Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Verona, the Marmorina

Verona city gates
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We continued our drive through Veneto and reached the romantic town of Verona. We had spent a lot of time in Verona years ago, and we got to know Palazzo Carli well and the train station, a leisurely walk away. We were revisiting an old friend that we held so dear in our hearts.
We found an underground parking by the Arena and walked downtown, wondering if we would ever find our way back to the car. The grey sky was ominous, the rain had stopped, but it was cold and damp even with a long sleeve shirt and a cashmere poncho. I took many pictures but everything looked forlorn.

The Arena appeared the same, white and partially weathered limestone against shades of dark grey and liquid wetness. We had lunch under heat lamps at Emilia’s across the Arena overlooking the cobbled stone plaza and the tiny park with the fountain in the middle. Cold as it was, too few tourists were interested in having their pictures taken with Italians clad in leather sandals and red gladiatorial costumes. It was still fun to people-watch even though the tourists were scarce and the locals were going about their daily lives.

Arena in Verona on a sunnier day
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
Traffic was heavy as usual, pedestrians were ping pong balls, but nothing compared to northern Virginia’s bumper to bumper clusters for miles. I would describe Italian city traffic as follow unspoken rules and organized chaos. If all else fails, there are animated inimitable gestures and verbal clues which can be used abundantly and with abandon.

Verona Roman Gavi Arch
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
Roman chariot tracks in the road
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
When we finished our lunch, we walked along Via Mazzini to Piazza Erbe, past Juliet’s alleged house, and found the Erbolario where I used to purchase a wonderful hand cream made with olive oil. I bought a couple to take home in my already bulging suitcase.

Piazza Bra  Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Piazza delle Erbe
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Piazza delle Erbe fountain
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Emilia's in Piazza Bra
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
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, our walks took us to the most fascinating sights.

Entrance to Piazza Bra from the main road
Photo: Ileana Johnson
Piazza Bra is home to Arena di Verona. The magnificent Arena was turned into a lavish outdoor summer opera venue that can seat 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.

I remember one summer when we bought tickets to watch and hear Aida, the multi-million dollar performance that overwhelmed our senses with costumes, spectacular stage sets, fabulous operatic voices, and drama. We felt like the poor Romans of long time ago who were given tokens to enter the Arena, except that we paid 300 euros a piece for our tickets.

Verona's typical street
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We were not dressed like the elegant Italians in long opera gowns, dripping with glittering diamonds, and sipping champagne, while seated in the best floor seats covered in red velvet. We wore blue jeans and rain jackets as the meteorological report predicted rain. Sure enough, in the middle of the first act came a heavy downpour. Everything got wet and it took a long time to dry the stage again after the rain had stopped. Aida lasted from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. It was a memorable event and performance.

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.

Whale bone to the side of Piazza delle Erbe
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
At the end of the narrow and boutique-adorned Via Mazzini, Piazza delle Erbe (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.

Reconstructed medieval bridge in Verona
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007

Juliet's alleged balcony in Verona Photo: Ileana Johnson
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 was 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.

Castelvecchio inner walls
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
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.

Surviving Jewish houses in Piazza delle Erbe
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
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. Some of the boxes survive today.

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. Because I speak Italian, the owner proudly took us on a special tour of the basement. Part of the floor was made of heavy glass under which Roman ruins, pieces of columns, and partial mosaics were clearly 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 could still read the Latin name, Colonia Augusta Nova Galliena, designating Verona in 265 B.C. a defense portal for Rome.

River Adige with snow-capped mountains in the distance
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The river Adige flooded Verona many times. Markers on many old building bear witness to various flood heights. Mile 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.

Roman mile marker in Verona
Photo: Ileana Johnson
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.”

San Zeno in his resting place
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The mysticism I sought and found in the many Romanesque churches and cathedrals was 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 only painting known to depict the crucified Christ horizontally
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
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.

San Zeno crypt, the casket is lit in the background
Photo: Ileana Johnson
San Zeno exterior with photo bomb by hubby
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
San Zeno church, interior courtyard
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
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.

Castelvecchio from across the Adige River
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Castelvecchio entrance
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
My husband snapped this photo of me with the bridge in the background
Photo: David Paugh
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.

Palazzo Carli
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2007
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.

Hanging tombs
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Tomb over the entrance
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The top tier tomb
Photo: Ileana Johnson
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 fa├žade, 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.

After shopping in Piazza Erbe for t-shirts and a hat for our son Blane, we walked back to the garage. The temperatures had dropped to shivering levels and, before we reached our parked car, it started to rain again. The sun had peeked from the clouds when we were in Piazza Erbe, just long enough to take some livelier photographs.






  1. Maybe someday we will get back to Italy. Verona will be on the list!

  2. I hope you do, Marianne, it is a fascinating place!

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