Italy – Verona

IT was curious to pass, with the impression left by this costly and ingenious toy upon our minds, at once to the amphitheatre in Verona, which, next to the Coliseum, has, of all the works bequeathed us by the ancient Roman world, the greatest claim upon the wonder and imagination. Indeed, it makes even a stronger appeal to the fancy. We know who built the Coliseum, but in its unstoried origin, the Veronese Arena has the mystery of the Pyramids. Was its under Augustus, or Vitellius, or Antoninus, or Maximian, or the Republic of Verona ? Nothing is certain but that it was conceived and reared by some mighty prince or people, and that it yet remains in such perfection that the great shows of two thousand years ago might take place in it to-day. It is so suggestive of the fierce and splendid spectacles of Roman times that the ring left by a modern circus on the arena, and absurdly dwarfed by the vast space of the oval, had an impertinence which we hotly resented, looking down on it from the highest grade of the interior. It then lay fifty feet below us, in the middle of an ellipse five hundred feet in length and four hundred in breadth, and capable of holding fifty thousand spectators. The seats that the multitudes pressed of old are perfect yet ; scarce a stone has been removed from the interior ; the aedile and the prefect might take their places again in the balustraded tribunes above the great entrance at either end of the arena, and scarcely see that they were changed. Nay, the victims and the gladiators might return to the cells below the seats of the people, and not know they had left them for a day ; the wild beasts might leap into the arena from dens as secure and strong as when first built. The ruin within seems only to begin with the aqueduct, which was used to flood the arena for the naval shows, but which is now choked with the dust of ages. With-out, however, is plain enough the doom which is written against all the work of human hands, and which, unknown of the builders, is among the memorable things placed in the cornerstone of every edifice. Of the outer wall that rose high over the high est seats of the amphitheatre, and encircled it with stately corridors, giving it vaster amplitude and grace, the earthquake of six centuries ago spared only a fragment that now threatens above one of the narrow Veronese streets. Blacksmiths, wagon-makers, and workers in clangorous metals have made shops of the lower corridors of the old arena, and it is friends and neighbors with the modern life about it, as such things usually are in Italy. Fortunately for the stranger, the Piazza Bra flanks it on one hand, and across this it has a magnificent approach. It is not less happy in being little known to sentiment, and the traveler who visits it by moonlight, has a full sense of grandeur and pathos, without any of the sheepishness attending homage to that battered old coquette, the Coliseum, which so many emotional people have sighed over, kissing and afterwards telling.

But he who would know the innocent charm of a ruin as yet almost wholly uncourted by travel, must go to the Roman theatre in Verona. It is not a favorite of the hand-books ; and we were decided to see it chiefly by a visit to the Museum, where, besides an admirable gallery of paintings, there is a most interesting collection of antiques in bronze and marble found in excavating the theatre. The ancient edifice had been completely buried, and a quarter of the town was built over it, as Portici is built over Herculaneum, and on the very top stood a Jesuit. convent. One day, some children, playing in the garden of one of the shabby houses, suddenly vanished from sight. Their mother ran like one mad (I am telling the story in the words of the peasant who related it to me) to the spot where they had last been seen, and fell herself into an opening of the earth there. The outcry raised by these unfortunates brought a number of men to their aid, and in digging to get them out, an old marble stairway was discovered. This was about twenty-five years ago. A certain gentleman named Monga owned the land, and he immediately began to make excavations. He was a rich man, but considered rather whimsical (if my peasant represented, the opinion of his neighbors), and as the excavation ate a great deal of money (mangiava molti soldi), his sons discontinued the work after his death, and nothing has been done for some time, now. The peasant in charge was not a person of imaginative mind, though he said the theatre (supposed to have been built in the time of Augustus) was completed two thousand years before Christ. He had a purely conventional admiration of the work, which he expressed at regular intervals, by stopping short in his course, waving both hands »ver the ruins, and crying in a sepulchral voice, ” Qual’ opera!” However, as he took us faithfully into every part of it, there is no reason to complain of him.

We crossed three or four streets, and entered at several different gates, in order to see the uncovered parts of the work, which could have been but a small proportion of the whole. The excavation has been carried down thirty and forty feet below the foundtions of the modern houses, revealing the stone seats of the auditorium, the corridors beneath them, and the canals and other apparatus for naval shows, as in the great Amphitheatre. These works are even more stupendous than those of the Amphitheatre, for in many cases they are not constructed, but hewn out of the living rock, so that in this light the theatre is a gigantic sculpture. Below all are cut channels to collect and carry off the water of the springs in which the rock abounds. The depth of one of these channels near the Jesuit convent must be fifty feet below the present surface. Only in one place does the ancient edifice rise near the top of the ground, and there is uncovered the arched front of what was once a family-box at the theatre, with the owner’s name graven upon the arch. Many poor little houses have of course been demolished to carry on the excavations, and to the walls that joined them cling memorials of the simple life that once inhabited them. To one of the buildings hung a melancholy fire-place left blackened with smoke, and battered with use, but witnessing that it had once been the heart of a home. It was far more touching than any thing in the elder ruin ; and I think nothing could have so vividly expressed the difference which, in spite of all the resemblances noticeable in Italy, exists between the ancient and modern civilization, as that family-box at the theatre and this simple fireside.

