Thursday, September 2, 2010

Verona Medioevale

Inclyta vestrae Magnificentae laus, quam fama vigil volitando disseminat, sic distrahit in diversa diversos, ut hos in spem suae prosperitatis attollat, hos exterminii deiciat in terrorem. Huius quidem praeconium, facta modernorum exsuperans, tanquam veri existentia latius, arbitrabar aliquando superfluum. Verum ne diuturna me nimis incertitudo suspenderet, velut Austri regina Hierusalem petiit, velut Pallas petiit Helicona, Veronam petii fidis oculis discursurus audita. Ibique magnalia vestra vidi, vidi beneficia simul et tetigi; et quemadmodum prius dictorum ex parte suspicabar excessum, sic posterius ipsa facta excessiva cognovi. Quo factum est, ut ex auditu solo cum quadam animi subiectione benevolus prius exstiterim; sed ex visu postmodum devotissimus et amicus.
The illustrious praise of your Magnificence, which tireless Fame spreads on the wing, pulls different people toward different places, so that she lifts some up in hope of prosperity, and casts others down in dread of ruin. This proclamation of fame that surpasses the deeds of modern people, as if beyond the truth, I considered rather exaggerated. In fact, so that this uncertainty would no longer keep me in so much suspense, as the Southern queen came to Jerusalem, as Pallas came to the Helicon, I came to Verona to see with my own eyes the things I had heard about. And there I saw your great deeds, I saw your benefices and I even touched them; and just as I had previously suspected an excess in most of what was said about you, afterward I understood that the deeds themselves were in excess. So just as by only hearing of you I thought well of you by an influence on my mind, now through seeing you I have become your most devoted friend.
--Dante Alighieri, letter to Cangrande I della Scala

Another Wednesday, another walking tour with our fabulous art history teacher, A. This week’s theme: Medieval Verona, or Verona Scaligera—Verona under the rule of the Scala family.

Our first stop was the Castelvecchio, the fantastic medieval fortress at the city’s center. It’s also home to a vast art museum, which will deserve its own post shortly; I visited it with Darlingtonia last Friday and we took about a million photos. Here are a couple exterior shots:

The Scala family ruled Verona and the surrounding area during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The castle, surrounded by a moat and backed up against the Adige River, was isolated from the rest of the city, a protective measure against political aggression.

In Verona, as elsewhere in medieval Europe, political party lines fell across an impassable divide: either you were a supporter of the Pope (Guelph), or you were a supporter of the Holy Roman Empire (Ghibelline). These divisions were so ingrained that they were literally built into civic life. Take a look at this:


These crenellations or battlements (in Italian, merlatura—many thanks to A. for teaching us all this specialized vocabulary en route!) have this characteristic design of two lines curving inward to a central point—like a deep M. This is called the coda di rondine, or swallow-tail, motif, and it is the marker of the Ghibellines. The Guelphs, on the other hand, topped their edifices with squared-off crenellations, sqaudrati. Any visitor knew at a glance where his landlords’ loyalties lay. When the Pope came to Verona, he would stay across town—in fact, in my neighborhood—where most of the Guelphs lived. The Emperor would stay at the Scala castle, or at the nearby church of San Zeno, which belonged to the Ghibellines.

By the way, I learned another great word today, and I kind of can’t believe I didn’t learn it sooner. A. was telling us about the importance of the Scala family as artistic and literary patrons; they sponsored both Dante and Giotto. The Italian word for patron is mecenate. And here’s why it’s so cool. It should be written Mecenate, because it’s the Italianization of the Latin name Maecenas. Gaius Cilnius Maecenas was an intimate of Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), and pretty much originated the system of literary patronage that continued through to the Renaissance. He funded Vergil and Horace, as well as other lesser-known poets, establishing a literary circle at the imperial court and setting a precedent for the support of artists by both private and public benefactors. So in Italian, all partrons are Maecenases.

Our next stop was the Piazza delle Erbe; if you read this post you’ll have already learned that it’s the former site of the Roman Forum. The forum was still a bustling marketplace during the Middle Ages. At the center is this little structure:


Notice the heavy metal ring chained to the column.


Most visitors assume this is some sort of medieval torture device, but in fact it’s something quite practical and mundane: a standard measure for the sale of firewood. You would fit a bundle of wood into that ring, and pay for as many bundles as you needed, assured that the bundles were all exactly the same size.

On the second step below this ring are the following imprints:


They're perhaps not very clear in the photo, but these were mold prints used to standardize sales of bricks and roof tiles. Your brick or tile had to fit exactly; if it was too small or misshapen, it could not be sold. If you ever wondered how quality control was achieved in medieval commerce, here’s your answer! The interior of the structure also, we were told, was marked with a standard measure for lengths of cloth.

Facing this structure, under the archway that leads out toward the Piazza dei Signori, is this curiosity:


It’s a whale’s rib bone, which was supposedly brought from China. It’s also a storefront sign. Given that the majority of medieval people were illiterate (analfabeti), merchants often advertised their wares with pictorial signs and objects. For example, a jeweler might put out a little placard covered in gold leaf. The whale bone, because it came from China, was supposed to promote a store at which one could buy silks, spices, and other materials imported along the Silk Road, shipped from Venice to Verona along the Adige. As A. pointed out, gesturing toward the stalls of cheap souvenir toys, one can still come here to buy merchandise made in China.

The symbol of the Scala family is a ladder (una scala), which appears on their coat of arms (stemma) and all over the city. A. claims that if you want to flatter the modern Veronese, you should refer to them as Scaligeri, the modern-day incarnations of the great rulers. You can hardly walk five steps without seeing that ladder on a building or artifact. In fact, there’s a saying: gli Scaligeri sono come il prezzemolo, the Scaligeri are like parsley. It’s a common idiom, in Italian: to be like parsley means to get oneself into everything. Kind of like, in English, having a finger in every pie, but more pervasive than that, and at once a benefit (parsley is tasty and healthful!) and a nuisance (why are there these little green bits everywhere?). The Palazzo della Ragione, which housed the justice courts, built in the twelfth century and renovated by the Scaligeri at the height of their power, just underwent a massive restoration, which cost something in the neighborhood of €26 million.


Apparently they’re still finishing it up; the courtyard entry was blocked, and there was a giant crane lifting workmen up to the roof. The name of the crane’s manufacturer caught my eye:


Just like parsley.

The last stop was the Arche Scaligere, the Scala family tombs, beautiful examples of Venetian Gothic architecture. Notice the ladder motif in the iron gates, on the sarcophagi, and on the coats of arms, often accompanied by the imperial eagle.





This is the tomb of Cangrande I, Dante's mecenate. Notice the crowned dogs each holding a stemma; "Cane Grande," the big dog.





The equestrian statue atop this monument is said to have been inspired by Chinese terracotta sculptures, described by Marco Polo.