sins of the family. So he spent lavishly and thus presented the modern tourist with a rather bombastic attraction.
Padua’s University was established in 1222 after a group of students and teachers decided to come to Padua from Bologna where the church had a great deal of control over what could be taught.
Galileo lectured here. During the 16th and 17th centuries Padua was the leading university of the world, first and foremost for its school of medicine. This, in fact, was where modern medicine began.
You can take a 45 minute tour that shows you the innovation in medicine that took place in Padova. You start your tour in the Aula Magna, the Great Hall, where the students orally present their thesis before a panel of professors for graduation from the University.
During the inquisition in the 16th century, human bodies for dissection were hard to come by, but you could will one to be used in research. Thus the sculls in the Great Hall are those of (quite long) past professors who willed their used bodies to their students.
Then you are ready to see the very famous anatomical theater. Fabrizio D’Acquapendente built it in 1594. 300 students could stand and watch a body being taken apart. The theater was built over a canal, so that bodies could be delivered via barge—and returned quickly if the Papal Police were on their way. It also prompted a new form of music as a lute was played to calm the students watching a dissection.
Then it’s on to the Room of Forty, where frescoes depict 40 of the most famous foreign students who went on to spread the new medicine to their homelands. You’ll also see the “desk”, a podium which students cobbled together to allow the great numbers of students to hear the lectures he gave here between 1592-1610.
Your tour ends before a statue of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684), the first woman to graduate from a University.
The tour is highly recommended. See University Tours
Across from the entrance to the Palazzo Bo, where you entered for the University tour, is a very famous coffee house. What would a revolutionary city be without a coffee house? Caffè Pedrocchi, which dates from 1831, has always attracted intellectuals, academics and students, and played a major role in the 1848 riots against the Habsburg monarchy.
The Museo del Risorgimento e Contemporanea dell’Età occupies the upper floor, and is now a museum you can visit. You can see pictures on the web site.
And the coffee is very, very good, although expensive if you sit at a table in the “big” room. Follow the locals. Brunch is served on Sunday.
The pious couple Baldo and Sibilla dei Bonafaris’ bequests funded San Francesco Grande, one of the first hospitals whose specific purpose was to cure diseases. Today you can visit MUSME, the museum of medicine and health inside the old hospital building. It’s interactive. Knock on the “door” and a historical figure floats into view and explains how medicine evolved during the period, and how hospitals changed to include bedside visits from doctors, when once they were merely hospitality for pilgrims and the poor. Your kids will love it—and you’ll discover the background to what you saw at the University.
Thus the dei Bonafaris’ pious contributions contributed to the modern idea that disease was caused by something physical or organic in nature and not caused by sin or by bad humors.
Between the market squares of piazza delle Erbe and the piazza dei Frutti, the Palazzo della Ragione is the symbol of Padova. It was begun in 1172 and finished in 1219. The walls are covered in frescors and a walk around the Loggia offers good views of Padova and the markets below.
On the lower floors of the Palazzo della Ragione you’ll find the covered market, with stalls for food and meat. The butcher shops (Macellerie) are only open in the morning, but the general food stores (cheese, wine, bread, etc.) are open again in the afternoon. If you’ve never seen an Italian covered market, you will be amazed.
The Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua is an amazing complex. Construction started around 1232, a year or so after Saint Antonio’s death. There are four cloisters, which you can see on a map of the complex. You can find information, pictures and video on its web site
The Prato delle Valle is the largest public square in Italy and one of the largest in Europe. It looks like a stadium on the map. 78 statues ring the elliptical canal. It’s close to the Basilica of Saint Anthony and the Basilica of Santa Giustina.
On the outside there are restaurants, shops and bars…and a very interesting museum: The Museum of Pre-Cinema. Yes, everything people did to make moving pictures before film as we know it. They have an interesting You Tube page if you want to take a virtual tour.
Map of Padua Attractions
Where to Stay
Research for this article was done at a very fine apartment neat the University. Garden Apartment had reliable wi-fi, a good kitchen and was very spacious. It is located in a quiet neighborhood near the canter and there were great, non-touristy restaurants within walking distance. Staying in an apartment allows you to actually try all that good food you can purchase as you stroll through the market.
If you prefer a hotel, compare prices on Hotels in Padua.
To see and buy tickets to other interesting attractions in Padua, see this page.