I do not now remember what fortunate chance it was that discovered to us the house of the Capulets, and I incline to believe that we gravitated toward it by operation of well-known natural principles which bring travelers acquainted with improbabilities wherever they go. We found it a very old and time-worn edifice, built round an ample court, and we knew it, as we had been told we should, by the cap carven in stone above the interior of the grand portal. The family, anciently one of the principal of Verona, has fallen from much of its former greatness. On the occasion of our visit, Juliet, very dowdily dressed, looked down from the top of a long, dirty staircase which descended into the court, and seemed interested to see us ; while her mother caressed with one hand a large yellow mastiff, and distracted it from its first impulse to fly upon us poor children of sentiment. There was a great deal of stable litter, and many empty carts standing about in the court ; and if I might hazard the opinion formed upon these and other appearances, I should say that old Capulet has now gone to keeping a hotel, united with the retail liquor business, both in a small way.

Nothing could be more natural, after seeing the house of the Capulets, than a wish to see Juliet’s Tomb, which is visited by all strangers, and is the common property of the hand-books. It formerly stood in a garden, where, up to the beginning of this century, it served, says my ” Viaggio in Italia,” ” for the basest uses,” — just as the. sacred prison of Tasso was used for a charcoal bin. We found the sarcophagus under a shed in one corner of the garden of the Orfanotrono delle Franceschine, and had to confess to each other that it looked like a horse-trough roughly hewn out of stone. The garden, said the boy in charge of the mowing monument, had been the burial-place of the Capulets, and this tomb being found in the middle of the garden, was easily recognized as that of Juliet. Its genuineness, as well as its employment in the ruse of the lovers, was proven beyond cavil by a slight hollow cut for the head to rest in, and a hole at the foot ” to breathe through,” as the boy said. Does not the fact that this relic has to be protected from the depredations of travelers, who could otherwise carry it away piecemeal, speak eloquently of a large amount of vulgar and rapacious innocence drifting about the world ?

It is well to see even such idle and foolish curiosities, however, in a city like Verona, for the mere going to and fro in search of them through her streets is full of instruction and delight. To my mind, no city has a fairer place than she that sits beside the eager Adige, and breathes the keen air of mountains white with snows in winter, green and purple with vineyards in summer, and forever rich with marble. Around Verona stretch those gardened plains of Lombardy, on which Nature, who dotes on Italy, and seems but a step-mother to all transalpine lands, has lavished every gift of beauty and fertility. Within the city’s walls, what store of art and history ! Her market-places have been the scenes of a thousand tragic or ridiculous dramas ; her quaint and narrow streets are ballade and legends full of love-making and murder; the empty, grass-grown piazzas before her churches are tales that are told of municipal and ecclesiastical splendor. Her nobles sleep in marble tombs so beautiful that the dust in them ought to be envied by living men in Verona; her lords lie in perpetual state in the heart of the city, in magnificent sepulchres of such grace and opulence, that, unless a language be invented full of lance-headed characters, and Gothic vagaries of arch and finial, flower and fruit, bird and beast, they can never be described. Sacred be their rest from pen of mine, Verona ! Nay, while I would fain bring the whole city before my reader’s fancy, I am loath and afraid to touch any thing in it with my poor art : either the tawny river, spanned with many beautiful bridges, and murmurous with mills afloat and turned by the rapid current ; or the thoroughfares with their passengers and bright shops and caffès ; or the grim old feudal towers; or the age-embrowned pal-aces, eloquent in their haughty strength of the times when they were family fortresses ; or the churches with the red pillars of their porticos resting upon the backs of eagle-headed lions; or even the white-coated garrison (now there no more), with its heavy-footed rank and file, its handsome and resplendent officers, its bristling fortifications, its horses and artillery, crowding the piazzas of churches turned into barracks. All these things haunt my memory, but I could only at best thinly sketch them in meagre black and white. Verona is an almost purely Gothic city in her architecture, and her churches are more worthy to be seen than any others in North Italy, outside of Venice. San Zenone, with the quaint bronzes on its doors representing in the rudeness of the first period of art the incidents of the Old Testament and the miracles of the saints—with the allegorical sculptures surrounding the interior and exterior of the portico, and illustrating, among other things, the creation of Eve with absolute literalness — with its beautiful and solemn crypt in which the dust of the titular saint lies entombed— with its minute windows, and its. vast columns sustaining the roof upon capitals of every bizarre and fantastic device — is doubtless most abundant in that Gothic spirit, now grotesque and now earnest, which somewhere appears in all the churches of Verona ; which has carven upon the façade of the Duomo the statues of Orlando and Olliviero, heroes of romance, and near them has placed the scandalous figure of a pig in a monk’s robe and cowl, with a breviary in his paw ; which has reared the exquisite monument of Guglielmo da Castelbarco before the church of St. Anastasia, and has produced the tombs of the Scaligeri before the chapel of Santa Maria Antica.

