Of all the Italian cities I have fallen in love with along the way, Verona has a special place in my heart, a romantic place where Roman and modern history intertwine. From the cobblestoned piazza where the Arena presides like the perfect jewel of the crown, the best preserved Roman amphitheater, to the majestic medieval cathedrals and palaces, my walks took me to the most fascinating sights.
Piazza Bra is home to Arena di Verona. The magnificent Arena was turned into a lavish outdoor summer opera venue that seats 22,000 people. The very same architectural wonder that had witnessed gruesome gladiatorial fights between freed men and beasts, men and enslaved men, its sand soaked from the blood of thousands, is now a center of music and art.
The original amphitheater, the third largest in Italy, was built of pink and white limestone during the first century A.D. and could seat 30,000 Romans. In 1117 an earthquake destroyed the outer ring.
I could hear in the echo of the vast inner corridors the ancient spectators’ screams of life and death, a gory form of crass entertainment, pane et circenses, bread and circuses, to keep the ordinary Romans lulled into a false sense of wellbeing.
Thousands of animals were killed each year in the Roman Empire to satisfy the lust for ghastly entertainment of the ancients. There were 93 Roman holidays dedicated to gladiatorial games during the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.). They grew to 175 days by the fourth century A.D. The Roman citizens, who were employed, worked short days in order to attend the games. Slaves were generally expected to do most of the work in the empire. The Romans demanded bloody entertainment as often as possible and considered it a right.
At the end of the narrow and boutique adorned via Mazzini, Piazza delle Erbe (the plaza of herbs) opens unexpectedly on the left. To the right of via Mazzini, a very short walk takes the visitor to no. 19 Via Cappello, the alleged house of Juliet of the famous Capulets with its marble balcony restored by Antonio Avena in 1933.
Apparently in 1303, during the reign of Bartolomeo I della Scala, the ruling families were engaging in such infighting that the star-struck lovers, Romeo and Juliet, children of the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, paid the ultimate price for their forbidden love.
Shakespeare immortalized them as the children of the Montagues and Capulets. I have serious doubts that the house is actually Juliet’s and the theatrical balcony is the famous balcony, but it makes for an interesting tourist attraction for lovers from around the world who scribble their names and short messages onto the stone walls. A bronze statue of Juliet is touched by visitors for good luck, her shiny breast beaconing more to take photographs. The house was purchased by City Hall in 1905 at the insistence of wealthy Parisians who wanted to save it from complete decay and destruction.
Inter-family violence called for more revenge, murder, arson, and bloody vendettas. Even Dante recounted some of the feuds in his poems. Peace was restored in 1320 when the Montagues (Ghibellines) were exiled to Udine by Cangrande della Scala.
The heart of the city is Piazza delle Erbe, the life blood of Verona Romana where the Forum once stood. The Forum was the political, economic, legal, and religious life of the Romans. It is here that the ancient stock exchange stood. Palazzi, towers, houses, porticos, and a dangling whale bone from an arch encircle the 140 m long Piazza delle Erbe.
The tumultuous relationship between the Jewish community and the Venetian Republic is expressed in the only surviving houses from the former Jewish ghetto (borghetto, loghetto, meaning suburb). They surround Piazza delle Erbe.
The Venetian Republic allowed Jews to settle in Verona in the 1500s in the San Tomio district if they paid a tax. Driven out in 978 for religious persecution, the Jews were invited back in 1408 and allowed to engage in pawn broking. Expelled again in 1499, they were not allowed to return until twenty years later when Venice was in financial trouble and in need of money. Sadly, most of the ghetto houses were demolished at the beginning of the 1900s, including the synagogue.
German Jews were the only pawn brokers allowed to lend money to Christians at 10 percent interest. Anybody else who tried to engage in lending was harshly punished and excommunicated. There were boxes all over the city which encouraged citizen to snitch on non-Jews who engaged in money lending.
The pawn brokers (Monte di Pieta) were highly regulated by 25 administrators, a lucrative position because brokers and regulators would know all the dirty secrets and financial problems of the wealthy and the noble in Verona.
The Gonzaga family of Mantua is said to have deposited large amounts of jewelry with the Monte di Pieta. When a fire broke out in 1630 and burned many tapestries, period garments, and priceless pieces, the pawn brokers’ influence waned. Currently, Casa di Risparmio (The Savings Bank) runs the Monte di Pieta.
At the end of the Piazza delle Erbe, there is a typical Italian Ristorante that showcases a well-stocked wine cellar. But is it not just a wine cellar. The owner proudly took us on a special tour because I spoke Italian. Part of the floor was made of heavy glass under which Roman ruins, pieces of columns, and partial mosaics were visible.
