At the foot of the Italian Alps, the Adige River sweeps back and forth in an S-shape. Verona’s strategic – and picture-perfect – location has attracted inhabitants since prehistoric times. Ancient Romans kicked off a tradition of engineering and design, boosted by the local pink limestone and red marble. Over the centuries the city’s flair for architecture became increasingly dramatic, with red and white stripes streaking across walls and around courtyards.
Verona’s nicknames have included Marmorina for its preponderance of stone buildings and statues, and Urbs Picta (“Painted City”), for its indoor and outdoor frescoes. We spent several days exploring the city’s historic architecture. Our guide and Google map cover the highlights.
Roman Verona: Porta Borsari & Porta Leoni, Arco dei Gavi, Arena (& Piazza Bra), Roman Theater, Ponte Pietra
Rise of the Romanesque in Verona’s Churches: San Zeno, Duomo (& Capitolare Library), San Fermo & Sant’Anastasia
Civic Stripes: Palazzo della Ragione & Piazza dei Signori, Torre dei Lamberti
Ancient Romans often built in alternating bands of different materials for structural or budgetary reasons. They also exploited the varying colors of natural materials, pioneering the techniques of stone mosaics and inlaid-marble patterns. Verona’s local pink and white limestone plus a regional red marble offered ample opportunity to create bands of color. They also complemented brickwork, a workhorse material which forms lines naturally.
Basilica di San Zeno (left) and Duomo di Verona (right).
San Zeno rejuvenated the style in the 11th century; nearly every major local church built during the next 500 years would feature stripes on the exterior, interior, or both. Stripes soon began showing up on civic structures, particularly once Verona began constructing buildings for the emerging city government.
The Ponte Pietra (left) and remains of a tower guarding the Porta Leoni (right).
Etruscans founded a settlement wherea major pass through the Alps intersected the best route across northern Italy. The fast-flowing Adige made a natural defense around most of the original settlement. Romans took over around the third century BCE, creating the gridded layout we see today. According to UNESCO, Verona features “one of the richest collections of Roman remains in northern Italy.”
Porta Borsari & Porta Leoni
Both city gateways originally had two arches each, although one at the Porta Leoni (left) no longer exists. Porta Borsari is on the right.
In the first century CE, two major gates were added to Verona’s city walls. The Porta Borsari guarded passage along the decumanus maximus, the principal route across Northern Italy, while the Porta Leoni controlled traffic along the cardo maximus, or primary north-south road. At the intersection of these two roads lay the Forum. Even after the Roman Empire collapsed, the site continued to function as the city’s nucleus, morphing into the Piazza delle Erbe.
Arco dei Gavi
Just south of the Porta Borsari, the Arco dei Gavi is a triumphal arch from roughly the same era. Erected to commemorate the prominent Gavi family, it stood over the cardo maximus for over 1700 years untilit restricted passage of Napoleon and his troops. They dismantled the arch and put it in storage; 130 years later Mussolini decided to rebuild it along the river as a symbol of Italy’s classical heritage.
With a capacity of up to 30,000 spectators and 74 exits (vomitorium), Verona’s first century arena is one of the larger examples of its kind. Seating provided distinct areas for different classes to enjoy the often-gory spectacles. Hidden pipes could flood the middle for aquatic shows; Seneca wrote of “sweetly-scented” water misting audiences during Roman times.
Later, the Arena’s function diversified. Executions of Christians gave way to mass benedictions; gladiator games became knights’ tournaments and jousts. After allegedly providing the inspiration for Dante’s circles of Hell, the Arena also served as Verona’s legally-established district for prostitutes, then a prison, and finally a venue for bullfights and rodeos. Today its superior acoustics make an ideal venue for circuses, concerts and a renowned opera festival.
The Piazza Bra does justice to the adjacent Arena with its generous size and a trio of circular planted areas. A curving stretch of cafés along one side serves a steady stream of residents and visitors.
The Roman Pons Pietra – literally, “stone bridge” – survived from 100 BCE to 1945, when retreating troops blew up three of the five arches. Later, they were reconstructed using materials retrieved from the river, supplemented by medieval bricks from bombed buildings. The two marble arches are original.
Roman Theater & Archaeological Museum
The Ponte Pietra leads to the Roman Theater, carved into the side of the San Pietro hill across the river. Tiers of seating and a few loggia arches hint at the structure’s appearance in the final decades of the first century BCE. The river and city make a dramatic backdrop for the stage’s location. Towards the back of the site, a former convent houses the archaeological museum and more views.
