Cover image for The Usurer's Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua By Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona

The Usurer's Heart

Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua

Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona

304 pages
9" × 11"
41 color/146 b&w illustrations/2 maps

The Usurer's Heart

Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua

Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona

A significant contribution to one of the most famous monuments in the history of art.


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
At the turn of the fourteenth century, Enrico Scrovegni constructed the most opulent palace that the city of Padua had seen, and he engaged the great Florentine painter, Giotto, to decorate the walls of his private chapel (1303–5). In that same decade, Dante consigned Enrico’s father, a notorious usurer, to the seventh circle of hell. The frescoes rank with Dante’s Divine Comedy as some of the great monuments of late medieval Italian culture, and yet much about the fresco program is incompletely understood.

Most traditional studies of the Arena Chapel have examined the frescoes as individual compositions, largely divorced from their original context, almost as if they were panels detached from an altarpiece and hung on a museum wall for the viewing pleasure of the connoisseur. Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, in contrast, consider each image as part of an intricate network of visual and theological associations comparable to that of Dante’s poem. The authors show how this remarkable ensemble of paintings offers complex meanings, meanings shaped by several interested parties—patron, confessor, and painter.

The Usurer’s Heart pieces together new historical evidence on the chapel’s origins and describes the fresco program as, in part, an attempt to ameliorate the Scrovegni family’s reputation. It interprets the chapel’s fresco program and the chapel’s place in the heart of an ambitious and guilt-ridden moneylender.

A significant contribution to one of the most famous monuments in the history of art.
“This is a valuable study that brings together a coherent, persuasive argument, a useful review of the literature, an amplification of sources, and stunning visual support.”
“These complex arguments are presented in a book whose format is most elegant, and the authors and the publisher are to be commended for organizing the text and images with the needs of the reader in mind.”
“No previous study has marshalled the evidence . . . so thoroughly and with such conviction. . . . [Derbes and Sandona] demonstrate a profound knowledge of late medieval writing, from the sermons of St. Anthony of Padua, to the theology of Thomas Aquinas, to secular literature and chronicles. This is a focused and tightly argued book; and the result is both convincing and compelling.”
“Written by distinguished scholars of medieval art and literature, [The Usurer’s Heart] benefits from an interdisciplinary approach, and the wealth of visual and verbal evidence presented makes a thorough and convincing case for the impact of the patron’s personal history on the chapel’s unique imagery. The clearly written prose is enhanced by an abundance of illustrations in black and white interleaved conveniently within the text, supplemented by high-quality color plates at the volume’s end.”
The Usurer’s Heart is an outstanding book that should be in every academic library in this country. It is beautifully illustrated, meticulously researched, thought-provoking, and challenging. That some readers, like this reviewer, may not accept every conclusion the authors draw is irrelevant; all readers will be enlightened by Derbes and Sandona’s interpretation of one of the most important works in the history of Western art.”

Anne Derbes is Professor of Art and Co-Director of Honors at Hood College. Her previous books are Picturing the Passion in Late Medieval Italy: Narrative Painting, Franciscan Ideology, and the Levant (1996) and, with Mark Sandona, The Cambridge Companion to Giotto (2003).

Mark Sandona is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at Hood College. He is co-editor, with Anne Derbes, of The Cambridge Companion to Giotto (2003).


List of Illustrations



1. A Family Chapel: Usury, Piety, and the Scrovegni in Late Medieval Padua

2. Judas and Mary: The Chancel Arch Antithesis

3. Past and Present: History as Metaphor

4. “This Is My Cleansing”: Figures of Penitence

Conclusion: Authors and Audiences



General Index

Index of Biblical Citations


And one who had a blue sow, pregnant-looking,

stamped on the whiteness of his money-bag

asked me: “What are you doing in this pit?

Get out of here! And while you’re still alive

I’ll tell you that my neighbor Vitaliano

will come to take his seat on my left side.

Among these Florentines I sit, one Paduan:

time after time they fill my ears with blasts

of shouting: ‘Send us down the sovereign knight

who will come bearing three goats on his pouch.’”

As final comment he stuck out his tongue—

as far out as an ox licking its nose.

—Dante, Inferno, xvii.64–75

Enrico Scrovegni, the knight, saves his honest soul . . .

And indeed he had this temple solemnly dedicated to the Mother of God

So that he would be blessed with eternal mercy . . .

—Inscription on the tomb of Enrico Scrovegni [d. 1336], from Bernardino Scardeone, Historiae de urbis Patavii antiquitate, et claris civibus Patavinis

The two passages quoted above offer radically divergent views about the likely destinations of two prominent Paduans, father and son, in the afterlife. Dante consigns the father, Reginaldo Scrovegni, to the seventh circle of hell for the sin of usury, or lending money at interest. The most notorious usurer of his day, Reginaldo is identified by the coat of arms emblazoned on the moneybag around his neck, “a blue sow [scrofa]” on a white field. In striking contrast to the infernal fate that Dante envisions for Reginaldo is the “eternal mercy” that Reginaldo’s son and heir, Enrico, projects for himself. Central to Enrico’s claim to salvation was the “temple solemnly dedicated to the Mother of God.” Not surprisingly, Enrico’s “temple” was also his burial place, housing the tomb described by the sixteenth-century historian Bernardino Scardeone. Constructed on a tract of land where an ancient Roman arena once stood, the building is known today as the Arena Chapel (figs. 1, 2).

