On our drive between the Piemonte and Vicenza, we stopped in Verona for lunch. Because, well, why not?! 

For a moment, we pictured the Capulets and Montagues prancing around in colorful Renaissance outfits. No, not really. But we really didn’t know what to expect. What we found was an historic town center oozing with history. 

But without Juliet. You see, Shakespeare used real and made-up settings for his stories, and invented his characters (at least in the non-historical plays — mostly). Anyway…. He invented Juliet and Romeo. Just don’t tell that to quite a few visitors to Verona. They seek out a house that once was inhabited by the Cappello family (like Capulet, yes?), that dates from the 13th century. They also find “Juliet’s balcony,” which was added in the 20th century. Beneath the balcony, in the courtyard, stands a statue of Juliet. Visitors rub her right breast for luck in love, despite her not having much of that kind of luck.

So, we didn’t go there. 

We parked across the river Adige from the historic center of town. 

At our first turn toward into the historic district, an ancient gate framed our path: la Porta Borsari.

The building, called Porta Jovia in the Roman age, because of its vicinity to the temple of Jupiter Lustral, and situated at the western extremity of the decumanus maximus [the main east-west road], constituted the main entrance to the city. It was built in bricks… It had a central courtyard, galleries on the upper floors, double archways in the façades and, at the corners of the front towards the countryside, two donjons with sixteen sides…. In the Julian-Claudian age, the gate, like all the other Veronese city gates, had its two main façades renovated with … local white stone…. The inscription on the lintel emphatically commemorates the restoration of the surrounding wall by the emperor Gallienus in 265 AD….

Unlike so many Roman monuments like arenas and temples, which stand apart from the modern towns that surround them, this portal remains fused into the urban fabric. Just another bit of antiquity in your daily life.

Passing through the gate, we headed to the center of town, the authentic (not made up by Shakespeare) Piazza delle Erbe, or Square of the Herbs. What a charming, chaotic, picturesque urban place: tourist as well as local produce vendors, umbrellaed cafés and restaurants, cars, tourists and locals. Contained by a stage-set’s-worth of historical façades and monuments.

Verona sits in the west of the region of the Veneto. For more that a thousand years, between the 7th and 18th centuries, the Veneto was part of the powerful and rich Venetian Republic. We found evidence of Venice’s influence, and a hint of Verona’s resistance to the Republic, just in our brief time in the heart of Verona.

But first things first. We found a table at one of the cafés in the square some less-than-memorable pasta and salad. However, we could watch the activity of the piazza while we ate.

La Piazza delle Erbe occupies a good part of the area of Verona’s Roman Court, where the Decumanus Maximus and the Cardo Maximus intersected (these are the main east-west and north-south roads through any Roman town). Through the centuries, the square has been the center of the city’s political and economic life.

The Gardello Tower existed before the notable Scala era (from the 13th to 14th centuries, when the Della Scala family autocratically and sometimes viciously ruled Verona). In 1359, one of the Della Scala brothers of the current generation, Cansignorio, murdered one of his siblings, the tyrannical Cangrande II. (He also killed another brother; fratricide ran in the family.) When he wasn’t being murderous, he worked on beautifying Verona with palaces, aqueducts and bridges. In 1363, Cansignoria restored the Gardello Tower and raised it to its current level. 

The baroque façade of the Palazzo Maffei fills one of the short ends of the piazza. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Maffei family owned the area and had decided to build a monumental palace. The design of this main façade of the Palazzo Maffei presents a representation of the history of architecture that evolves from the bottom to the top in increasingly more sophisticated forms and decorations. It starts from the rusticated Tuscan order on the ground floor, then moves on to the Ionic order for the first floor and so on until the full Baroque of the summit. Five sculptures of Greek-Roman gods look down from the top of the façade – Hercules, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Apollo and Minerva. Perhaps the Maffei family was saying something to their fellow Veronese — or to the Venetian overlords.

