On a pillar of the façade of the Basilica in Padua stands the figure of Saint Anthony, created in the first half of the 14thcentury. Slightly less than life size, he almost feels physically present with a gesture of blessing that seems to emphasize the interaction between the painted figure and the faithful who approach him. On his left arm he holds a book, the symbol of his doctrine.
The fresco needs restoration and was chosen to inaugurate a collaboration between Veneranda Arca, the entity that oversees the conservation of the Basilica, and LoveItaly, a non-profit that uses Crowdfunding to raise funds for the protection and restoration of the artistic heritage of Italy. Called “RestaurAntonio,” the intent is to go beyond the simple mechanism of fundraising and invite all involved to remain updated on how their contributions are working. Each donation is recognized and is reciprocated with tributes and activities tied to the Basilica, from public acknowledgment on the web site, to inscription of names on a donors’ plaque, to tickets to the Museum, to special visits to places in the Basilica generally not accessible to the public.
This campaign prompted me to look at the life of Saint Anthony and the story of the Basilica. Saint Anthony was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon in 1195. After his ordination into the Augustan order, he traveled widely. He met some Franciscan friars and was attracted by their simple lifestyle. He received permission from the church to join the Franciscan Order. In Forli in 1222, on the occasion of an ordination, he was entreated to preach, and his sermon created a lasting impression. Listeners were captivated not only by the theme and substance of his discourse, but also by his rich voice and arresting manner. Everyone was also impressed by his knowledge of scripture.
Saint Anthony is known as the most celebrated follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. He is the patron saint of Lisbon, Padua, and many places in the former Portuguese empire. He is the patron saint for the recovery of lost items; the reason is traced back to an incident that occurred in Bologna. According to legend, Anthony had a book of psalms that was important to him because it contained notes he used in teaching his students. (In addition, before the invention of the printing press, any book was quite valuable.) A novice who had decided to leave took the psalter with him. When Anthony realized it was missing, he prayed that it would be found. The thief was moved to restore the book to Anthony and to return to the Order. The stolen book is preserved in the Franciscan friary in Bologna.
Anthony died in Padua in 1231 and was canonized in 1232, one of the most quickly canonized saints in church history. He is buried in a chapel within the large basilica that was built, starting also in 1232, to honor him. Several legends surround his death. One claims that when he died, the children cried in the streets and all the church bells rang of their own accord. Another concerns his tongue, which is displayed in the Basilica’s large reliquary, along with his jaw and vocal cords. When Anthony’s body was exhumed 30 years after his death, all had turned to dust except for the tongue, which supposedly glistened, considered at the time to be a sign of his gift of preaching.
The Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, also known as “il Santo,”is one of eight international shrines recognized by the Holy See. It was completed in 1310 with many modifications over the years. Today it is a giant edifice without a unified architectural style. It began as a single-naved church, like that of St. Francis of Assisi. The exterior style is a mixture of Romanesque and Byzantine elements, with some Gothic features. A Treasury chapel was built in the 17thcentury in the Baroque style. The domes, like the domes of St. Mark’s Basilica, were raised in height externally, giving a Byzantine appearance to the building overall.