Rise of the Romanesque: Verona’s Churches
Waves of immigrants and the rise of Christianity brought fresh thinking to the decaying remnants of the Roman Empire. Verona suffered from multiple invasions, but the city’s allure prompted leaders to repair damages fairly quickly. Urban centers experienced explosive growth in the new millennium, and an earthquake in 1117 sparked a construction boom. Over the next few centuries, Verona developed its own version of Romanesque architecture, adding stripes and other graphic elements to increasingly sophisticated vaulting systems.
Located in a quiet neighborhood about 15 minute’s walk from the Castelvecchio, the Basilica di San Zeno is arguably Verona’s most important church. The city’s patron saint was an African martyred by Julian the Apostate in 380. Locals erected a church to house his remains, which are still on display in a transparent sarcophagus in the crypt.
Over the ensuing centuries, another level was added for services, as well as a monastery and belltower. Most of the remaining complex dates from the 12th century, including the spectacular bronze doors and wealth of carvings inside and out. Highlights include the 49 unique capitals in the crypt and a life-sized statue known as The Smiling San Zeno – complete with fish dangling off the saint’s crosier (apparently he enjoyed fishing).
Andrea Mantegna’s altarpiece of 1457-59 introduced perspective and other hallmarks of the Renaissance to northern Italy. He painted the panels to coordinate with the surrounding architecture, but then demanded the opening of a window so the lighting in the actual church would match his picture.
Verona’s Duomo complex includes the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, a pair of early churches, a cloister, the Capitolare Library, and a bishop’s residence. San Zeno consecrated a church on the site between 362-380, the remains of which lie under the Sant’Elena. A growing population and several disasters necessitated multiple rebuilds even before the 1117 earthquake. The present structure dates to 1187, with multiple renovations over the centuries.Inventive and often-fanciful carvings complement later artwork, including a subdued Titian.
The adjacent Biblioteca Capitolare is known as the oldest working library in the world. It likely began as a storage facility and scriptorium around 380. Among its other claims to fame, this is where Petrarch and (probably) Dante discovered Cicero’s letters.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, the church adapted to an increasingly urban population. Leading the way, a pair of new orders – the Franciscans and the Dominicans – began constructing large churches using fresh architectural ideas. In Verona, the Basilica di Sant’Anastasia melds Gothic lightness and verticality with Verona’s penchant for frescoes and patterns. Red-and-white stripes frame vaulting painted with delicate alpine flowers.
Dominicans began the church in 1290 and stopped in 1481, leaving the facade unfinished (not uncommon in Italy). Amongst the wealth of frescoes, Pisanello’s Saint George and the Princess shows how painting was already moving into the realism of the Renaissance. Also famous are the earthy “hunchback” statues holding up fonts of holy water.
Franciscans acquired the Chiesa di San Fermo in 1261, and spent the next 89 years renovating the lower level and rebuilding the upper level. Like Sant’Anastasia, San Fermo shows how local traditions merged with international Romanesque and Gothic styles. It too features an array of frescoes, sometimes layered on top of one another. Pisanello’s Annunciation is his earliest known work and the second of his three surviving frescoes.
San Fermo is worth visiting for the ceiling alone. The ship’s-hull structure, unique to the Veneto region, got an even more localized adaptation with painted portraits of 416 saints neatly slotted into the intricate carvings. A cutaway model shows how it all fits together.
Palazzo della Ragione & Piazza dei Signori
Like other city-states in northern and central Italy, Verona grew in size and independence during the Middle Ages. The site of the old Forum expanded to include new civic buildings, nearly all of which featured the city’s distinctive red-and-white bands. In 1193, construction began on the Palazzo della Ragione (“Palace of Reason”), a complex straddling several piazzas and courtyards. Its stripes create continuity between the public market area of the Piazza delle Erbe and the administration buildings around the Piazza dei Signori. The latter also holds the Palazzo del Podestà, residence of the city’s leader and visiting dignitaries, which uses contrasting stripes to accent arches and windows.
The Palazzo della Ragione served as the city courthouse until the 1980’s. In the early 2000’s it was restored and adapted to house a modern art collection.
Torre dei Lamberti
Four towers once protected the Palazzo della Ragione, but only one survives today. After a 1403 lightning strike damaged the top of the Torre dei Lamberti, the structure was raised to its present height of 84 meters (275 feet). Visitors can climb the elegant interior staircase or take the elevator for 360 degree views of the city. The Scala della Ragione, a grand staircase in the courtyard, provides access.