One of the most important symbols of the Venetian Republic is the winged lion; it represents the apostle Saint Mark (more about Saint Mark in a later post about “his” Basilica in Venice). You see this lion throughout the Veneto, reminding all of Venice’s power. Here is one in front of the Palazzo Maffei: a representation of the love-hate relationship with Venice. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Maximilian I of Habsburg expanded the influence of the House of Habsburg in Austria through shrewd marriages and through war. For a short period, he took Verona for part of his empire. But that didn’t last, and then Verona had to look back to Venice. Perhaps as part of asking for forgiveness for consorting with Mazimilian, they erected this marble column in the Piazza delle Erbe and  topped it with the Venetian winged lion.

Just beside and behind our lunch café, a brick arch frames the passage to the Piazza dei Signori. Hanging from this arch is a whale’s rib bone. This is the Arco della Costa, or Arch of the Rib. The bone has been hanging there for centuries. Why it is there is a mystery. Theories abound:

According to some,  the rib is a sort of relic brought back from the holy land by the crusaders or pilgrims of Verona and hang under an arch of Piazza delle Erbe as an offering in gratitude for a fulfilled wish. 

Others believe it could be a fossil, perhaps found on the mountains around Verona and, believed to be the bone of some mysterious monster, placed in the center of the city for superstition as a sort of protection against evil spirits.

The most probable hypothesis however is that it was a primitive advertisement for an apothecary that was right under the arch. In the days of market Piazza delle Erbe had to be very crowded and chaotic. It is not difficult to imagine that the owner of a side shop wanted to draw the attention of potential customers with something unusual, curious and clearly visible being placed at the top. Apparently, the legal owner of the rib is still the pharmacy that is located under the arch and that has taken the place of the old remedy shop.  (source)

Just beyond the Arco della Costa, you emerge into the Piazza dei Signori. 

Along the prominent north side, the beautiful Loggia del Consiglio presides.

It represents the first example of pure Renaissance style architecture in Veneto. And it’s no coincidence. In the Veneto dominated by the Serenissima, the Renaissance style, widespread in Tuscany and in the papal Rome with which Venice was often in conflict, was somehow considered subversive. Verona, in order to put an end to the decades of power struggles that followed the decline of the Scala family’s rule, had spontaneously surrendered to Venice in 1405. In many ways the Venetian domination was proving to be advantageous for the city that had begun to prosper again. However, Verona in some way wanted to try to maintain a sort of proud autonomy, even if just and exterior appearance, from the Serenissima , as Venice was called at the time. The Renaissance style was good for the purpose. The new art took inspiration from structures and decorative elements such as the round arch, medallions and candelabra bas relief of the Roman past, when Verona had been a flourishing and important city, unlike Venice which, at best, was a village of fishermen’s shacks in an inhospitable brackish marsh. 

Turning the Loggia del Consiglio into just a backdrop, a grand sculpture of Dante ruminates. Dante was a big deal, don’t you know. And an (adopted) son of which Verona seems proud.

Dante first arrived in Verona in the spring of 1304. At the age of 39, he was already sentenced to death and an exile from his homeland of Florence. In Verona he sought peace to cultivate his studies but also a prince who could help in the battle against the Black Guelphs [a Florentine faction that supported the Papacy] controlling his home city and who would share his political ideal of an empire to restore peace and order in Italy. Bartolomeo della Scala, the lord of Verona, welcomed Dante with great courtesy in the royal palace near the church of Santa Maria Antica. Bartolomeo provided the conditions for Dante to occupy himself with writing and also entrusted him diplomatic missions. In Canto XVII of il Paradiso, Dante describes Bartolomeo as “the great Lombard” who was the first to give him shelter in his grievous exile.

Bartolomeo also served the role of opening the way for a relationship between Dante and his younger brother, Cangrande, to whom Dante would be a friend, guest and advisor from 1312 to 1318. The friendship of Dante and Cangrande was profound and cordial. Dante participated in the grand celebrations of Cangrande’s twenty-first birthday in 1312, when the palace filled with women, dancing and singing in the loggias; with scholars holding discourse on astrology and philosophy; with hungry commoners and musicians of all types. Dante also participated in the famous Verona palio horse race. Meantime he dedicated himself to writing this verses of il Paradiso, which he regularly submitted to Cangrande for his opinions, and ultimately dedicated to his patron. 

We waved goodbye to Dante, strolled back through the Piazza delle Erbe and la Porta Borsari and across the river Adige to our parking garage. Not bad for a little lunch stop!


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