Giotto's Annunciation in the Arena Chapel, Padua

Article excerpt

Giotto's Annunciation fresco in the Arena Chapel, Padua, occupies a focal position above the chancel arch of the church and is central to the iconographic program of the entire fresco cycle of The Life of the Virgin and The Life of Christ (Figs. 1-3).1 Despite its centrality the fresco fits poorly with the others in the cycle, departing from the conventions of pictorial narrative established by Giotto elsewhere on the chapel's walls. This paper will explore the reasons why the fresco is so different from those around it. It suggests that the Annunciation is distinctive because it was designed to relate in wholly original ways to devotional practices that occurred inside the chapel on March 25, the feast day of the Annunciation.

Although the Arena Chapel was ostensibly a family oratory and parish church dedicated to Santa Maria della Carita, it also had citywide functions associated with the Feast of the Annunciation which were deliberately fostered by its founder and patron, Enrico Scrovegni.2 It was probably as the result of Enrico's lobbying that Benedict XI issued a papal bull in 1304 granting indulgences to all who "solemnly visit[ed]" the chapel on the feasts of the Nativity, Annunciation, Purification, and Assumption.1 The chapel's dedication ceremony in 1303 was performed on the Feast of the Annunciation, underlining the association with the Annunciate Virgin.4 The consecration ceremony of the chapel probably also took place on the Feast of the Annunciation two years later.5 The success of the founder in attracting visitors to the chapel on the Feast of the Annunciation is confirmed by his confident expectation, expressed in his testament of 1336, of "alms which will come to the said church on the Feast of the Annunciation and other [Marian feasts]."6

Enrico Scrovegni was in fact harnessing a preexisting cult of the Annunciation at the site, for the old Roman arena that extended in front of the chapel had been the scene of a sacra rappresentazione of the Annunciation since well before 1278. An ordinance of that year specified that there was to be a procession "according to custom" to the "usual place" in the arena, where an enactment of the Annunciation ("representatio salutationis angelicae") would be performed.7 The procession began at the chapel of the Palazzo della Ragione, where two boys were dressed to represent the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel, the latter with wings and a lily. Meanwhile, the bishop, captain, and clergy of Padua, including the religious orders, gathered at the cathedral and processed with crosses to the Palazzo della Ragione, where they were joined by the podestc, judges, knights, doctors, and other notable citizens of Padua. The boys acting as the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel were then carried in procession to the arena on heavily ornamented chairs. Preceded by the trumpeters of the commune and the clergy and followed by the podesta, stewards of the goldsmiths' and merchants' guilds, and the rest of the procession, they arrived at the prepared place in the arena.

Here, the Angel gave Mary the angelic salutation. These regulations were repeated in an ordinance of podesta (governor) Ongaro degli Oddi in 1298, demonstrating that by the time that Enrico Scrovegni purchased the site in 1300, a tradition of civic and religious importance had been already strongly established.8 It is likely that the ancient representatio salutationis angelicae underwent some changes in consequence of Enrico Scrovegni's building a Marian church on the rim of the arena, and indirect support for this proposition is found in two Paduan chronicles. These credit the podesta Pontino de Picinardi with having "initiated" the festa in 1306, the year following the chapel's probable consecration.9 Since it is known that the festa had been taking place for some considerable time prior to this, Pontino de Picinardi can only have "initiated" superficial changes, perhaps to the route or timing of the event, which might have led to the open-air representatio's being dovetailed more closely with services inside the newly erected chapel. …