19 April 2016
My last day in the Veneto region begins with grey rain, a sombre reminder that soon I return to a damp Britain. Mercifully, since I’m staying right by the amphitheatre, I only have a short walk to the Museo Lapidario Maffeiano. This epigraphic museum was founded by Scipione Maffei in 1714 and the collection has slowly grown ever since. It features inscriptions in Greek as well as Etruscan and Latin. The museum is right next to the Gates of the Bra.
After an hour or so the rain has disappeared and I’m impatient to the amphitheatre, which has been sitting there, tempting me, since I arrived yesterday morning.
The amphitheatre was built in the 1st century AD. There was a further, outer ring that has since been mostly lost following the earthquake of 1117. It reached as far as the lamppost in the right of the photo. By the time of the earthquake, the amphitheatre was already nearly a millennium old.
The arena is used for performances each summer and I’m lucky that there aren’t more areas shut off for modern staging. Musing as I always do as to why the Romans insisted on making their stairs so bloody steep, it’s time to explore.
The amphitheatre could hold 30,000 spectators for gladiatorial games and beast hunts (such as the hunt staged by a widower for the funeral of his late wife, much to the approval of his friend Pliny the Younger. Pliny commiserates that the panthers had not arrived from Africa in time due to bad weather.) It was built circa 30 AD making it half a century older than the more famous Colosseum in Rome. It is the third biggest Roman arena, smaller than only the Colosseum and the amphitheatre of Capua (slated to be on my 2017 travel list.) It’s one of the best preserved I’ve yet seen and this apparently is due to uncommonly careful preservation over the centuries and solid construction. Like Rome and Capua, Verona boasted a Gladiator school and Games held here drew crowds from the entire region (useful, as the entire population of Roman Verona could not entirely fill it alone.)
We know the names of some of the gladiators who fought at Verona. A secutor named Aedonius died in his eighth bout, aged 26. A retiarius named Generosus boasts on his tombstone that he, a native of Alexandria, fought 27 times in Verona. He managed to retire with enough money to live well until he died, comfortably in his bed. Another retiarius, Glaucus, was from Modena. He fought eight times, defeated in his last. His tomb was put up by his wife Aurelia and his devoted fans. His funerary inscription warns the reader to thoroughly read their horoscopes. Don’t trust Nemesis, she will deceive you! He died aged 23 years and 5 days.
In 312 AD the forces of Emperor Maxentius barricaded themselves inside the amphitheatre and were besieged by Constantine, fresh from successfully defeating their comrades in Turin and Milan. Ruricius Pompeianus, Maxentius’ praetorian prefect, slipped from the city to raise more troops to defend Verona and returned to fight Constantine on open ground. Even with his new recruits and the large garrison in the amphitheatre, Pompeianus was defeated and killed in the battle. Contantine went on to finally defeat Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine depicted the siege of Verona on his triumphal arch in Rome three years later.
Shortly after Christianity became the official religion, pagan Games were banned and the amphitheatre lay disused until after the fall of the Empire. The Goths likely used it to stage entertainments, and when Verona was under the rule of the noble Scaliger family (aka Scala) (1226-1387) the arena was used in a more judiciary sense. Legal disputes could be settled with duels, except that instead of sword fights, the two sides chose a wrestler to represent them. Dante attended at least one such event, and described it in The Inferno.
No record exists of Christians being martyred by the Romans in the arena (although it is of course likely,) but Alberto I della Scala had nearly 200 patarini from Sirmione burnt at the stake inside the arena in 1278. Two years before, he made it illegal for anyone but prostitues to live inside the amphitheatre arches (a millennium after their Roman forebears had also plied their trade here,) and closed off the auditorium. In 1310, Alberto made it an offence to break through the doors into the auditorium or to urinate and defecate there, punishable by fine. Later, under Venetian rule, these laws were expanded to include punishment for anyone who tried to remove the fabric of the amphitheatre for building material. It wasn’t until 1537 that prostitutes were evicted from the arches, which now became workshops and stalls for craftsmen. The arena started to be used for tournaments which continued until 1716. The arena was then used by travelling troupes of comedic actors, dancers and musicians. Bull baiting also became popular, although Goethe was of the opinion that the arena was better suited to soccer. Following the French invasion, Napoleon Bonaparte twice watched bulls being hunted by dogs inside the arena (when he wasn’t using the building as a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Austrians.)
