#206: “ALL HE WANTS IS TO SEE.” In his beautiful sequence of prose poems “I Wanted to Paint Paradise,” Joseph Stroud captures the fourteenth-century painter Giotto in the process of creating the frescoes for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. (It’s also called the Arena Chapel, as it was built on the site of an old Roman arena; Scrovegni for its donor, son to the Paduan usurer who harangues Dante in the seventh circle of the Inferno.) Stroud’s poems are full of the immediate, the individual, the mundane: Giotto’s floorsweeper, his apprentices, his confessor, his friend Gianna, as well as a dog dreaming in sleep, the bells of the San Marco convent, a bowl of grapes, crows and ravens, ox-carts, his artistic masters (Duccio and Cimabue) and spiritual master (Francis of Assisi, with whose spirit he chats familiarly), but with a regretful and charming modesty over “all those worlds I have left out.” The sequence, which Stroud has admitted is an ars poetica, always remembers the connection between the everyday and art, the sparrows scattering as a human walks past and “the Mysteries, pale as moonlight.”
The sequence is as well a canny examination of Giotto’s art, which is thought of variously as late medieval and a first step towards the Renaissance. If you go from the examples of the earlier Byzantine and Venetian-influenced art, the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Santa Maria Assunta on the isle of Torcello with its extraordinary Madonna and Child, the mosaics at Sant’ Apollinare and the masterworks at San Vitale, both in Ravenna, you see angels and emperors, biblical characters and other such important folk—magnificent as they are, all characters, as some wag has suggested, so flat you could flip them over with a spatula. In the frescoes at the Scrovegni you see a startling step forward in the rendering of space and depth and in the realism of the crowd—onlookers and bit players, rendered with a new specificity and attentiveness. In his painting of the Crucifixion, Stroud’s Giotto says: “For the weeping Veronica, I will use Angelina whose son was crushed by an ox. For Joseph, I will use Pascual the cabinetmaker as he stood over the grave of his wife and newborn.” Giuliano Pisani has remarked that the strange and penetrating gaze of the newborn Christ into his mother’s eyes is the same gaze with which he will later greet Judas, his betrayer. Giotto is always searching out the particular, the individuating stoke, that will define the Renaissance art to follow. Stroud’s Giotto hides himself in his rendering of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem as a peasant boy, climbing a tree to get a look at what’s going on, and, plainly speaking of himself, says “All he wants is to see.”
The program of the frescoes is easy enough to follow: early panels on Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne (some of this drawn from the apocryphal gospel, the Pseudo-Matthew), then the life of Mary followed by the story of Jesus, proceeding clockwise in descending tiers around the chapel, resting on facing base panels depicting the virtues and vices. All sorts of invention and ingenuities abound: the two figures of the Annunciation are on flanking sides of the altar arch; the shooting star that the Magi follow is the first representation of Halley’s comet, which Giotto witnessed in its 1301 pass-by. The chapel is a complete wonderment: smaller than the Sistine Chapel but also more intimate, more human perhaps, more Franciscan in its appeal and effect. Few works of art anywhere, of any time, so much capture what Stroud’s Giotto calls “all things in their shining forth.”
There are books on the chapel to fit all budgets. Two very good and affordable titles are The Scrovegni Chapel: Giotto’s Revolution, by Giuliano Pisani (Skira, 2020) and Giotto: The Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, by Bruce Cole (George Braziller, 1993). Joseph Stroud’s Giotto sequence is in Of This World: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).
In these cautious and crowded times, they now only allow small, timed groups into the Scrovegni Chapel; night visitors can wangle a longer stay. Never mind. It remains, to spin Samuel Johnson’s phrase, not just worth seeing but worth going to see.