Thursday, August 26, 2010

Verona Storica

Yesterday was the first of our weekly excursions into town with the school’s resident art historian, Andrea, whose enthusiasm for his city and its history is unbounded and contagious. Today’s lesson was “Verona Romana,” a walking tour of the remains of the ancient Roman city. Here’s a little bit of what we saw:


A reconstruction of a Roman triumphal arch, that used be across the street from its present location. It was dismantled in the 19th century and reconstructed under Mussolini; the present-day structure is about thirty percent original to the Roman era, the rest is modern (you can see, for example, the difference between the ancient eroded capitol on the second column from the left, and the replica capitols on the columns flanking it). The chief architect’s inscription survives: L VITRVVIVS ARCHITECTVS, that is, the freedman of Vitruvius, architect. Vitruvius, in case you’re not up on your Roman history, was the author of a series of ten books on architecture; this arch was constructed by his former slave and pupil.

Under the arch runs a section of the original Roman road that connected Verona to Mediolanum (Milan). Look closely at the granite cobblestones and you can see the wheel ruts created by centuries of traffic:


Because I’m a total nerd I just had to take a photo of Via Valerio Catullo (Catullus Street).

The carving in the wall below it is a Medusa head from a Roman sarcophagus. Andrea told us that the women of Verona have a saying, based on their two most famous romantic heroines, Juliet and Catullus’s lover Lesbia (we’ll overlook the fact that she was not in fact Veronese, but came from a prominent Roman family): Meglio tradire di morire. That is, better to betray your lover (Lesbia’s unfaithfulness is well documented in verse) than to die for love as Juliet and Romeo did. Please don’t think me callous, but I tend to agree with these Veronese women. I have no tolerance for any degree of infidelity, but on the other hand, I have to confess that I can’t imagine a romantic love affair worth dying for. Speaking of which:


This charming plaque commemorates the spot where, supposedly, Romeo and Tybalt fought their fatal duel. It’s right across from the Porta Borsari, the Roman city gate:


All visitors to the city had to enter through this gate; the buildings on either side of it used to be guard towers, where soldiers kept a strategic eye on the comings-and-goings below. The Porta Borsari is named for the borsa (money-purse) carried by an official who questioned each visitor as to his purpose. If he was entering the city to pray at the temple, or to visit a friend or patron, he could enter gratis, but if he was going in to do business—for example, a farmer going to sell his produce in the Forum—he would have to pay a tax, which the borsari tucked away into their money bags.

I walk through the Porta Borsari almost every day, on my way two or from school. My neighborhood is in the centro storico, or the historic city center; Piazza Erbe, the big square around the corner where I buy my fruits and vegetables, is where the Forum was located two thousand years ago. Now, in addition to the market, it’s lined with shops and restaurants; the buildings cover an enormous span of architectural eras, built between the middle ages and the nineteenth century. In the center of the piazza is a fountain that in the Roman era supported a statue of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom; in the fourteenth century it was reimagined as Madonna Verona, the city personified.


Just behind Piazza Erbe is the Piazza dei Signori, which I’ve also heard referred to as Piazza Dante, because of this lovely statue:


Just behind our Florentine friend, you can see a statue of a man carrying a sphere, standing on top of an arch. That’s a portrait of a Veronese astronomer whose name I’m ashamed to admit I’ve already forgotten. Since the statue was erected, legend had it that the sphere would drop from the astronomer’s hands if a truly honest person ever walked under that arch. But since last year, when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi traipsed under there with his teenaged girlfriend, the legend has been adjusted: that sphere will never fall!