There's nothing quite like sitting where you know others have sat and watched performances for two thousand years. The lovely pink marble Roman amphitheatre built in 1AD still proudly dominates the piazza in the middle of Verona, and people still travel from miles around to witness a spectacle; these days it's opera rather than sports, games and gladiatorial battles. The third largest amphitheatre in Italy, Arena di Verona could once seat 30,000, these days its capacity is 15,000.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, the outer walls were ripped down and used for building materials. In the twelfth century, an earthquake damaged the place and it wasn't really until the nineteenth century that there was an interest in using it once more to stage performances. The current incarnation as a major outdoor opera venue began in 1913 with a celebratory mounting of Verdi's Aida to mark 100 years since his birth.
The power of storytelling should never be underestimated. Every year hundreds of thousands of us trek to Verona to see the balcony where Juliet stood while Romeo declared his love. None of us care that it's very possible that Romeo and Juliet were only figments of Shakespeare's imagination. This is the most powerful love story in western culture and we all want to live a little part of its dream – though not its tragic ending.
The house in Verona known as Juliet's house was owned by the family dell Capello, a name not too far from Capulet, right? The house dates from the 13th century and the family coat of arms can still be seen on the wall. A slight problem is the balcony itself, which overlooks the courtyard – it was added in the 20th century. But that's of no matter to the hundreds of girls who every year step out onto it and gaze below seeking their Romeo among the milling tourists.
The civic and political heart of Verona is the Piazza dei Signori where the former city hall, the Loggia del Consiglio, still graces the square. Next door, the city's most powerful family, the Scaligeri, built their palazzo - not that they were trying to intimidate the councilors at all. It may after all have just been a matter of convenience, as the Scaligeri most often held the title of Lord of Verona and got to sit in the big chair anyway. Even in death they didn't like to be too far away and the tombs of the Scaligeri clan are at the far end of the piazza in Arche Scaligere.
While not huge, architecturally the Piazza dei Signori is significant, with a mixture of styles, all joined by a series of arches. One of these leads to the nearby Piazza delle Erbe, a marketplace. The arch, the Arco della Costa, contains a whale's rib which is said in legend to fall on the first just person to walk under it. So far it remains firmly in place.
All that remains of this entranceway to the Roman city, this double arched gate is still mighty impressive with its height and double story of windows. Built originally in brick in1AD, it was renovated with local white limestone in 265AD by Emperor Gallieno. In the middle ages it gained its current name, meaning bursars, as this is where the tax collectors sat collecting duties from traveling merchants.
Leading up to the gate is Corso Porta Borsari, one of Verona’s most elegant shopping streets.
What do you do with an historic castle that has been half destroyed during centuries of wars and retaliations? It's a question often faced in Italy and they've dealt with it superbly at Castelvecchio, where the old and the new come together in elegant respect.
Built in the 14th century by the Scaliger clan who ruled Verona in the Middle Ages, Castelvecchio was a seriously paranoid, moated fortress designed to keep out the people and give the family an escape route if the revolt should occur. Eventually their worst fears came to pass and the family escaped to Germany while the Venetians took over the city, followed in the 18th century by Napoleon. Napoleon made the Veronese so angry they stormed the castle and left it devastated. Bombings in World War II were a final insult to the building.
Come the 20th century and visionary architect Carlo Scarpa was given the job of turning the building into a museum during the 1960s.
The 12th century cathedral was built on top of a pre-existing medieval church which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1117. The facade is Romanesque with Gothic elements. Inside, the church continued to be added to and renovated over many centuries; the interior is largely decorated with Renaissance paintings, and a 16th century bell tower was left unfinished. The lighting system dates from 2002!
The things to see here are the lovely, gentle portal sculptures in the western doorway by Maestro Nicolo dating from 1139 (they are conveniently signed and dated). The south door has sculptures depicting the story of Jonah, a lion, an angel and the Virgin Mary. Two sculpted holy warriors, Oliver and Uliviero, guard the entrance. Inside don't miss Titian's painting of the Assumption of the Virgin.
Not satisfied with having a Roman amphitheater, Verona also has a Roman theater which is even older, dating from 1AD. Beautifully situated next to the River Adige, the seating rises to a height of 60 meters above the stage.
The theater was discovered in the 19th century by a businessman who bought the land to develop, but decided he was more interested in finding Roman ruins. He was amply rewarded. The original marble floor of the orchestra pit was uncovered, along with the rows of stone seats. These days the theater is a popular outdoor concert venue.
On the hill above in the ex-convent of San Gerolamo (15th century) is the Archeological Museum. Along with a wealth of Roman artefacts found all over Verona such as coins, mosaics, sculpture, etc., the museum has a great view over the river and the city.
At the heart of Verona is the Piazza delle Erbe and at the heart of this piazza is the Torre dei Lamberti. Rising high above the square, the narrow tower dates from the 12th century, although it has been added to and changed since then. Not least of all because a lightning strike knocked its top off in 1403. Some decades after this, the tower was restored and made even higher. It's now the tallest in Verona at 84 meters. The clock was added in the 18th century.
The tower was built to keep an eye on Verona and warn the city of impending disasters such as fire or attacks by the Venetians. Two bells were installed in the tower: the smaller, the Marangona, was used for fire alerts; the larger, the Rengo, was used to call the citizens to arms or to call the city council to meetings. Unfortunately, the Venetians got control of Verona anyway but the views from the tower make having built it still worthwhile.
Verona's Piazza delle Erbe was once a Roman marketplace and continues its trading function with stalls of fruit, vegetables and herbs (hence the name), tourist souvenirs and lots of cafes.
In the middle of all this hustle is Verona's oldest and best known fountain, Fontana di Madonna Verona. A female figure dating from Roman times rises from the water, holding a scroll bearing the crest of the city of Verona. The base on which she stands has eight masks from which the water flows. This design dates from 1368 when Casignorio della Scala, then Lord of Verona and one of the powerful Scaligeri family, wanted to celebrate the repair of the city's aqueducts.
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