I have already pledged myself not to attempt any description of these tombs, and shall not fall now. But I bought in the English tongue, as written at Verona, some ” Notices,” kept for sale by the sacristan, “of the Ancient Churg of Our Lady, and of the Tombs of the most illustrious Family Della-Scala,” and from tnese I think it no dereliction to quote verbatim. First is the tomb of Can Francesco, who was ” sun lamed the Great by reason of his valor.” ” With him the Great Alighieri and other exiles took refuge. We see his figure extended upon a bed, and above his statue on horseback with the vizor down, and his crest falling behind his shoulders, his horse covered with mail. The columns and capitals are wonderful.” ” Within the Cemetery to the right leaning against the walls of the church is the tomb of John Scaliger.” ” In the side of this tomb near the wall of Sacristy, you see the urn that en-closes the ashes of Martin I.,” ” who was traitorously killed on the 17th of October 1277 by Scaramello of the Scaramelli, who wished to revenge the honor of a young lady of his family,” ” The Mausoleum that is in the side facing the Place encloses the Martin II.’s ashes. This building is sumptuous and wonderful because it stands on four columns, each of which has an architrave of nine feet. On the beams stands a very large square of marble that forms the floor, on which stands the urn of the Defunct. Four other columns support the vault that covers the urn ; and the rest is adorned by facts of Old Testament. Upon the Summit is the equestrian statue as large as life.” Of ” Can Signorius,” whose tomb is the most splendid of all, the ” Notices ” say : ” He spent two thousand florins of gold, in order to prepare his own sepulchre while he was yet alive, and to surpass the magnificence of his predecessors. The monument is as magnificent as the contracted space allows. Six columns support the floor of marble on which it stands cowered with figures. Six other columns support the top, on that is the Scaliger’s statues. . . . The monument is sur-rounded by an enclosure of red marble, with six pillars, on which are square capitols with armed Saints. The rails of iron with the Arms of the Scala, are worked with a beauty wonderful for that age,” or, I may add, for any age. These ” rails ” are an exquisite net-work of iron wrought by hand, with an art emulous of that of Nicolô) Caparra at Florence. The chief device employed is a ladder (scala) constantly repeated in the centres of quatre-foils ; and the whole fabric is still so flexible and perfect, after the lapse of centuries, that the net may be shaken throughout by a touch. Four other tombs of the Scaligeri are here, among which the ” Notices ” particularly mention that of Alboin della Scala : ” 11e was one of the Ghibelline party, as the arms on his urn schew, that is a staircase risen by an eagle — wherefore Dante said, In sulla Scala porta il santo Uccello.”

I should have been glad to meet the author of these delightful histories, but in his absence we fared well enough with the sacristan. When, a few hours before we left Verona, we came for a last look at the beautiful sepulchres, he recognized us, and see-mg a sketch-book in the party, he invited us within the inclosure again, and then ran and fetched chairs for us to sit upon — nay, even placed chairs for us to rest our feet on. Winning and exuberant courtesy of the Italian race ! If I had never acknowledged :t before, I must do homage to it now, remembering the sweetness of the sacristans and custodians of Verona. They were all men of the most sympathetic natures. He at San Zenone seemed never to have met with real friends till we expressed pleasure in the magnificent Mantegna, which is the pride of his church. ” What coloring ! ” he cried, and then triumphantly took us into the crypt : ” What a magnificent crypt ! What works they executed in those days, there!” At San Giorgio Maggiore, where there are a Tintoretto and a Veronese, and four horrible swindling big pictures by Romanino, I discovered to my great dismay that I had hi my pocket but five soldi, which I offered with much abasement and many apologies to the sacristan ; but he received them as if they had been so many napoleons, prayed me not to speak of embarrassment, and declared that his labors in our behalf had been nothing but pleasure. At Santa Maria in Organo, where are the wonderful intagli of Fra Giovanni da Verona, the sacristan fully shared our sorrow that the best pictures could not be unveiled as it was Holy Week. He was also moved ‘Is at the gradual, decay of the intagli, and led us to believe that, to a man of so much sensibility, the general ruinous state of the church was an inexpressible affliction ; and we rejoiced for his sake that it should possess at least on’ piece of art in perfect repair. This was a modern work, that day exposed for the first time, aid it rep-resented in a group of wooden figures The Death of St. Joseph. The Virgin and Christ supported the dying saint on either hand; and as the whole was-vividly colored, and rays of glory in pink and yellow gauze descended upon Joseph’s head, nothing could have been more impressive.