The chapel is one of a handful of monuments from late medieval Italy that need very little introduction. Its splendid frescoes by the Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone have assured it a status in the art-historical canon approaching that of the Sistine Chapel. Moreover, we are unusually well informed about both the chapel and the man who commissioned it. We know that Enrico Scrovegni carried on the family business of moneylending after his father’s death, but records of his usuries end—at least temporarily—by the year 1300. Around the same time, he sold significant property in the Veneto, presumably using the proceeds to acquire the Arena property, which he purchased in February 1300.

The location he chose had a clear civic and religious significance, for the Arena had, at least since the 1270s, been the site of the city’s annual celebration of the Annunciation. On this site, Enrico constructed a magnificent palace; by the year 1302, he had sought and received episcopal permission to build an adjoining chapel (fig. 3). The inscription recorded by Scardeone tells us that the chapel was dedicated to the Virgin in March 1303, probably on March 25, the feast day of the Annunciation: “in the year 1303, when March conjoined the feast of the blessed Virgin and the rite of the Palm.” Less than a year later, on March 1, 1304, Pope Benedict XI granted indulgences to visitors to the chapel, which he called Santa Maria della Carità:

Accordingly, we beseech and through God exhort the universal community of the faithful, urging for the remission of your sins, insofar as you do visit, in the spirit of humility, the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Charity in the Paduan Arena, imploring God forgiveness of sins . . . those who, having confessed and being fully penitent, shall solemnly visit the aforementioned church on the feasts of the Nativity, of the Annunciation, of the Purification, and of the Assumption of the Virgin, to be granted a dispensation of one year and forty days.

On January 9, 1305, Enrico’s neighbors—the friars of the Eremitani church—filed a complaint with the episcopal curia of Padua. Asserting that the previous bishop had given his approval for only a small family chapel, “in the manner of an oratory,” they objected to Enrico’s plans to construct a bell tower and install huge bells, which threatened “grave scandal, damage, prejudice, and injury of the friars and monks.” They objected, too, to the size of the church and the general display of “pomp, vainglory, and wealth” at the site. In spite of—or perhaps because of—these protestations, plans for the chapel’s consecration proceeded apace. Barely two months after the friars lodged their complaint, on March 16, 1305, the high council of Venice agreed to lend cloths (panni), possibly wall hangings, to Enrico for the chapel’s consecration—presumably, again, on the feast day of the Annunciation, March 25. Although no known document cites Giotto as the painter of the chapel’s fresco program, two writers refer to his work in the chapel only seven or eight years later. The attribution has never been seriously questioned.

Despite these documents and literary texts, and despite all the scholarly attention to the chapel, much about it remains puzzling. What interests us most is the program of the chapel, which is extraordinarily rich. Architecturally, the chapel is a brick structure, barrel vaulted, with the south wall pierced by six windows and the north wall, which was adjacent to the palace, windowless (see plate 3). This simple exterior conceals a dazzling interior, of which almost every available inch is frescoed (plates 4–7 and diagram). With a total of thirty-eight narratives—sixteen on the south wall, eighteen on the north wall, and four more on the chancel arch—the fresco cycle is one of the largest ensembles surviving from the late duecento or early trecento.

Visitors entering the chapel for the first time can find it overwhelming, even disorienting. Until recently, the main entrance was the portal on the west wall; as James Elkins has rightly noted, for those entering at this door, the starting point of the narrative cycle is far from obvious. But the program is oriented not to the ordinary visitor but to its patron, who would have come in through the door closest to the palace, on the north wall (see diagram, to the right of 55). Those entering the chapel from this door—originally the site of private and privileged access, and today, ironically, the entrance for the general public—come into immediate contact with the beginning of the cycle, which opens on the south wall, directly in front of them. The narrative, which is organized into three registers, starts at the top register of the south wall with the story of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, and the events leading up to her miraculous conception (plates 5, 6, 8–12). Continuing across the nave, on the upper register of the north wall, the cycle moves to the Virgin’s early life, from her birth to her wedding procession (plates 4, 7, 13–16).

