Monday, 10 August 2015

To Padua

We were late starting, we usually are. I couldn’t tell you exactly how late, because I reckon on a pretty long period of time between when I’d like to leave the house and time we actually do leave. I’ve been here before, several times, and I know that expectations have little to relate them to reality. The only reality is that I will feel that we are late starting.

As regards the trip to Padua, the expectations of lateness began with my taking the ten-minute stroll over to the station the evening before to see the times of the trains. Part of me still lives in an imaginary world where a day out begins about 7.30 with sandwich-making; as no sandwiches would be involved in this case there was at least a leeway of an hour, plus an hour to be late, plus another half hour to be really late. If I looked at trains starting at about 11, a two-hour window might give us something we might just reach.

Padua has promise; its name, Padova in Italian, sounds noble and playful at the same time, a name for a rich woman’s slipper, or a caprice of stonework, both light and structurally sound. Shakespeare set most of The Taming of the Shrew there, and should have written about Two Gentleman of Padua, or The Merchant of Padua; he would have been much more successful. Having caught the train at a little before one, on Sunday, we arrived at what seemed to be a deserted town. The promise was a bit deflated by the walk from the station to the town centre, along a street lined with what are possibly fascist era office blocks, heavy and grey, and modern era office blocks, light and grey. I had told my family that here we would be in an exciting medieval town, free from the masses of tourists that make Venice such a squeeze. I was correct as regards population density, but as we passed a park with a fenced off area of collapsed Renaissance masonry, I began to feel anxious.

Eventually, if you walk in a straight line from the station (everybody can walk in a straight line from the station), the streets give way to pedestrian zones, the space between buildings narrows, arches appear, and you come to some pretty impressive squares, edged by colonnaded buildings, clearly of some major import. Squares are good. They encourage civic identity and the mingling between ages and classes and genders, and they are undoubtedly good places for celebrations, demonstrations, heretic-burning, riots, and markets. A square is a good place to hang out, to watch and be watched, a place to be without having to pretend to be on the way to somewhere else, a place that encourages people to look good, even to compete in looking good. If you are not a good looker, a square is probably hell, a place of disenfranchisement, sorrow, and judgement. But these awfulnesses happen in the open in a square, where they can be castigated and suppressed, rather than on social media; this is surely a good thing. At least, I think it is. But then, on such a stage I would be neither hero nor victim, a looker-on rather than a peacock or an ugly duckling.

We had lunch outdoors in a square. We were watched by many pigeons, who wanted a close engagement with our food. I tried not to look at my watch as others were served ahead of us, and the pigeons landed club-footed on tables around us. Service was so slow that I adjusted my body-clock to the idea that we were having an early high tea. The food was good, but delivered in installments with long intervals so that eating became more of a spectator activity than it already was, being in a square and involving active avian envy.

We risked missing the Palazzo Bo, my main reason for setting up the trip. For our teenage sons the main reason was a shop that sold gaming cards of a vintage now unavailable in Britain. When we found that access to the Palazzo Bo was only by hourly timed guided tour, and that we had just missed one, we agreed to let them go, understanding that they were guided by free technology only apparently accessible to teenagers. I had spent 6 euros on a map which showed me that if I walked 60 metres east of the restaurant I would be pushing my face against the walls of the Pallazo Bo.

Palazzo Bo is part of the University of Padua, Italy’s second-oldest university, and Europe’s fourth oldest. Its attraction for me was its medical school, where the great minds of the early modern period had gone to study, Thomas Linacre, William Harvey, Nicolas de Cusa, Thomas Browne, Gabriele Falloppio; in the university Galileo had lectured on mathematics, Vesalius on anatomy, and in 1678 Elena Piscopio had become the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in philosophy. The name Palazzo Bo comes from a house where an early lecturer offered both teaching and lodging to students tired of the strictures of Bologna University. In those happy, confusing days before street numbers, when in London books were published and advertised for sale ‘at the sign of the Child and Willow’, or ‘the Snake and Gibbet’, this enterprising gentleman hung the skull of an ox over the entrance to his house, which must have discouraged all but the most dedicated, a way to ensure an attentive class. ‘Bo’ sounds odd now, especially as the name for a palazzo, but is linked to early words for a bull, beef, bullock, bovine, and so on. More than ancient, it is easy to imagine it as an intuitive response to the power and size of a bull; ‘bu’ may have been all the Indo-European chap managed to get out as he vaulted the primeval hedge.  

In our 50 minutes of grace we wandered gently between vaulted arches, cool in the afternoon, down (south) to the Prato della Valle, a large formal space with an oval canal lined by statues. We ate ice-creams, luxury ones of extravagant flavour and price. We wandered back, met up with our sons, bought tickets, read the brochure and dunked our heads under the taps in the toilets. I had long before heard about the wonderful anatomical theatre here, one of the oldest, functioning from 1595 to 1872. I knew it was arranged in ascending galleries in the form of an oval coliseum, with ornate balustrades, and I supposed that our view would be from the top downwards. Instead we were led in on the bottom floor, the stage of the theatre, its space originally intended for only the lecturer, the dissector, the demonstrator and the corpse. There was room for no more than two or three more, pressed around the table. At little more than head height above this cockpit was the first gallery, and the second was at shoulder height above this, and so on in the form of the galleries of Dante’s heaven. To allow for anyone above the first gallery to get any sort of view, the galleries appeared to be no more than eighteen inches deep. Few dissections were allowed – the Church's dispensation permitteded only two corpses, and only two days per year; the thirst for knowledge and the lack of more opportunities must have packed the theatre. It is, like the square, a place of looking, the layers of galleries of decreasing size functioning like a spatially inverted telescope, nearly collapsed, as many of the students must have been - we were told that 300 of them would have watched the dissection. And, despite the generous dispensation of the Church allowing the viewings to take place in February, the heat and the smell would have been frequently overpowering. But, we were told, the tightness of this miniature theatre meant that on the occasions when a student fainted the press of his fellows held him upright. I wondered about this - if you are going to be able to see a dissection only twice a year, and your mate next to you faints, you’d probably feel justified in elbowing him backwards to give you a better view; at the end of the session would there be a front rank of conscious students sitting on the collapsed forms of their fainted colleagues? Presumably the attractions of being at the lowest tier, and getting the best view, would have been balanced by the smell from the corpse and the risk of sensitive reactions from above.

In this funnel-like environment, students were able to see, with the guidance of experts, the mysteries of the body unravelled, the workings of nerve and artery opened up and knowledge brought up and out from an architectural space that both concentrated the gaze of the 300 downwards in increasing discomfort, and blew out the vision into the infinite space of the world and time and human life.

No photographs were allowed, which was good; we had to look and remember.

There are other things to admire and wonder at in the Palazzo Bo, the family coats of arms, the gorgeous modernist designs of Gio Ponti and Carlo Anti. I recommend it. We came out blinking into the five o’clock sun, thanked the tour guide, and agreed under pressure to go back to our sons’ shop, which they had to revisit in case there were any bargains they had missed first time around (they hadn’t). We wandered down again to the Prato to look at the statues. We sat on the grass. There were ants, but we didn’t care. For the first time in a week we sat on grass, and it felt good. We paused on the way back for a drink. While waiting for awfully slow service we looked and were looked at. We had another ice-cream. We got lost on the way back to the station, but recognised a landmark and found the straight road. We caught a train an hour after the last of the seven trains whose times I had noted. For a long time I wasn’t convinced we were on the right train, but then I seldom am.

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