There’s a place in Padua where politics, art and food lived side by side for centuries. Between the two main piazze, piazza della Frutta and piazza delle Erbe, there’s in fact the ancient Palace of Justice of the city. But looks (and names) can be deceiving, cause this is not a regular, boring courthouse like many others. One the one hand it is full of peculiar corners, on the other hand is still nowadays full of life, people and… food, food everywhere!
Palazzo della Ragione, literally Palace of Reason, is one of my favourite places in town, and you’ll soon understand why.
Core of the city, symbol of the medieval past and one of the most beautiful landmarks you bump into when you reach the historical center of Padua, Palazzo della Ragione and the surrounding area are full of grace. And all padovani, Padua citizen, love it dearly and go there, for one reason or another, almost every day.
A courthouse with a market
Other than the former, ancient, Hall of Justice, active until 1700s (then moved elsewhere), it is the seat of the covered market. Both the palace and the covered market date back to 1200s. Isn’t it impressive? So, once, while upstairs there was a process going on, downstairs greengrocers where selling their best fruits and veggies to the customers, fishmongers were showing the freshness of their sardines and smells and perfumes of fish, cheese, bread, fruits and wine filled the bystanders nostrils.
Quite in the same way as nowadays! Yes, because, although the courthouse has been moved, the market still remains, for the joy of citizens and tourists, who love to mingle in the crowd and explore its many stands.
The secrets of Palazzo della Ragione (interior)
- Its upstairs hall is the largest in Europe without columns. Probably for the impressive size of the hall, Padua citizens call the entire palace simply “Il Salone” [eel sah -LOH -neh], i.e. The big hall.
- Consequently, the covered market, located right under the Salone, is called “Sotto (il) Salone”, under the big Hall.
- The frescoes adorning the Salone walls are one of the largest and most rare medieval astrological cycles survived to this day. The ideator of the cycle was a friend of Marco Polo, one of the most erudite persons of his times, three times charged with heresy by the Inquisition by the Inquisition: Pietro d’Abano. The first decoration was by Giotto, but it went sadly lost during a fire.
- On a side of the hall you can admire a huge (6 metres high) wooden horse. It was once part of a Medieval joust paraded through the city center. On the opposite corner there’s the Pietra del Vituperio (Insult Stone): debtors had to undress in front of a public and sit there 3 times in a row pronouncing “Cedo bonis” (I give up the goods), before being expelled from Padua. In Padua a related idiom still survives: “restare in braghe di tela” (to remain in short pants, meaning being broke) derives precisely from this custom. This punishment replaced imprisonment. And it was suggested by Saint Anthony.
The secrets around and about… and under the Salone! (exterior and… more)
- Built starting by 1218 (800 years ago exactly this year), its roof has the form of an inverted ship hull (added in the 1300s). A tornado took off the roof (then replaced) in 1700s.
- After a restoration, people can now visit the dungeons of the Palazzo to admire the Medieval and Roman remains. Visits (fee €6) take place on Tuesday, Thursday (4pm – 6pm) and Saturday (10am-12pm, 4pm – 6pm). But remember to book in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone call at 333 6799660.
- The access staircase is called Iron staircase, la Scala dei Ferri. There are other three staircases, but they’re now closed to the public. Their names (Wine, Herbs and Birds) refer to the good sold once at the closest corner of the city market.
- Descending the access staircase, turn left. You are now under the Volto della Corda, the Rope Vault. All traders who were surprised cheating were tied by their wrists, lifted up to 3 meters high and then dropped.
- Just past the Volto della corda, notice on the facade of the palazzo some carvings. They are units of measurement (for flour, grains, bricks and fabrics), used to have a point of reference, necessary to avoid quarrels and unmask liers during negotiations. This corner is therefore still called “Canton delle Busie” (Corner of lies).
- From here, walk under the arcades and along the market stands, in order to reach the corner of the Palace. Here, stop and notice the peculiar capitol without column. Rumor has it that it was omitted on purpose as an excuse to declare war to Vicenza, guilty of stealing it.
I warmly suggest you to take your time to visit the Hall with the frescoes, explore all the details of the Palazzo.