The cycle then proceeds to the chancel arch (plates 1, 17–19), and there, oddly, the narrative shifts, moving no longer horizontally but vertically. At the top of the chancel is a remarkable scene of God the Father presiding over the heavenly court just before he dispatches Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. Immediately below, on the spandrels of the arch, is The Annunciation. Directly below the Annunciate Virgin is the next scene in the cycle, The Visitation. The narrative then resumes on the second register of the south wall, depicting the early life of Christ (plates 5, 6, 20–23). It continues on the same register of the north wall with the ministry cycle (plates 4, 7, 24–28). After returning to the chancel arch for The Pact of Judas (plates 1, 18), the cycle moves to the lowest register on the south wall, where Christ’s Passion unfolds (plates 5, 6, 29–33). Crossing the nave again, the Passion narratives continue on the north wall (plates 7, 34, 35). The cycle then concludes with the Noli Me Tangere, Ascension, and Pentecost—the last fresco that Enrico Scrovegni would have seen as he left the chapel through the north door (plates 4, 36, 37). Probably between 1317 and 1320, a different painter completed the program with six frescoes on the walls of the choir. Four depict the events preceding the death of the Virgin and the Dormition itself—appropriately, as the choir was the burial place of several members of the Scrovegni family. These are followed by The Assumption and The Coronation of the Virgin.

An immense Last Judgment (plate 2) looms on the entrance wall. In its center, just to the left of the cross, Enrico Scrovegni kneels and presents a model of the chapel to the Virgin and two saints, most likely John the Evangelist and Catherine of Alexandria, as a cleric supports the model on his shoulder (plate 40). At the dado level of the windowed south wall, in grisaille, seven Virtues confront opposing Vices on the north wall across the nave (plate 3; diagram, 42–55). The Virtues and Vices are ingeniously linked with the Last Judgment, as several scholars have noted. The Virtues—purposefully placed on the windowed south wall, with its associations with light and sanctity—generally face the elect of the Last Judgment, while the Vices, on the darker, windowless north wall, lead inexorably to the damned in hell.

Further adding to the programmatic complexity of the chapel are the ornamental bands, which subdivide and organize the visual field. A central band bisects the vault and extends down to the dado on the north wall, and to The Presentation in the Temple on the south (plates 4–7; diagram, 60). Two similar bands at either end of the vault continue down both north and south walls to the dado (plates 4–7), and eight others, four on each side, divide the narratives on the windowless portions of the lateral walls. They contain bust-length holy figures in quatrefoils (plate 3): Old Testament figures in the vault, and on the walls, eight Old Testament prophets, the twelve apostles, four female saints, the four evangelists, and the four Doctors of the Church. The bands on the second and third register of the north wall contain ten small scenes, of which eight are Old Testament episodes prefiguring the New Testament narrative to the right (plates 3, 4–7). The starry ceiling is punctuated by medallions—almost like windows in the vault of heaven—that contain bust-length images of Christ and the Virgin. Four prophets surround each (plates 4–7).

In our view, the images in this remarkable ensemble participate in a system of meanings, meanings shaped by several interested parties. We do not claim a fixed or monolithic system, but rather a fluid set of possible readings contingent upon the circumstances of viewers and viewing; nevertheless, we believe that the chapel’s program offered, and still offers, an intricate complex of interdependent ideas and images. The very notion of multiple readings of one site—familiar to readers today, who question the idea of a single, fixed meaning for works of art or literature—would have been familiar as well to Giotto’s predecessors and contemporaries. Homilists of the later Middle Ages, such as Saint Anthony of Padua (d. 1232), parsed the Bible to find myriad layers of meaning embedded in each verse. Dante (1265–1321), the most famous literary figure in Giotto’s day, more explicitly rejected the idea that his work could be understood in a single or simple way. As he emphasized to his patron, Cangrande della Scala, “there is not just a single sense in this work [the Commedia]; it might rather be called polysemous, that is, having several senses.” In our view, much the same polysemy characterizes the Arena Chapel.

Indeed, the chapel resembles the Commedia in that both require the audience, or reader, to take in the intricacy and complexity of its constituent parts—whether cantos or individual compositions—as well as the interplay between them and the ways in which each part illuminates the whole. With some important exceptions (which we will consider shortly), most traditional studies of the Arena Chapel have presented and analyzed the frescoes as individual compositions, largely divorced from their original context, almost as if they were panels detached from an altarpiece and hung on a museum wall for the viewing pleasure of the connoisseur. While such analyses have offered much insight into Giotto’s pictorial genius, they necessarily fall short of affording a fuller grasp of the chapel’s program. As impressive as the single frescoes are, still more impressive, more brilliantly conceived and orchestrated, is the larger whole. Our hope in this study is to recover some sense of that larger whole, of the constellation of meanings that informs the full program, the ways in which it might have been understood by audiences that ranged from the educated elite to the unlettered, and the strategies and circumstances that conditioned its reception.

Several scholars have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the chapel. Ursula Schlegel has interpreted several images, especially the Pact of Judas on the chancel arch, as references to the usurious practices of the Scrovegni family. Dorothy Shorr has called attention to the unusual prominence of the Virgin in the Last Judgment, noting her intercessory role. Michel Alpatoff has pointed out a series of compositional and thematic relationships among the narratives on the registers of the north and south walls. But even these studies are limited in their scope; they take as their focus only one particular aspect of the frescoes rather than the chapel as a system of meanings.

