Despite the disappointing end to our first day in Verona when we straggled home very wet from our night at the opera, we were happy to rise early the next morning and get organised for our last opportunity to see the sights of Verona. We only had half a day to see more of fair Verona as we were being collected after lunch for the trip north to the shores of Lake Garda. Our first destination for the day was Castelvecchio, the fortress built on the banks of the Adige River by the della Scala family who ruled Verona and the region for over a 100 years back in the 13/14th century. The map of our journey below shows a dotted line to Piazza S.Zeno which is an imaginary line that we would have liked to have walked if we had plenty of time in our day to see more of Verona. It was built in 967 CE and its crypt might be the site of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage.
Castelvecchio was a fortress built by the Scaliger dynasty to defend access to the city from over the River Adige. A ‘castellated’ bridge was built over the river as well to welcome the local army’s return before being closed to chasing enemies. One authority claims it was a back door exit for Cangrande I in case his own citizens grew weary of him and he could escape over the river. The whole complex wasn’t finished until the 1350s, well after Cangrande had passed on. The trouble with any defensive system such as castles on river-banks is that they become old technology as well as cold uncomfortable living quarters. Translated, ‘Castelvecchio’ means “Old Castle”, the name change necessitated by the construction of San Pietro Castle on the hill on the other side of Verona 40 years after Castelvecchio was completed. What to do with San Pietro wasn’t a problem for 20th century town planners as it was blown up by French soldiers in 1801. Castlevecchio’s 20th century function was resolved by turning it into an art museum in the 1920s and so today’s tourists get to see both a medieval fortress in good condition as well as a collection of paintings, sculptures, jewellery and arms from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. The combination of Art, Architecture and history makes a visit to Castelvecchio very interesting and we enjoyed our time strolling the galleries, gardens and battlements of this river castle.
There are many beautiful works of art here but one of the standouts is the Madonna of the Quail, the image below left, by Pisanello, a renowned early Renaissance painter who made a fine living, painting for the good and the great all over Italy. However, one of the problems with housing great art is that you become a target for the greedy and the criminal and so in 2015, the ‘Madonna della quaglia’ was stolen along with 16 other paintings. The process of solving this mysterious art theft was made a lot simpler when it was discovered that one of the gallery guards assisted the thieves. The investigation was successful in finding the loot in the Ukraine and after complex negotiations, Castelvecchio’s lost paintings were brought home.
Of course the famous Scaliger, Cangrande I was also featured in the art gallery, not within the walls but up on his own patio outside the fortress walls as can be seen in the image above right. This sculpture is actually the original of the equestrian statue that stood on top of Cangrande’s sarcophagus over near Piazza dei Signori. I mentioned in the Day 1 article on our Verona stay about the fact that this famous Scaliger’s tomb was opened in 2004 to investigate whether the body would reveal any secrets as to how Cangrande I died. Not only was the body found to have been poisoned, they also found in the sarcophagus his sword that no doubt was wielded many times by this Veronese warrior during his lifetime. What a find!
Before we headed out over the Adige River via Ponte Scaligero, there was just another remnant of past days to admire on the right hand side of Castelvecchio. It was a triumphal arch, the Arco dei Gavi, that had been built in Roman times and had been an entry-way into the town through its original walls. If we thought the fortress was old, this impressive marble arch is a thousand years older. Two thousand years is a long time for such an arch to stand so it is not surprising to note that the safety conscious Napoleonic troops demolished it in 1805, not from spite, but from concern about it falling down around them. It was rebuilt in 1932.
Our plan now was to cross over the river by the Ponte Scaligero bridge and walk down the left side of the river on our way to have look at the Duomo of Verona. It was a beautiful bridge and in its day it was a great engineering achievement, its spans being the longest ever achieved up to that time. Its beauty and its engineering didn’t protect it from the military vandals of the last few centuries. The departing French in 1802 destroyed the Bridge’s tower on the left bank but the departing NAZI troops in 1945 dynamited the whole bridge. What was left can be seen in the image above, left. It was reconstructed between 1949 and 1951.