In 1820 the craftsmen in the arches were evicted so that restoration work could take place. After this, the arena was used for more genteel entertainments, such as acrobatics, horse racing and music. Opera was first performed in the amphitheatre in 1856. Ten years later Victor Emanuele II visited the arena for a festival celebrating the annexation of the Veneto into the Kingdom of Italy. There is an equestrian statue of him in the Piazza Bra. Operatic performances became more popular and numerous following a performance of Aida in 1913 and continue annually to this day. It also now hosts rock and pop concerts.
I noticed #ammonites and various other #fossils in the limestone used to construct the buildings of the #Veneto region. This one, on a seat in the #amphitheatre in #Verona, was my favourite. It amused me to imagine a #Roman spectator distracted from the Games because he was wondering what on Earth caused a spiral in the rock.
It’s a pleasant stroll down the Via Roma to Castelvecchio, the enormous manor house cum fortress built for the Scaliger family in the fourteenth century. It is possibly on the site of a Roman fort. Work was begun under Cangrande II della Scala, ironically the fortress didn’t prevent his assassination at the hands of his own brother. Completed following his death, Castelvecchio was still an effective deterrent against the House of Gonzaga in Mantua and the Sforzas in Milan.
Utilised as a barracks and prison by the Venetians (who added cannon,) French, (Napoleon always stayed here when in Verona,) and Austrians, the building is suitably intimidating. Castelvecchio became a barracks under Italian rule before becoming the home of the Civic museum in 1924.
Next to Castelvecchio is the Arco dei Gavi.
The Arco dei Gavi was erected by the Gavia family in the mid 1st century AD. They placed it prominently on the Via Postumia that entered Verona. It was dismantled by the French in 1805 and stored in the arena. It was reconstructed (in a new location) in 1932 on the orders of Mussolini. #igersverona #ig_verona
Walking north-east along the Corso Cavour I reach the Porta Borsari, a Roman gateway into Verona.
Further along is the Piazza della Erbe. This is the site of the Roman forum and remains the heart of Verona. It’s a truly beautiful space and surrounded by beautiful buildings.
At the thinner end of the Piazza is the late-Renaissance Palazzo Maffei. This was once the site of the Capitolium, hinted at by the statues of Roman divinities decorating the balustrade (the statue of Hercules is thought to be Roman and from the original temple.)
The Merchant House (Domus Mercatorum) was built by Alberto I della Scala in 1301 (although the Gothic crenellations are a a 19thC addition,) and provided a home for guilds of merchants.
More eyecatching are the tower houses that now feature shops and restaurants on ground level. Look above the parasols and the houses of the Piazza are covered in frescoes.
Casa Mazzanti on the #PiazzadelleErbe in #Verona boasts allegorical frescoes painted by Alberto Cavalli circa 1540. Mastino I della Scala was assassinated in the house in 1277 by a rival aristocrat who resented #Scaligeri supremacy in Verona. It made no difference. The Scaligeri had control of Verona until 1405 when the city was absorbed into the Venetian empire.
As I wander in, the Piazza dei Signori is as calm as the Piazza delle Erbe is bustling.
The Palazzo del Podestà stands on Roman ruins and was built by the Scaliger family as a residence. Dante stayedhere during his exile from Florence. Under the Venetians it became a seat of the judiciary and a new archway (complete with Lion of St Mark) was built to replace the original entrance.
Just off the Piazza dei Signori are the Scaglieri tombs. They’re suitably impressive fro a family that ruled Verona for nearly two centuries.
