It was quite accidental that our little group of Australian travellers found ourselves in the small city of Verona in Northern Italy. We were on our way further north to spend a week touring around Lake Garda and our tour leaders had invited us to meet them in Verona for the pick-up to take us to the small town of Malcesne on the edge of our lake destination. In the political scheme of things in Italian power struggles, Verona was a small fish, particularly when compared with Venice, its famous neighbour about 115 Kms east on the coast. However, it was a small coincidence in world history that meant the English playwright William Shakespeare came across a book of Italian ‘novellas’ and given that he was great with words but not so great on plots, he ‘borrowed’ the story about two lovers from Verona in Italy which was a town that few people in his first English audiences in the 1590s would have heard of. The story of Romeo and Juliet, the ‘star-crossed’ teenagers who die for love in his play, is a basic human story that most of us have either read, seen the movie or watched as a musical that follows the conflict between fighting tribes and lovers caught in between. The problem for Verona as a tourist destination today is that there is little evidence that Romeo and Juliet ever lived in Verona. The original story, a ‘novella’, was clearly an early work of fiction! As a result, sites in Verona claiming to be associated with the lovers’ story need to be taken today “with a grain of salt”.
We had most of two days to have a look at the real Verona and its many beautiful reminders of its two millennia of history. We stayed in Hotel Verona which was not only very pleasant accommodation, it was only a short walk from the centre of town and perhaps its most famous building, the Roma arena
While there is no doubt that this area in the curve of the Adige River was inhabited well before the site became a Roman town, little is known about these folk before the Romans arrived around 89 BCE. As would be expected today, it is recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage town…
“In its urban structure and its architecture, Verona is an outstanding example of a town that has developed progressively and uninterruptedly over 2,000 years, incorporating artistic elements of the highest quality from each succeeding period.”
As can be seen on the map of Verona above, the town during Roman times was naturally fortified by the river on three sides and was only open to direct assault on the fourth, south-western side. The medieval walls on the map can be seen enclosing a much larger area of Verona than the original Roman walls that only enclosed the town area just south of the Arena. On our first morning we walked directly down Corso Porta Nuova that led straight to the Arena, starting from the 16th century gate (image right) with the same name. There is an early middle-ages gate, Portini Della Bra (see below), that we passed under that encloses the south side of Piazza Bra which contains both the Roman Arena and the Verona City Hall.
Our destination was of course the Roman arena and it was well worth the walk. It was a beautiful building which probably explains why it is amongst the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in Europe. It was built towards the end of third century CE and while it has lost significant parts of its outer wall, it is still in regular use; its 44 rows of seats can accommodate 22000 spectators. This is where the Verona Opera Festival is held in July/August and we arrived in town on Sunday 23rd August! Surprisingly there were tickets available that night for the very famous opera, Aida, that was set in the Old Kingdom era of Egypt. So, as an unexpected treat, we were off to see this most extravagant of shows. The only problem with a Roman arena is that if a storm comes half-way through the show, watching an opera in the rain slowly becomes less attractive every minute…we only survived the first two acts.
Verona is one of those cities where the old town is just perfect for strolling and inspecting the buildings and the monuments still standing after such a long history. Piazza Bra is a good example of this as there is much more to see than just the Arena. There is a large colourful fountain and gardens to enjoy as well as the medieval column in the image below left with the Holy Family ensconced on top.
From Piazza Bra we headed down Via Oberoan towards Porta Borsari (above right) which must be one of the oldest structures still surviving in Verona. It was built in the first century CE, rebuilt in the third century and its 12 arched windows have survived into the 21st century to welcome us to its own busy fashion shopping street, Corso Porta Borsari.
It’s just another short stroll from here down to the next major piazza of Verona, the Piazza delle Erbe. This was the centre of old Roman Verona and under the cobble stones can be found the remnants of the Roman Forum of the first century. Today it is a similarly busy place with a fruit and vegetable market, lots of restaurants and significant monuments from Verona’s past. The first of these is a surviving Roman Column that was used 1500 years after its construction to support a Lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venetian rule over Verona in the 15/16th centuries. The piazza is surrounded by gorgeous palazzos from this period. All fountains in Verona are worth a look but the one at the other end of this piazza is worthy of slow contemplation. The fountain itself is known to have been built around 1368 but the ‘Madonna di Verona’ in the centre is very much older. It is a Roman marble statue that is almost a 1000 years older than the surrounding fountain that survived somehow and was repurposed in the 14th century as the city’s Madonna.