Of Ladders and Dogs
A red shield with a white ladder shows up on heraldry all over northern and central Italy. This is the device of the della Scalas, a family who seemed, for one shining moment, poised to take over the world. Besides uniting a sizable chunk of Italy, the family turned their city into an early Renaissance haven, attracting the likes of Giotto, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Like the Medici in Florence, the Scaligeri (Scaligers) reigned over just about every aspect of life in Verona and the surrounding region. They went by distinctive dog-themed nicknames, starting withfounder Mastino “the Mastiff”.
In a major cultural coup, the Scaligers not only hosted medieval celebrity Dante but also featured in his poetry: the Veltro (Greyhound) prophecy allegedly refers to Cangrande (“Big Dog”) della Scala. The celebrated poet spent nearly half of his exile in Verona, where he completed the Divine Comedy and dedicated the final book to his patron.
Scaliger Tombs (Arche Scaligere)
A fence around the Scaliger tombs incorporates ladders, the family symbol.
Cangrande’s nephew Mastino II initiated the tradition of erecting funerary monuments outside the family chapel, Santa Maria Antica. He began with a statue of his beloved uncle, depicted with a toothy smile – a most unusual pose at the time. Gradually, the tombs became increasingly elaborate. A few of the more famous pieces have been replaced with copies, with the originals on display at the Castelvecchio.
Cangrande’s descendants continued to spend prolifically, at one point outspending the Milanese Viscontis and the Holy Roman Emperor combined. Although they included public works among their expenditures, a tendency towards tyranny crept into the dynasty.
Funerary statues of the Scaligers: on the left, Cangrande (“Big Dog”) and right, Mastino II (“Mastiff”) with a legendary winged-dog helmet
The last leader of note, Cansignorio (“Lord Dog”), murdered his brother Cangrande II (a.k.a Canis rabidus or “Mad Dog”) before moving from the Palazzo del Podestà to a full-fledged castle by the river. Built in less than three years, the Castelvecchio offered better security as well as ample opportunity to patronize Verona’s flourishing early-Renaissance artists.
Carlo Scarpa’s 1958-64 restoration of the castle pioneered the use of modern elements to complement historic remains. Today the castle showcases frescoes, paintings, and sculpture from the medieval period through the 18th century. Earlier pieces showcase Verona’s local artists but later work includes Venetians such as Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Tiepolo. Battlements and the adjacent bridge offer river views.
Into the Renaissance
Piazza delle Erbe
By 1368, the Renaissance fascination with antiquity was well under way in Verona. That year, a new network of pipes brought drinking water to the city in a feat reminiscent of the old Roman aqueducts. To commemorate its completion, Cansignorio della Scala commissioned a fountain to further emphasize the unity of ancient and modern. In the Piazza delle Erbe, over the ruins of the Roman Forum, water from the pipes spurted out over a basin made from remnants of the old Roman baths. This was topped by an antique statue of a pagan goddess with a new head, renamed the Madonna di Verona.
The piazza retains its traditional role as a marketplace – although nowadays the stalls hawk tourist souvenirs by day. Many of the surrounding buildings feature traces of the outdoor frescoes which once graced much of the city.
Near the end of the piazza, the Colonna di San Marco commemorates the city’s union with Venice in 1405. Although the move cost Verona its independence, it brought much-needed stability and security after the Scaligeris lost control. Venetian influence crept into Verona’s architecture, such as the statues topping the Palazzo Maffei.
Loggia del Consiglio
In the adjacent Piazza dei Signori, the Loggia del Consiglio represents the arrival of Renaissance architecture. The 15th-century structure takes its name from the marble columns and arches on the lower level, echoing Brunelleschi’s Hospital of the Innocents in Florence. The upper level sets sobriety aside with delicate carvings and bold color.
Practicalities & Further Reading
Verona makes an excellent base for northern Italy. Lake Garda and Vicenza are less than 30 minutes by train while Padua and Mantua take about 45 minutes. Travel time to Venice, Bologna, and Milan runs around an hour for express trains and 2 hours for regional service. Verona’s Porta Nuova train station lies an easy 15-20 minute walk from the Piazza Bra. Alternatively, multiple bus lines just outside the station serve the historic center; the ride to the Piazza Bra takes about 10 minutes.
A centuries-old controversy about Cangrande’s death finally ended in 2004, when forensic archaeologists exhumed his corpse from the Arche Scaligeri and discovered traces of poison. For more on the story, see the Smithsonian article.
Although David Blixt’s Star Cross’d books are marketed as a “prequel” to the tragic romance, Romeo and Juliet are just a few of Shakespeare’s characters to show up in the series. The four well-researched and entertaining historical novels focus more on legacies and expectations in the lives of Cangrande, Dante, and their families.