Cangrande I first came into power, aged eighteen, at the suggestion of his brother Alboino. Whereas this does seem young, he had already successfully led Veronese troops into battle aged fourteen during a war against Ferrara and, upon the signing of a peace treaty, offered his little brother co-rulership in 1308. The brothers were allies of the Holy Roman Empire and soon became instrumental in asserting Ghibelline prominence in the region. In 1311 the brothers were chosen to head the Imperial army and successfully liberated Vicenza from Paduan rule. Cangrande was forced to miss the coronation of Emperor Henry VII to be with Alboino, who died of illness later that year. Alboino had two legitimate sons, but Mastino and Alberto were still only toddlers. Cangrande was now the sole ruler of Verona.
Cangrande I was noted for his good nature (although his temper was infamous,) and his ability to befriend people of all backgrounds. He enjoyed debate and fostered a court of poets, painters and academics. He was patron of Dante, who was exiled from Florence and spent a good deal of time in Verona. Dante even heaps praise on Cangrande in his Divine Comedy. Cangrande was deeply religious and devoted to the Virgin Mary, and always fasted for two days and week.
Cangrande I was a great military leader and successfully asserted Veronese control in the region, consolidating and expanding territory. His first act as sole ruler was to assume control of Vicenza with Imperial approval, filling the power vacuum left by the defeating Paduans. When Henry VII died two and a half years later in 1313, the Paduans soon attempted to retake Vicenza, marching overnight to launch a surprise attack in 1314. When Cangrande heard the news he immediately rode out, arriving in Vicenza in a mere three hours. He mounted a war horse and, swinging a mace, led his troops into battle. His lack of hesitation and his courage led to a decisive victory. A peace treaty wherein Padua acknowledged his rule over Vicenza was signed a month later. Hostilities with Padua did continue until 1320 when Cangrande found himself so outnumbered (and himself wounded by an arrow to the leg,) that he signed a peace treaty. A military man at heart, Cangrande was never going to be completely contented living life at court and was back waging war by 1322. In 1328 finally assumed rule over Padua. Less than a year later he was in a solid position to assume control of Treviso, another city that had long been in his crosshairs. A writer named Niccolo de Rossi dryly remarked that Cangrande would be ‘King of Italy within a year.’ Cangrande besieged the city and, low of supplies, the gates were quickly opened. However, Cangrande had fallen ill, and died, aged 38, four days after he triumphantly marched into Treviso.
His body was carried back to Verona where it now lays in the tomb pictured above. With no legitimate sons, his nephews Mastino and Alberto inherited his titles and rule of the cities Cangrande had conquered. Mastino had Cangrande’s doctor hanged shortly afterwards.
In 2004 an autopsy was carried out on the mummified remains of Cangrande. He was 5’8” and had a strong physique. Analysis of faecal matter and liver tissue revealed fatal amounts of digitalis, a poison derived from foxgloves. Stomach samples revealed that the poison had been masked with chamomile and mulberry. Nearly seven centuries after his death, Cangrande I was revealed to be a murder victim. The Duke of Milan and the Republic of Venice both had reasons to curb Verona’s aggressive expansion whilst not wanting an outright war, however Mastino, Cangrande’s own nephew, was himself ruthlessly ambitious. Did he bribe the doctor to poison his uncle, only to hang him before the doctor could implicate him?
Cangrande I della Scala. This equestrian statue originally topped his funerary monument, which now has a replica. Investigative work on the corpse of Cangrande in 2004 revealed he been fatally poisoned with digitalis (foxglove,) in 1329, probably by another member of the Scaliger family (a bit of a family hobby…) #verona #cangrande #scaliger #castelvecchio
Whatever the truth, Mastino II della Scala most definitely benefitted from the death of his uncle, and if Venice or Milan were responsible in hopes for a quieter Verona, they were disappointed. Mastino persevered with the policy of Veronese expansion, taking over Brescia, Parma and Lucca within six years.Unfortunately, although Mastino proved to be a capable general he lacked the eloquence, grace and mercy of Cangrande I.