We seek not only to amplify the arguments of these scholars but also to introduce some new interpretive possibilities into the discourse on the chapel. First, we suggest that the chapel’s program is replete with curious choices: the subjects chosen and the iconography of individual themes are often unusual in the context of late medieval painting in Italy, and these strategic choices participate in the meanings of the program as a whole. Second, we argue that the chancel arch—which has received less attention than the more accessible narrative scenes on the north and south walls—is both the liturgical and programmatic center of the chapel, and the themes it announces are replayed in different keys throughout the fresco cycle. Third, we propose that the rhetorical principle of antithesis governs key images of the chancel and reverberates throughout the program as a whole. Further, antithesis is not merely a convenient device but one with profound resonance in the life of Enrico Scrovegni—as least as he presents himself here. As we will suggest, the inscription once found on Enrico’s tomb is an important part of his construction of self, and antithesis governs the rhetoric of that text as emphatically, and as strategically, as it governs the chancel arch.

Anomalies in the Program

Perhaps because the Arena Chapel is so well known to all students of Italian art, we tend to assume that it represents some sort of norm in late medieval Italian painting. But in fact, the very fame of the chapel has blinded us to its many oddities. Within its familiar walls, anomalies abound. The top register of the south wall (plates 3, 5, 6, 8–12) is devoted to the story of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna—a tale recounted in texts like Pseudo-Matthew and the Golden Legend, but depicted infrequently in earlier Italian monumental art, and never in this way. As one indication of the cycle’s rarity, the expansive narrative program of Duccio’s Maestà, a work glorifying the Virgin, includes not one episode of Joachim and Anna, not even the Meeting at the Golden Gate (plate 12), which was traditionally understood as the moment of Mary’s conception. On the north wall, the protracted treatment of The Marriage of the Virgin, featuring a total of four separate scenes (plates 4, 7, 15, 16), is also unprecedented outside manuscript illumination. While most of the Christological narratives occur fairly often in early Italian art, others—notably the Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple (plate 28) and the Pact of Judas (plate 18)—appear more rarely. Moreover, as we will see in the course of this study, even frequently depicted episodes like the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Crucifixion are far from conventionally rendered here. Throughout the chapel, Giotto consistently manipulates familiar iconographic formulae, repositioning figures, introducing others, and emphasizing uncommon details.

The personifications of Virtues and Vices at the dado level are curious as well (plate 3; diagram, 42–55). Their very inclusion in a fresco program seems unusual, for relatively few parallels occur in monumental art in late medieval Italy. Further, when the Virtues do appear in duecento art, they are almost never paired with a corresponding Vice, and Giotto’s depiction of the individual personifications is often idiosyncratic and at times unique.

The Last Judgment (plate 2) on the entrance wall is a remarkable reinterpretation of this theme—one that likely raised eyebrows in late medieval Padua. Although it has been often compared with earlier versions—such as the mosaic in the Baptistery of Florence, which Giotto certainly knew, or that at Torcello, which he may have seen—many aspects of the fresco cannot be explained by pointing to such precedents. As Dorothy Shorr observed, the prominence of the Virgin, who appears twice, is uncommon but appropriate in a chapel dedicated to her. But other aspects are more puzzling. The elect seem to include a number of portraits; local audiences must have recognized familiar faces among their ranks (plate 38). As for the damned, their torments are striking in their graphic sexuality. Numerous sinners are shown suffering particularly gruesome indignities, often directed at their genitalia. But most startling must have been the portrait of Enrico Scrovegni (plate 40). Although clerics had at times appeared as patrons in a Last Judgment, the inclusion of a lay patron is exceptional. Moreover, the fact that Enrico is represented in the same scale as the Virgin and two saints finds comparatively few parallels in late medieval Italian painting. Even popes and princes were usually shown as much smaller in scale than the holy figures to whom they prayed. The penitential violet of his garb and the humility implied by his kneeling stance might not have mollified viewers who harbored misgivings about the Scrovegni family in general and Enrico in particular. Could the tone of moral outrage that permeates the Eremitani complaint, its references to “grave scandal,” to “pomp, vainglory, and wealth,” spring in part from that bold portrait of the donor and owner?

A final curious element in this group is the presence of the cleric who supports the model of the chapel. We know no earlier work of Italian painting in which a cleric accompanies the donor, as he does here. We will return to the cleric’s identity, his likely role(s) here, and the implications of his presence later. For now, we simply wish to note that the image emphasizes his role in a way that was highly unusual at the time.

Antithesis: The Rhetoric of Enrico Scrovegni’s Arena Chapel

Appositis iuxta se contrariis, minora et maiora apparent et peiora et meliora hominibus.

[Contraries placed next to each other reveal the smaller and the greater, the worse and the better, to men.]

—Aristotle, De sophisticis elenchis, 174b

Of the Arena Chapel’s four walls, the altar wall, or chancel arch (plate 1), is surely the most curious in its selection and arrangement of subjects; indeed, these choices seem nearly inexplicable in terms of logic or convention. Yet, in our view, the frescoes on this wall constitute the most important images in the chapel. The chancel arch forms the chapel’s programmatic core, the space where its major themes are announced.