Porta Borsari, built on the original Roman street level, was called Porta Iovis because of its proximity to the temple of Jupiter, and renamed Borsari, in honor of those who in medieval times taxed goods passing through. The top level had a watch tower. Below the frieze, I can still read the Latin name, Colonia Augusta Nova Galliena, designating Verona in 265 B.C. a defense portal for Rome.
The river Adige flooded Verona many times. Markers on many old building bear witness to various flood heights. Miles stone markers from Roman times were perfectly preserved on a couple of streets. The remains of a Roman theatre built in the first century A.D. still adorn the bank of the river Adige. On the opposite bank, huge pavers were clearly marked by the deep ruts made by the passage of Roman chariots. Large portions of the Roman walls that protected Verona Romana are still standing.
Ponte Pietra (the Stone Bridge) is the oldest, most austere bridge built across the river Adige in 89 B.C. when Verona was a Roman colony. The five-arch bridge, resembling a Roman aqueduct, was destroyed by serious floods, destroyed three times, repaired, and finally demolished by retreating Germans in 1945. It was restored in 1957 with many original stones salvaged from the river, in the same ancient architectural style.
Another famous Roman landmark is the Gavi Arch built in the center of Postumia Way in the first century A.D. by the architect Lucio Vitruvio Cerdone, an apprentice to the famous Vitruvius. This magnificent arch, demolished for military reasons in 1805, was rebuilt next to Castelvecchio in 1932, stone by stone, in painstaking detail, following the original positioning from Via Cavour.
Vitruvius, the author of De Architetura (known today as The Ten Books of Architecture), a famous treatise dedicated to Emperor Augustus, defined his Vitruvian Man, the human body as the greatest work of art, later drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in a circle and a square, the “fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmic order.”
The mysticism I sought and found in the many Romanesque churches and cathedrals is best described in San Zeno’s Basilica, an Italian Romanesque edifice built on an earlier church from 372 A.D. and containing Verona’s oldest bells, dating back to 1149.
The famous Triptych (1457) of Mantegna stands behind the high altar. The lower part of the painting, the predella, was taken by Napoleon and never returned to Italy. The predella, composed of three pieces as well, depicted Jesus praying in the garden, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. The Crucifixion is now in the Louvre and the other two are in the Museum of Tours. Paolino Caliari painted reproductions to replace the stolen predella.
The lugubrious crypt (dating from the 10th century) of the Basilica di San Zeno contains the body of St. Zeno in a glass and silver sarcophagus, his face covered by a silver mask. I had seen similar preservations of Popes in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – those faces were covered by silver, gold, or wax masks. The legend says that the body of St. Zeno rested in the adjacent cloister’s St. Benedict chapel before it was transferred to the Basilica in 807 A.D.
The African San Zeno was born in 300 A.D. and ordained Bishop of Verona in 362 A.D. San Zeno was said to have performed many miracles, among them, most prominent was the saving of the Basilica from a serious flood and of the parishioners from eminent drowning by holding the waters of the furious Adige river in a vertical position until the waters quieted and retreated.
On the site of a primitive Roman fort, the Castelvecchio fortress was built as a first defense against potential invaders and as a palace for the Cangrande della Scala in 1354-1356. Built almost entirely out of brick, it does contain some Veronese marble, with stones taken, in Italian fashion, from previously dismantled Roman buildings, most notably fifteen Corinthian capitals. The Castelvecchio fortress had easy access to the river Adige and to the Emperor’s help through the 120 meter long Scaligero Bridge built in 1354.
Verona, nicknamed “little Rome” and “Marmorina,” (marble producing) a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was ruled by the Scaligeri dynasty from the 13th to the late 14th century. The church of Santa Maria Antica, a short distance from Piazza Dante, houses five of the most unusual Gothic sarcophagi of the Scaligeri family – some of the tombs are placed in the air, some in the street and one attached to the wall of the church (Arche Scaligere). The Scaligeri were successful governors who made Verona a famous city and a thriving trading economy after the 13th century.
The oldest tomb dates back to the year 1329. One tomb is located above the side entrance to the church. The others are located to the left side of the façade, encircled by wrought iron fences. A baldachin covers the temple-shaped tomb of Guglielmo di Castelbarco.
No matter how many times I visit Italy, Verona is a magnet that I cannot resist. I feel transported in time and mesmerized by its strong ties to Roman history, and ultimately to my people, the Dacians, who were colonized by Emperor Trajan after two military campaigns (101-102, 105-106 A.D.) The Dacians, led by Decebalus, were a threat to the Roman province of Moesia. The Romans needed Dacia’s rich resources for the survival of the vast Roman Empire. The fierce battles were immortalized on Trajan’s column in the Forum in Rome.