Three hundred and forty years ago, John Evelyn saw Verona and said: “here of all places I have seen in Italy would I fix a residence.”
I heartily agree.
We drove in to the ancient heart of prosperous and vibrant Verona on September 19, and checked in to the venerable Due Torre, an elegant five star hotel. Liveried bellmen appeared on all sides of the car, and wafted us inside, disallowing our carrying of even a meager coat. Great, I thought, a little pampering won’t hurt. (I had just endured the robbery in Florence.) I confess we took advantage of what we knew would be cancelled reservations in order to get a booking and a good price, but at least we were there, and willing to stay three days. After checking out our junior suite and giving it our own 5 star rating, we setoff for the quiet dignity of San Zeno Maggiore, northern Italy’s most ornate Romanesque church.
For a few hours in this gentle and holy place, we felt restored and renewed. It sits in a quiet square, far from the usual bustle of an Italian city in the mid to late afternoon. The color of its façade (creamy beige marble and pale pink brick) was simultaneously soothing and exciting in its purity. Somehow, this church exuded a quiet strength, perhaps brought about by the centuries of history through which it has stood.
The west doors consist of 48 primitive bronze panels depicting the life of San Zeno. They are so breathtaking, it’s a wonder these 11th century works have not been stolen long ago. One could spend hours trying to figure out which biblical stories they depict, and which parts of the life of San Zeno.
There are also early frescoes and a Mantegna altar piece, which is a delight. After two hours absorbing the art and atmosphere, we had a bowl of soup in the square, watching students and musing about their lives.
So far, Verona was a big hit with me, and it only got better.
There is so much to this alluring northern city, from the winding Adige river which surrounds the central area, and makes it seem like a very knowable small town, to the many churches, to the marvelously preserved Roman arena and the distinguished museums. Let me give you a snapshot of our few days there so you will know what I mean.
After that lunch, we hurried over to the Castelvecchio, a castle that has been turned into one of Verona’s art museums. Various parts of the old structure have been linked together with modern walkways and staircases, so that one can see the river, some of the sculptured pieces in courtyards, and parts of the building from various vantage points. Turning one such corner, I was confronted with a pale horseman, the ancient sculpture of Cangrande I’s horse in ceremonial garb. This equestrian statue is “dramatically displayed out of doors on a plinth” so one can see it from every side. It was made in the 14th Century, and was on his tombstone, but you’d swear it was a strong simple contemporary piece.
The Piazza Bra is the largest square in Verona, and it surrounds the Roman amphitheatre, completed around AD 30,and still used today for the immensely popular Verona opera festival held each summer.
Lest you think I spent all my time in centuries gone by, I hasten to tell you that there are elegant shops that cater to the wealthy citizens, of which there must be many. Every well-known Italian fashion name was represented in the careless shopping streets near the Piazza Erbe. We fantasized in a pricey jewelry shop, two or three linen shops, ogled priceless antiques, bought baby clothes in a most charming boutique for bambinos, and emailed home from the most post-modern stainless steel filled internet shop I have ever encountered. The computers were the most beautiful, top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art in the known universe.
The whole “Centro storico” is confined to just a few blocks, surrounded by the river and three massive Roman double arches, former entrances to the city. There are even Roman roads visible below the modern streets. There are luscious hidden small squares, and large ones like Piazza dei signori, guarded by a large statue of Dante who spend his exile years here. Lunching in this square, under huge Italian market umbrellas, gazing at the carved stone arches of Renaissance palazzi was positively transporting.
Further into modern times and witness to Verona’s sophistication, we encountered an American Minimalist Art Show in the Palazzo di Gran Guardia, which was a brilliant counterpoint to the deeply traditional works we had been absorbing. This palazzo is a huge classical building which has been totally gutted inside and rebuilt in blinding white plaster, with modern recreations of its grand staircases, and giant pure white exhibition spaces, perfectly suited to the minimalist works of Dan Flavin (of the Hudson Valley), Donald Judd, James Turrell, and Robert Morris. The impact of these works was extremely powerful, coming as it did after many days of viewing many centuries of sacred art. It was like that “intermezzo” sorbet that some restaurants insist on serving in the midst of a multi-course meal. We loved it.
Another old palazzo housed an in-depth Edvard Munch exhibit. My eyes were educated in much greater depth than ever before about Munch’s style, breadth, and personality, by the huge number of paintings in this exhibit.
Our late dinner at the Hotel was delicious, though quiet, as we were the only guests (save one group that arrived when we were half way through our meal.
We joined our friends for another dinner at the Trattoria Santa Anastasia, which consisted of delicious fresh pasta, accompanied by the local Soave region wine.
We also got a look at their hotel, the elegantly funky Gabbia d’Oro. Superbly located, it is filled with antiques, fabrics, oriental carpets and bric-a-brac. All of this in elegant five star splendor, with excellent service.
We just HAD to see the Casa Guiletta. Who cares if it’s not authentic? Certainly not all the romantic tourists who have covered it with their graffiti, and caused a Romeo and Juliet gift shop to open just opposite.
Betsy Shequine is now in love with Verona, a world class treasure, and pronounces it her favorite city in Italy, —so far.