This arch, which frames the altar below it, compels our initial attention, for it is the first focal point of the visitor entering the chapel from the main portal (plate 1; diagram). More important, it is the liturgical center of the chapel: it serves as the frame for both clergy and laity who faced the altar during the liturgy. Not surprisingly, this charged space also marked Enrico Scrovegni’s burial place. Despite its importance, however, the frescoes here—God the Father with the heavenly court, the Annunciation, the Pact of Judas, the Visitation, and two small illusionistic niches, or coretti—have not been considered as a thematic unit. And almost nothing about the individual subjects, or about their rendering here, can be considered conventional. The episode that opens the narrative cycle—God the Father presiding over the angelic court, about to dispatch Gabriel to the Virgin to announce her pregnancy (plate 17)—is all but unknown in monumental painting. Though the Annunciation below is one of the most commonly depicted themes of late medieval Italian painting, this particular version seems to be unique among the dozens of earlier Italian versions known to us: whereas the two almost always stand, here both Gabriel and the Virgin kneel, facing each other, one almost the mirror image of the other. Their symmetry is matched by that of the two fictive niches at the lowest level (fig. 4; diagram, 40, 41)—again, extremely curious elements, with few obvious parallels elsewhere. While their meaning is not certain, most likely they represent small burial chambers, thus alluding to the chapel’s funerary function. Moreover, their rib vaults, pointed arches, and lancet windows resemble those of the chancel and direct the viewer to the tomb of Enrico Scrovegni just behind them (plate 1).

It is in the center of the chancel wall, just below the Annunciation, that we encounter the most unexpected choices in this singular program: on the left, the Pact of Judas, in which the betrayer seals his agreement with two high priests, and on the right, the Visitation, in which Mary meets her cousin, Elizabeth (plates 1, 18, 19). The selection of these two themes within the privileged space of the chancel arch is odd, to say the least. Neither subject figures conspicuously in late medieval Italian art. The Visitation is a minor event in the infancy cycle, almost never singled out for special attention. The Pact of Judas—which is found only in very comprehensive Passion cycles—is even stranger. The Visitation, at least, follows logically from the Annunciation, but the Pact seems to disrupt the chancel, insinuating itself onto the arch from the Passion cycle on the adjacent wall. One might almost assume that Giotto had failed to allow enough room for the full Passion sequence and had to accommodate the oversight here. Even the temporal sequence is jarring. We read the chancel as narrative painting is traditionally read, from left to right; thus, the Annunciation features Gabriel on the left, the Virgin on the right. But as we move down the chancel arch (plate 1), our eye travels from the Pact—featuring Christ’s apostle Judas—to the Visitation, featuring Christ’s mother in a meeting that occurred some thirty years before Judas’s fateful encounter with the high priests.

How are we to understand the apparent illogic of the placement of the Pact here? And why juxtapose the Pact of Judas with the Visitation (figs. 5, 6)? Though the thematic connection between the two is far from obvious, we are undoubtedly meant to read the two together, just as we are meant to read the paired images above and below. Multiple visual cues link the two narratives. In each, four figures stand in two pairs, with a fifth figure present as well; in the Pact, the group is exclusively male, and in the Visitation, exclusively female. In each, the central pair (Judas and the high priest, Mary and Elizabeth) wear red and yellow, and a third figure wears pale green. In each, a small building supported by columns, with an arched doorway and a flat roof, appears to the right. Yet unlike the Gabriel/Mary pair above, or the doubled chambers below, this pair does not bridge the chancel gap but sustains it, employing the gap as part of its meaning. Here, the most important figures stand at some distance from the architectural center. Indeed, attendant figures insist on this separation, with their backs to the arch. This pair of frescoes surely represents a confrontation of absolute opposites, and probing the meanings of this confrontation is at the center of this study.

The pairing of Judas and Mary on the chancel arch is one of many examples of visual oppositio in the chapel. The contrast is most obvious in the dado, where Vices confront Virtues, and in the Last Judgment on the west wall, with its division of humanity into the elect and the damned (plate 2). More subtle antitheses appear throughout the chapel, both within individual compositions and in each register of the program. Consider the first fresco of the first register, in which a priest, recognizing Joachim, evicts him from the temple because of the barrenness of his marriage, then considered a sign of God’s disfavor (plate 8). Joachim’s expulsion into the void stands in sharp contrast to the blessing granted to the younger man, ensconced within the protective wall of the temple precinct. The addition of the younger man to the usual iconography of this scene establishes a dialectic of acceptance and rejection, insider and outsider, signaling the oppositions that will recur throughout the program (fig. 7).