As can be seen above on the plan of Piazza delle Erbe, there is an arched alleyway through to the next area of the city worth inspecting, Piazza dei Signori. If Renaissance Palaces are your thing, this is a great place for a stroll. However, I was more impressed by the statue of the great Italian writer, Dante Alighieri that has stood here since 1865. Dante is famous for many things, particularly for his Divine Comedy which is considered the most important poem of the Middle Ages and the greatest literary work in the Italian language. He spent most of his career in Florence but as an outspoken writer, he became unpopular with the Florentine “powers that be” so he fled to Verona where he spent seven years in exile. He died in Ravenna in 1321 and was buried there but even after his death, his existence was controversial; in 1329, a Church Cardinal wanted his bones dug up and burnt at the stake for heresy. Even as late as the 19th century, Florence wanted their now favourite son’s bones back home but Ravenna refused to co-operate. In 1945, Mussolini wanted Dante’s bones transported to a valley above Lake Garda where he was making his last stand against the allies. Apparently he wanted the greatest symbol of ‘Italianness’ present at fascism’s “heroic” end. So it was with much satisfaction that later on in our trip we visited the Church of Santa Croce in Florence and inspected the beautiful but empty tomb of Dante!
Dante’s Statue and Palazzo Domus Nova in Piazza dei Signori.
This section of what was once the old Roman section of Verona is packed with palaces and other worthy sights of the city’s long history and so there is a lot to take in. I have seen advertisements for one day tours of Verona and I can’t imagine this would be a satisfactory visit; the pace of getting around would make taking in what you see a blur. This is particularly the case with these two central piazzas, so making sense of the next section after leaving Piazza Signori intensifies this minor touring problem. The map on the left at least illustrates that from this piazza you go through the curiously named Arch of Torture that takes you on to Via S. Maria Antica to the area of the Scaliger Tombs. These are the funerary monuments of the della Scala family who dominated Verona and the wider region for 125 years in the 13/14th centuries. On our touring day tomorrow, we would see a lot more of their monumental legacy when we visited Castelvecchio but the area we were entering was where they left their funerary monuments for the locals to admire for the next 600 years.
Given the cramped nature of the streets here, a great image of this area is found in the oil painting below by Anton Brioschi (1855-1920) which shows the ‘Arco Tortura’ in the centre with the Scaliger Tombs on the right behind the wrought-iron railings. In the same painting, on the right-hand side can be seen the entrance to Santa Maria Antica, a church that was built here in 1185 after the original church on the site was destroyed by earthquake. It became the private chapel of the Scaliger family and so the courtyard outside the church was the private cemetery of the family.
The first tomb on the corner is the gothic resting place of Mastino II, built in 1345 that must have been quite the sight originally as it was then fully painted with plenty of gilt around key areas of the tomb. The smaller statues at the corners are the four ‘Virtues’ (Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance) so Mastino II was keen in ensuring posterity didn’t believe the nasty stories spread about him.
The most famous of the De Scallas was Cangrande I (1291-1329) who claimed the best position for his funerary monument over the doorway to Santa Maria Antica. He was the guy who ensured that Dante Alighieri found a protected home in Verona. On his sarcophagus above the church door can be seen his effigy and surmounting the whole grandiose structure is Cangrande on horseback ready for battle. Canagrande spent a lot of his life as a warrior ruler of Verona so the equestrian statue is probably illustrative of his life. One of the curiosities of the continuing interest in his career was that his mummified body was removed from its sarcophagus in 2004 and a very late post-mortem was carried out to discover the cause of his death. In his body were found lethal amounts of digitalis, the infamous poison so popular in Agatha Christie novels. The main suspect is his ambitious nephew, Mastino II, who afterwards claimed the prominent funerary spot on the courtyard corner outside Santa Maria Antica!
Our last major stopping place for the day was to walk back towards the Roman Arena down Via Cairoli to turn right at the carefully named Via Cappello where we would find the Casa di Giulietta, the main destination for those keen to take in the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ vibe of Verona. While at the start of this article I was making the point that there is little historical evidence of the presence of the two lovers in Verona, there is at least one mention of the feuding families (Montecchi and Cappelletti) in Dante’s Purgatorio. However we were happy to inspect the lovely façade and admire the famous balcony of this building (added in the 1930s), take the required photos before heading back to our hotel for a well-earned rest in preparation for ‘A Night at the Opera’!