From Reason to the Art of Rugby

Coming from the car park along the narrow roads in search of the Art of Rugby we came to the pedestrian mall area of the centre of Padova. We were then directed to the Piazza delle Erbe, where you get your first view of the Palazzo della Ragione.

You don’t get an immediate impression of the true grandeur of the Palazzo della Ragione (or Palace of Justice as the English would prefer). Nevertheless, the great age of this secular cum judicial and commercial basilica with the great vaulted ceiling is obvious.

Apparently, it predates Palladio by three centuries, but seems to have similar architecture and engineering, something that must have been a source of inspiration for many future architects. Standing in front of the Palazzo della Ragione one can feel that Padua must have been a great city of learning and culture in those years of the early 13th Century when the students arrived from Bologna and the university was established nearby.

Our pleasant task in visiting the Palazzo della Ragione was to lay out an Energitismo exhibit of The Art of Rugby in the great hall of the ‘Salone’, where the Museum of Rugby (Sweat and Mud) was exhibiting a history of rugby jerseys of the world to celebrate the test match between Italy and South Africa. We climbed the two stanzas, each of twenty stone stairs, to enter the vast hall on our right.

The first impression was of the frescoes covering the high walls on all four sides, laid out in geometric shapes. Gazing around there was a semi-regular series of animals ranging from a peacock and eagle to farm animals, mountain goat, galloping horse, wild boar, stag, camel, wolf, regal lion and a few mythological creatures such as a dragon, that we read was the sign of the justice Court of the Dragon. The individual sections between the uprights seemed to be of irregular widths, prompting the desire for a second hosted visit to more closely examine this wonderful structure.

After laying out the Art of Rugby exhibition, Looking down the long hall past the banks of rugby jerseys from different countries and eras, we espied a giant wooden horse that drew all towards it. Immediately the thought of Troy arose, yet this wooden horse appears solid, built from carved planks by Rinaldi and assistants in about 1466, but attributed to Donatello. It has a life-like head, looking down somewhat sternly at the gazes of the visitors, and it has been provided with some lovingly carved genitalia.

It took some time before, staring up high into the top of the vault, we noticed that the enormous vault above us was only supported on the sides, but at that time we did not realise the significance.

Outside, we wandered into the centre of the nearly empty Piazza della Erbe, a place that every morning is a vibrant market and has been for centuries, to get a full view of the Palazzo della Ragione. A man of some years well attired in semi-rural elegance, came to us and began to relate some stories of the early centuries of this nearly 800 years old building.

Sergio Nave had been a guide here for many years. He told us that the unsupported vaulted roof was the design of a monk returned from India about 100 years after the original construction. Apparently the ’inverted’ ship-hull structure of the vault was actually realized by a naval architect a century after this vault design by Fra Giovanni, and following a fire. The roof is reputedly still the largest unsupported roof in Europe. Brunelleschi would be jealous.

Sergio drew our attention to the regular upright ornamentation along the side on top of the walls. He reminded us that there had been a ’competition’ between the church and secular interests for this building, and that these particular ornaments were designed by the monk to ensure that the church failed in its plans – the approximately 50 ornaments are, now obviously, stylized phalluses.

The Art of Rugby has led to a gallery of experiences. I wonder what other stories Sergio will have to recount next time we meet at the Palazzo della Ragione?