Our walk along the river bank was a pleasant one, admiring the city of Verona from a distance. We turned right at the second bridge we came to that crossed the river, the Ponte Garibaldi, seen here on the left. The new map tracing our journey below shows our route over the river and through the streets to the Piazza Duomo.
The Cathedral of Verona is dedicated to Santa Maria Matricolare (St Mary of the Assumption). Just like the previous church on the site of Santa Maria Antica near Piazza Signori, the two previous churches built on this site were destroyed by the same earthquake in 1117 CE; these early Churches were associated with St Zeno, the patron saint of Verona. The rebuilt Duomo was consecrated in 1188, constructed in the Romanesque style, the architectural style of Medieval Europe that particularly like semi-circular arches.
When visiting medieval churches like this one, I always think it’s interesting to note the original statues that are set around the main doorway. Holding up the pillars of the portico are two statues of Griffins, holding a little dragon in their claws. They are an ancient Greek symbol that combine the lion (King of the beasts) and the eagle (King of the skies) and were seen as majestic creatures bridging the gap between Heaven and Earth. Somewhere along the way they were adopted by the medieval Catholic Church as an appropriate symbol of divine power to guard the entrances to churches. The other sculpture beside the front door of the Duomo is the 21st century Blue Angel of Acceptance.
The Duomo is the latest of a number of churches built on this site since Roman times. It has a very beautiful interior but it dates from the 15th century renovation of the cathedral. It has three chapels on each side, the one in the image on the right is of Capella della Madonna del Popolo.
The site of the Duomo is in fact a complex of buildings, one of which is the small chapel dedicated to St Helen. It is of great interest because it sits over the site of the first Christian Church in Verona, consecrated around 362-380. Another church was built over the top of this church which is the one mentioned above that was destroyed by earthquake. Below left is a photo showing some of the mosaic floors that have survived from the early churches on this site.
Returning to the earlier map of our Day 2 route, you will be able to see we cut across the apex of the city to the next bend in the river to the Ponte Pietra (Stone Bridge). The story of the infrastructure of Verona is generally about the rebuilding the city’s important facilities and this bridge is the best example. It is a very old bridge (at least parts of it are), being called the Stone Bridge as it replaced the first wooden bridge that crossed the river here in Roman times. It was destroyed several times in the Middle Ages by floods and was rebuilt in its current form in the 1500s. Of course it was another Verona bridge blown up by the departing German Army in 1945. The two central arches are the survivors of the Middle Ages bridge when Ponte Pietra was rebuilt in 1959 after its building blocks were rescued from the river.
Ponte Pietra might be said to have been restored to most of its former glory but the same can’t be said of our next destination, the Roman theatre that was built on the other side of the Adige River in the time of Augustus Caesar. It is unclear how long the theatre functioned as an entertainment venue for the locals. What is clear is that it stopped being used after the Roman era and the ravages of floods, earthquakes and general neglect left it ruined and eventually covered with earth until the 19th century. A wealthy local, Andrea Monga, purchased the houses and land around 1830 and demolished the remaining houses. What was left of the ancient buildings was uncovered. The model below right gives the best idea of what it might have originally looked like.
The site of the theatre has been generally restored and today it is used for many forms of theatre, dance and music concerts. We had a slow walk around the theatre and realised what a great venue it was, with new comfortable seating, a view of the river and presumably great sunsets to experience while attending performances here in the early evening. The image below is a view from across the river of what is left of the Roman theatre and the hill behind which houses Castel San Pietro.
We probably spent too much time inspecting the Roman Theatre so we had to hurry back over the Pont Pietra and make our way for one last quick stop at one of Verona’s beautiful churches, Saint Anastasia, before hiking quickly back to our hotel for our pick up for the afternoon.
Being reasonably close to Ponte Pietro and the Roman theatre, the area where Saint Anastasia is located is one of the oldest sections of the city. However this church wasn’t started until 1280. Churches of this size take a long time to build so it wasn’t finished until 1400. The bell tower is 72 metres high and is today famed for its bell ringers. As can be seen from the image on the right above, it is a gorgeous church and well worth a longer inspection than the one we were able to give it.
It was a swift walk back to Hotel Verona where we were being picked up for the start of our 7 day tour of the delights of the Lake Garda area.