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Italy’s Padova: City of Galileo, Learning and Faith

Padua, Italy

With its deep-seated tradition of academic freedom, Padova was home to Galileo and thousands of students since. Today’s attractions include Europe’s oldest anatomy theater and the masterpiece-packed Basilica of St. Anthony.

Complete Video Script

We’re starting here in Padova. Like the rest of the Veneto, Padova was ruled by Venice from the 15th century until Napoleon came — at about 1800. Chafing under Venetian rule for four centuries seemed only to sharpen Padova’s independent spirit.

And that spirit survives at its prestigious university. Nicknamed “the brain of the Veneto,” it was founded in 1222, one of the first in Europe. Renowned in its day, it was a haven for free thinking, and attracted intellectuals from far and wide.

Four hundred years ago, the great scientist Galileo — notorious for disagreeing with the Church’s views on science — enjoyed that academic freedom. He called the 18 years spent on the faculty here the best years of his life.

Everywhere you look there are memories of illustrious alumni and professors. And within these historic lecture halls is Europe’s oldest surviving anatomy theater, from the late 1500s.

Back then, medical students would pack these steep balconies to watch professors dissect human cadavers. This was allowed by the government and Church as long as the cadavers were convicted foreign criminals.

This remarkable theater is an example of the importance placed on science during the Renaissance.

With 60,000 students, Padova’s university is always lively, and you’re likely to stumble onto some kind of spirited school event.

A unique ritual is the post-graduation roast. Friends gather around the new grad and the pranks begin. The gang presents a giant poster with a generally crude caricature of the graduate, and a list of embarrassing personal stories for all to see.

Then friends sing the catchy but obscene local university anthem, reminding their newly esteemed friend not to get too stuffy. Loosely translated: “You may be a doctor, a doctor. But you’re still just a BEEP… go BEEP yourself, go BEEP yourself!” Finally, there’s the playful send off, like a rude birthing into the real world.

Padova’s old town, even when crowded with today’s students, has a colonnaded Old-World elegance. Its charming lanes are lined with 17 miles of porticos, which come in a variety of styles.

The main drag leads to one of the most important pilgrimage churches in all of Europe: the Basilica of St. Anthony.

For nearly 800 years pilgrims have flocked here to venerate the tomb of St. Anthony of Padova. One of Christianity’s most popular shrines to one of the most popular saints, the basilica was begun a year after Anthony died, in 1232, and is filled with magnificent art. Gracing the high altar are a group of bronze statues by the Renaissance master Donatello — the Crucifixion and Mary, with Padova’s favorite saints.

The church feels alive with pilgrims from all corners. The former Polish chapel was recently renamed for St. John Paul II, canonized in 2014.

And the side chapel containing St. Anthony’s tomb is a Renaissance masterpiece from 1500.

The pilgrims believe Anthony is their protector, confidant, and intercessor. Votives from the faithful ask for help or give thanks for miracles they believe he’s performed. By placing their hand on his tomb while saying a silent prayer, pilgrims show devotion to Anthony and feel the saint’s presence.

Behind the high altar, pilgrims visit the relics of the saint — considered miraculously preserved: his vocal chords, tongue, and jawbone. These relics befit the saint who couldn’t stop teaching, preaching, and praying.

Padova’s vast 14th-century Palazzo della Ragione — once the town’s medieval law court — now hosts a sprawling market. The scene has changed little over the centuries, as merchants artfully display their goods. Since medieval times shoppers have come here for the best Veneto produce. It’s known for having the freshest and greatest selection of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. As you wander, appreciate the Italian passion for good food: Merchants share recipe tips with shoppers. Locals can tell the month by the seasonal selections — strawberries and white asparagus? It’s April.

And in springtime, there’s lots of work for the man who preps the artichokes.

The indoor market, featuring various butchers and cheese shops, is a sensuous experience as well. Stalls and shops are often family-run, and the lineage of some of these merchants stretches back centuries.