Antitheses occur as well in the opening and closing scenes of each register, which bracket the register both visually and thematically, rather like bookends. We will limit the discussion here to a brief consideration of the south wall, but the pairings are indicative of the chapel as a whole. The program opens with a sudden disruption to a family (Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple) and closes with harmony restored (Meeting at the Golden Gate). The coldness of the high priest ejecting him from the temple is opposed by the warmth of Anna, who greets him at the Golden Gate (plates 8, 12). In the second and third registers, Giotto draws the juxtapositions still more sharply, manipulating traditional iconographic formulas to make the links more insistent. The second register opens with the Nativity (plate 20; fig. 8). Whereas almost all earlier Italian versions depict the Christ child reclining in the manger or in the arms of the midwives who bathe him, in a variant of a Byzantine formula, here an attendant hands the child to Mary so that she can hold her son for the first time. In the last scene in the register, the tenderness of the Nativity finds a horrifying inversion in the Massacre of the Innocents (plate 23; fig. 9). The most prominent of the mothers holds her own young son for the last time, before he is wrenched from her arms by Herod’s soldiers. Clearly, then, the Nativity and Massacre juxtapose life and death—but Giotto underlines the relationship between the two through several compositional strategies. In both, an authoritative figure—an angel in the Nativity, Herod in the Massacre—gestures to figures below, but the angel announces a birth, and the emperor commands death. It is probably not accidental that the mother who still clings to her son is the only one who is dressed, like the Virgin, in blue. The placement of a standing man on the far right of each scene seems purposeful as well. Both men wear short tunics and identically laced boots, and both are seen from the back. There is even something chilling about the visual parallel between the cluster of sheep and lambs—traditional sacrificial animals—in the Nativity and the similarly placed pile of dead children in the foreground of the Massacre. (Saint Anthony of Padua, in his sermon on the Feast of the Innocents, compares Herod’s victims to sacrificial lambs.)

Pointed contrasts occur as well in the lowest register of the same wall. The first scene—appropriately placed closest to the altar, where the sacrament of the Eucharist was celebrated—is the Last Supper (plate 29; fig. 10). In a room supported by delicate colonettes, with two rectangular windows opening to a blue sky, Christ sits to the far left; surrounded by the twelve apostles, he transforms bread and wine into his body and blood. The register concludes with the Mocking of Christ, where Christ sheds his blood. It trickles in a thin stream down his cheek (plate 33; fig. 11). Here, the setting is a courtyard, proportioned like the room of the Last Supper, supported by slender colonettes and equipped with two rectangular windows on the far wall. Now, however, the windows are barred and reveal only blackness. Again, Christ is seated to the left—another unconventional choice, for he is almost always central in earlier depictions of this scene—and he is surrounded, again, by twelve men. The architectural similarities between the two rooms must have been deliberate. (Contrast the room to the left, where Christ appears before Caiaphas [plate 32], with its curved, wooden ceiling and arched windows.) The presence, too, of twelve men in the Mocking cannot be coincidental.

Repeatedly, the images of the chapel juxtapose separation and reunion, barrenness and fertility, birth and death, damnation and salvation. Though the rhetoric of oppositio is unusually elegant in the Arena Chapel, constructing meaning through antithesis or opposition has a venerable history in medieval theology, literature, and art. The medieval imagination appreciated opposition both as a rhetorical and a heuristic device. Constance Bouchard has maintained that the widespread use of “discursive opposites” was “a way of ordering experience” in the late Middle Ages, reaching a high point in the twelfth century. Major figures of the thirteenth century also relied heavily on oppositio in structuring their arguments. C. K. Ogden has suggested that Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his doctrine of material and subsistent forms, had “elevated Opposition into a primary dogmatic principle.” This principle, which undoubtedly has its roots in the classical tradition beginning with Aristotle, is clearly evident in Saint Bonaventure, the preeminent Franciscan theologian of the thirteenth century. Bonaventure habitually refers to a phrase in Aristotle’s Problemata, which he translates into Latin as “opposita iuxta se posita magis elucescunt”: “everything seems to assert its identity more forcibly when juxtaposed with its opposite.” That Aristotle’s principle of opposition extends even into the realm of late medieval aesthetics is evident in the work of the musical theorist Marchettus of Padua, who was active in the early fourteenth century.

Antithesis is a staple of literary texts as well, continuing into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As evidence, one need only consider the wide dissemination of manuscripts of Prudentius’s Psychomachia, a poem describing a battle between Vices and Virtues. Given the pervasiveness of antithetical thinking in the Middle Ages, it is not surprising to find analogous oppositions in the visual arts. As Henry Maguire has shown, antithesis is important in Byzantine visual culture. Antithetical concepts and turns of phrase were commonly employed by the homilists and liturgists of the Orthodox Church, and corresponding visual antitheses find their way into the illumination of Byzantine manuscripts and the frescoes of Byzantine churches. Moreover, as several scholars have noted, the rhetorical device informs Western medieval art as well. It is implicit (and at times explicit) in a number of monuments, and it can be seen especially in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as in the frescoes of San Francesco in Assisi. But even the sophisticated elaboration of the system at Assisi is taken to a new level of complexity in the Arena Chapel.