Florence , Siena , Bologna , Perugia and the Venetian Republic formed an anti-Veronese League shortly after Lucca fell. Mastino was able to defend himself for a year, but the League kept growing, with Milan, Ferrara, Mantua and the Papal States quickly condemning Mastino. In 1337 Padua, the city that Cangrande had taken 16 years to conquer, opened her gates to a Florentine-Venetian army and Mastino’s brother Alberto was taken to Venice as prisoner. Mastino II watched in horror as city after city fell to the League. By April 1338, the armies of the League reached the walls of Verona. Besieged, Mastino started to see traitors and plotters everywhere. In August he murdered his uncle Bartolomeo, Bishop of Verona,running him through with a sword in front of the Bishop’s Palace. A rival of Bartolomeo’s had whispered to Mastino that the Bishop was betraying Verona for Venice. Mastino, on top of being besieged, now found himself excommunicated.
This equestrian statue of Mastino II della Scala also originally topped his tomb, again now replaced with a replica. Mastino is the prime suspect of the murder of his uncle Cangrande I and immediately assumed rule of Verona. He later murdered another uncle, this time running Bartolomeo, Bishop of Verona, through with a sword (far more public than poison!) #verona #scaliger #mastinoII #castelvecchio
The walls proved impregnable, but the siege was costly. In 1339 Mastino II had no choice but to sign a peace treaty with humiliating terms. The Scala family would be reduced to ruling Verona and Vicenza, the other cities were distributed to members of the League. His brother Albert was released from his Venetian prison and was allowed to return home. The brothers never did reclaim their former glory, dying in 1351 and 1352 respectively.
Mastino II had three legitimate sons, Cangrande, Paolo Alboino and Cansignorio. Cangrande II inherited Veronese rule upon his father’s death. He has the dubious honour of being the target of assassination not only from his two brothers but his illegitimate half-brother Fregnano as well.
Cangrande II was infamous for his tough rule that nearly crippled an already weakened city. He was ruthless, ambitious and utterly merciless. After three years in power, Cangrande II visited Bolzano. Fregnano took the opportunity to seize power in Verona and proclaim himself ruler with the aid of the Gonzaga family. Cangrande II hastily returned to Veronaand a bloody battle was fought on the Ponte Navi on February 5th, 1354. Fregnano fell into the river Adige and drowned. Days later, his bloated corpse was fished out and put up on display in the Piazza delle Erbe.
Increasingly paranoid, Cangrande II constructed the Castelvecchio and surrounded himself with Teutonic knights loaned to him by his brother-in-law, Ludwig of Brandenburg. It did him no good, in December 1359 Cangrande II was ambushed by his brothers Cansignorio and Paolo Alboino, who murdered him near the church of St Euphemia. The remaining brother ruled together until 1365, when Cansignorio accused Paolo Alboino of treason (likely a trumped up charge,) and had him imprisoned.
Cansignorio now ruled Verona alone, a city now devastated by war, famine and disease. The glittering court of Cangrande I was a distant memory as the bright talents in arts and literature sought patronage elsewhere. He soon set about trying to restore some former glory, with ambitious building plans drawn up and taxes raised to pay for their execution.
Cansignorio was apparently not a physically strong man, and died in 1375 aged only 35. On his death bed, however, he arranged for the assassination of his imprisoned brother Paolo Alboino, so that there would be no obstructions to his own bastard sons assuming control. Bartolomeo, in a mirror of the previous generation, was stabbed 26 times by his younger brother Alberto in 1381.
The three main tombs of the Arche Scaglieri mark the rise and fall of a dynasty, if only all who viewed them now realised how much blood was spilt by their owners.
My fascination with medieval violence sated, I stroll to the nearby Porta Leoni, another roman gate that lies at the end of the old cardo maximus road. Less is left standing than the Porta Borsari, but excavations underneath the modern road have been left uncovered to view.
I have just enough time for a stroll to soak up as much Veronese atmosphere as possible before my final stop.
I’ve fallen in love with Verona from ground level so it only makes sense to view the city from above as my time left slips away. For a small fee, it’s possible to get an elevator up the Torre dei Lamberti.
And with that, it’s time to walk down the streets that still follow the ancient Roman paths down to the amphitheatre, pick up my backpack and head to the airport. On the plane home I decide that my daughter will be old enough for a trip in October when we will both be celebrating birthdays. And so I start planning a trip to Greece…