During a recent stay, in Padua, Italy, I marveled at a seemingly enchanting light hovering over this very old city, going back before Roman times, a place where many layers of culture and history are available to feast the mind. In particular are the lives of two famous artists, who made their stay in Padua. Giotto lived there in the 14th century, and Donatello, in the 15th. Another artist named Mantegna must not be forgotten, when speaking of Padua. He was a prominent painter, who lived in this city dedicated to St. Anthony, the hermit.
So surprised at the amazing light of Padua and the similarity I found in the tones and colors in the frescoes of Giotto, I made mention of this to acquaintances along the way. I’m not sure if they understood what I was trying to say. While there may be a scientific explanation for this phenomena, real or imagined, I sought out information on Google and was pleasantly surprised that a French writer in his book Wanderings in Italy also spoke of the quality of light in Padua. Although he was there in the fall and I in the early summer, more than 100 years apart, it was quite a revelation that we both were struck by the relationship of the light and the effect this had on its artists, particularly its painters. Gabriel Fauré, nonetheless had a differing perception of the nature of Paduan light. He said, “Forms stand out in strong relief. The lines of the Euganean Hills, so soft and blurred as seen from Venice, are so precise and definite here that they almost hurt the eyes.” He then mentioned the art of Giotto and Mantegna as being influenced by this surrounding atmosphere. Contrarily, I found the light to be soft and pastel like and conjured more closely the images of Giotto’s palette. Mantegna is quite different in style and true enough his palette is more saturated and his forms have a more outlined and definite quality than those of Giotto. Perhaps Giotto painted in the early summer, and Mantegna in the fall. Whatever may be the case, I’m not certain scientific explanation can prove either case, but it could try. It may also depend on the season, in which one resides. What is true is that human perception of nature’s affect on artistic renditions, open to interpretation, cannot be denied.
In the beginning of the article, I have included photos I took of the frescoes by Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Below, is also the script of Faure taken from his travel journal in Italy. It is worth a reading to understand what his experience was like and its parallel with my own experience. Click on Scrovegni Chapel for an excellent tour of the inside of the chapel, and explanation by the Khan Academy.
The environs of Padua are delightful. ‘If we did not know,’ said the Emperor Constantine Palæologus, ‘that the earthly Paradise was in Asia, I should have believed that it must have been in the territory of Padua.’ I am struck more especially by the change in the aspect of everything only a few leagues from Venice. Climate, landscape, sky and inhabitants are all quite different. The light, above all, is of another quality. It is not full of colour and vapour as on the lagoon, but vivid and piercing. Forms stand out in strong relief. The lines of the Euganean Hills, so soft and blurred as seen from Venice, are so precise and definite here that they almost hurt the eyes. And merely walking along this road enables me to realize why the vision of the Paduan painters differs so essentially from that of the Venetians with whom they were long classed. The School of Padua is far more akin to that of Florence, whence, indeed, came the two great masters of the 14th and 15th centuries whose influence was to be so decisive here. Giotto and Donatello did not feel themselves strangers on the banks of the Bacchiglione, and they were at once understood and imitated. Nothing could be more alien to the art of Titian than the somewhat hard dry manner of Squarcione and Mantegna.
 “Wanderings in Italy” by Gabriel Faure. Houghton Mifflin, 1919.