Enrico’s Inscription: Opposition and Conversion

The antitheses that reverberate throughout the chapel are expressed not only visually but also textually, for antithesis also lies at the core of the inscription that once appeared on Enrico Scrovegni’s tomb. The sixteenth-century historian Bernardino Scardeone (1482–1574), who recorded the inscription, refers to it as an epitaph attached to Enrico’s sepulcher. The Latin text is in rhyming dactylic hexameter couplets. We offer a translation for each couplet.

hic locus antiquus, de nomine dictus arena,

nobilis ara deo fit multo numine plena.

[This ancient place, called by the name Arena, becomes a noble altar, so full of divine majesty, to God.]

sic aeterna vices variat divina potestas,

ut loca plena malis, in res convertat honestas.

[Thus God’s eternal power changes [earthly] fortune, and converts places filled with evil to honest use.]

ecce domus gentis fuerat, quae maxima dirae,

diruta construitur per multos vendita mire.

[Behold, this was the home of abominable heathen, which was destroyed and sold over many years, and is [now] wondrously [re]built.]

qui luxum vitae per tempora laeta secuti,

dimissis opibus, remanent sine nomine muti.

[Those who led a life of luxury in happy times, their wealth now lost, remain nameless and mute;]

sed de scrovegnis henricus miles honestum

conservat animum, facit hic venerabile festum.

[but Enrico Scrovegni, the knight, saves his honest soul; he offers a revered festival here.]

nanque dei matri templum solenne dicari

fecit, ut aeterna possit mercede beari.

[And indeed he had this temple solemnly dedicated to the Mother of God, so that he would be blessed with eternal mercy.]

successit vitiis virtus divina prophanis,

caelica terrenis, quae praestant gaudia vanis.

[Divine virtue replaced profane vices; heavenly joys, which are superior to earthly vanities, [replace them].]

cum locus iste deo solenni more dicatur,

annorum domini tempus tunc tale notatur:

[When this place is solemnly dedicated to God, the year of the Lord is thus inscribed:]

annis mille tribus tercentum martius almae

virginis in festo conjunxerat ordine palmae.

[In the year 1303, when March had conjoined the feast of the blessed Virgin and the rite of the Palm.]

The author of the inscription undoubtedly composed this poetry in the context of Padua’s university (hence the classical dactylic hexameter), but, more significantly, in the context of a theological point about conversion as well. The inscription outlines a series of antithetical pairs. It contrasts the Roman arena, home of heathen, with the noble altar to God; earthly vicissitudes with divine power; the formerly wealthy with the honest—and redeemed—Enrico; profane vice with divine virtue; earthly vanities with heavenly joys. The opposites are at times placed side by side, as if to intensify their opposition: in the third couplet, diruta (destroyed) and construitur (is built); in the seventh, vitiis (vices) and virtus (virtue), divina (divine) and prophanis (profane), caelica (heavenly) and terrenis (earthly), gaudia (joys) and vanis (vanities). As in the Aristotelian admonition so heartily adopted by Bonaventure, “everything seems to assert its identity more forcibly when juxtaposed with its opposite.” The Romans may have had earthly fortunes and may have led lives of luxury, prospering, but they are now nameless and mute. The new miles (knight) Enrico Scrovegni, in contrast, creates something eternal. He saves his honest soul and offers a perpetual festival (venerabile festum, which likely refers to the annual celebration of the Annunciation). In other words, Roman wealth and a (damnable) Roman arena, juxtaposed with Scrovegni munificence and a holy Christian altar, elucidate the honestas of the latter. Significantly, honestas and honestum describe both the new edifice and the new spiritual condition of the donor. Even the supposedly formulaic final couplet, specifying the date of the dedication, speaks of a conjunction of opposites. On that date in the year 1303, the author finds it significant that March conjoined the Annunciation and Palm Sunday. The Annunciation is the beginning of Christ’s earthly existence; Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Passion, the end of his earthly life. Light and dark, beginning and ending, life and death were conjoined.

The images of antithesis in the chapel—the Virtues and Vices, Judas and Mary, and more—thus can be related to the rhetoric of the inscription. At the center of these insistent contrasts is Enrico Scrovegni, who “saves his honest soul.” As we will show in greater depth in the next chapter, the available evidence suggests that Enrico had (temporarily) renounced usury by c. 1300, the year of the great Jubilee, and the year in which he purchased the land for the chapel. The imagery of the chapel, especially the juxtaposition of opposites, serves to distance him from the taint of usury and to stress his repentance and the new life of charity and piety that he claims to have embraced. In multiple ways, the program of the chapel juxtaposes sinful past with pious present, constructing a narrative of conversion and penitence. And indeed, the inscription underscores conversion, for its antitheses are couched in terms of change: a place “filled with evil” is “convert[ed]” to “honest use”; “divine virtue” has “replaced profane vices”; “heavenly joys” have replaced “earthly vanities.” Antithesis and change thus form the core of the inscription and the decorative program as well.

The chapel, then, is about its patron and his relationship with the body politic of Padua (and indeed Christendom itself) and about his claim of transformation. It attempts to undo the villainous reputation of the Scrovegni family, and in particular the personal reputation of its patron, Enrico Scrovegni. We are invited to read the gap between Judas and Mary on the chancel arch as the gap between “then” and “now,” between despair and hope, between damnation and salvation. As we turn our back to the chancel arch, we see that the entire space of the chapel has been used to punctuate this concept. The grisaille personifications of the Vices direct us from the Pact of Judas to the suicidal Despair (Desperatio), and then to the damned of the Last Judgment, where Judas hangs much like Despair (figs. 5, 12, 13; diagram, 28, 49, 58). Likewise, the Virtues lead us from the Visitation to the elect. The airborne Hope (Spes) now counters the dead weight of Despair—and seems to soar directly into paradise to join the ranks of the blessed (figs. 6, 14, 15; diagram, 16, 48, 57).

But even more important than these arrows pointing to damnation and salvation, we see that the Judas/Mary opposition converges on the central figure of the entrance wall: Enrico Scrovegni, who presents the chapel itself to Mary and two attendants (plates 2, 40). Hovering opposite is the specter of Judas and hell. This triangulation (Judas-Mary-Enrico) epitomizes the visual exemplum of Enrico’s victory over his inherited sin.

We begin our study with a fuller investigation of Enrico Scrovegni and his family, the commune of Padua, and the region of the Veneto—the stage on which the Scrovegni were among the most powerful players of their day. Because a number of scholars have recently questioned the assumption that the Scrovegni family’s history of usury plays a role in the Arena Chapel, we examine the financial dealings of the Scrovegni, the cultural significance of usury in late medieval Padua, and contemporary accounts of Enrico’s repentance in some detail. As we will see, though the term “usury” today implies exorbitant interest rates, the medieval Church’s understanding was uncompromising: any profit, any interest, from a loan was usury. But the Church’s condemnation hardly suppressed the practice; indeed, some usurers consorted with prominent clerics. Usurers were, then, both supported by a burgeoning mercantile economy and despised for their unsavory behavior.

Usurers faced a more serious problem, however, than their ambiguous social status: the prospect of eternal damnation. Despite recent scholarly skepticism, we argue that Enrico’s anxieties about his business practices and the state of his soul were among the most important reasons for the construction of the chapel and the design of the fresco program. The figure of Judas, for example, is associated with avarice—and more specifically with usury—but avarice is not depicted in the Arena Chapel in a static way. Instead, it depends on a dynamic with its opposite: charity. In the Visitation fresco, the Virgin appears explicitly as Santa Maria della Carità, the titular saint of the chapel. Just as Judas embodies and enacts avarice, she embodies and enacts the virtue that was considered usury’s antithesis in scholastic thought. Indeed, throughout the chapel are multiple holy figures engaged in acts of charity, all of which would have served as exemplars to Enrico and would have attested to the new life that he claims to have embraced.

In this study, the reader will find relatively little emphasis on Vasari’s Giotto, the surpassing Florentine genius who revolutionized Italian painting and heralded the Renaissance. Our emphasis instead is on the chapel as it must have served Enrico Scrovegni’s ends—spiritual and otherwise—and on the extraordinary complexity of thought that informs its program. That very complexity and the scope, ambition, and expense of the project as a whole presuppose the intervention of a learned advisor or advisors who would have established its content, in consultation with Enrico himself. But though we will refer, for convenience, to the program’s designer or designers, we do not assume a single author, nor do we assume that Giotto played only a minimal role in the process. We see the chapel’s frescoes as the product of collaboration—not only between Giotto and his assistants but also between Giotto, Enrico, and Enrico’s advisors. While the broad outlines of the program must have been specified by Enrico and his advisors, Giotto may well have had a voice in discussions about its content. He executed the program relatively early in his career, but he was an artist of growing reputation. Further, contemporary anecdotes about Giotto suggest a man of mental acuity, with the capacity not only to comprehend but also to contribute to the program. Moreover, the broad themes of the program were likely familiar to him. His early years in the parish of Santa Maria Novella in Florence would have exposed him to the ideas of Dominican preachers (among them the celebrated theologian Remigio de’ Girolami), which, as we will argue, may figure in the chapel’s program. Perhaps most significantly, throughout the cycle, we repeatedly sense the intellect not only of the scholar but also of the artist. The abstract themes of the program are made concrete with deft touches that almost certainly originated with Giotto. Throughout the chapel, conventional subjects are subtly recast to shift meanings or change emphasis; thematically related images are delicately calibrated to respond to each other in telling ways. What is at work here is a visual ingenuity and inventiveness, at times a playfulness, that is hard to attribute to the directive of a theological advisor. Moreover, this inventiveness is consistent with what we know of Giotto: the witty, well-traveled man whose work was appreciated best by the intellectuals of his day. We are reminded of the astute observation of Benvenuto da Imola, who wrote: “nondum venit alius eo subtilior” (no one subtler than [Giotto] has yet appeared). Here, Giotto emerges as the brilliant interpreter of a highly sophisticated program, one that likely originated with the patron and his learned advisors but grew in depth and nuance in the artist’s hands.