The main entrance to the piazza Bra is through the so-called Portoni della Bra, two open archways through the city’s medieval wall and located next to a pentagonal tower, the only remainder of a fortification by Gian Galeazzo Visconti (late 14th century).
Next to that is a n open gallery with the entrance of the Accademia Filarmonica, or Philharmonic Academy, one of the city’s oldest and most glorious cultural institutions.
The old city extends north-eastwards, enclosed by the meandering river and the long line of late-Republican wall that skirted Piazza Bra. This network of streets was the nucleus of the Roman settlement, based on the right-angled intersection of cardi and decumani that marked out its main streets, and from which later additions branched out, especially in the medieval period with the establishment of new political and religious buildings, the laying out of piazzas, the alterations to the residential blocks. The result is an extremely close-knit urban snugness dotted with splendid historic and artistic features.
From Piazza Bra, leaving the Arena on the right, we head towards the heart of the city, following the flow of people towards Via Mazzini, the continuation of the listòn and Verona’s shop window, bustling with shoppers.
PIAZZA DELLE ERBE is sited over part of the ancient Roman Forum, which extended over an area as large as two insulae (residential blocks) at the intersection between the end of Via Postumia, the cardo maximus now Via Borsari and the decumanus maximus of present-day Via Cappello-Leoni. Around it were the most important public buildings: the Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva); the Curia for the meetings of the decurioni – councillors of the city; the Basilica, seat of justice; and the Comitium for the citizens’ assemblies.
An obvious tribute to the city’s Roman roots is the fountain located in the centre of the piazza,
The piazza as we see it today is therefore the fruit of alterations that have taken place over many centuries to suit the public space to new requirements of everyday life and government, while never losing its role as business and trading centre.
To appreciate the various individual components, it is worth viewing the piazza along its main axis, with the ancient column in red marble bearing a Gothic shrine in the foreground and the baroque Palazzo Maffei in the background.
In the background stands a highly ornate baroque mansion, Palazzo Maffei, three storeys, richly decorated with volutes, gargoyles and epigraphs and crowned by a cornice with balustrade, the latter originally ringed the terrace of a hanging garden.
The right side of the piazza begins with the Case Mazzanti, a complex of private buildings once belonging to the Della Scala who built them as shops and barns, from whence their early name domus bladorum or of fodder.. An arch connects it to Palazzo del Comune, also called Palazzo della Ragione as it was the seat of the judicial authorities.
Passing under this particular arch and along Via Costa we reach PIAZZA DEI SIGNORI, that for a long time, especially under the Scaligeri and the Venetians, was the political and administrative centre of the city. Close to Piazza delle Erbe – the drawing room of government next to the field of business and trade – surrounded by monumental buildings from different epochs, connected to each other by archways placed across the access streets.
On the right stands the side facade of the already-mentioned Palazzo del Comune, clearly lightened by the Venetian touches that soften its original austere appearance by the positioning of busts and Renaissance door and windows.
The next complex, resting on solid corner towers, has the appearance of a vast and mighty fortress. This is, in effect, Palazzo di Cansignorio (1363), also known by the Scaligeri as Palazzo Grande. After 1405 under the Serene Republic it became the official seat of the Captain of the city and of his offices (hence its present name Palazzo del Capitanio), radically refurbishing it as shown by the facade with its entrance portal attributed to Sanmicheli (1530), the internal courtyard with the elegant Loggia Barbaro (1476) and the singular Porta dei Bombardieri or Bombardiers’ Gate erected in 1687 to celebrate the splendour of the military school of that name located nearby. Under the Austrians the building served as an extension to the nearby courts and as a prison, which accounts for its other name, Palazzo dei Tribunali, courts of law.
Closing off the north side of the piazza is another overhead passageway – known as the torture arch – up against the foreboding Palazzo di Cangrande, where guests were Dante and Giotto. This palace consists of various wings, overlooking an internal courtyard with a double loggia of Romanesque and Gothic arches and with a splendid well-head in the centre; this part of the original layout also featured the portraits of the Caesars painted on the underside of the arches by Altichiero da Verona . Before becoming the present-day seat of the Prefecture it was the residence of the Venetian governor, from which the name Palazzo del Podestà.
Piazza dei Signori also features PALAZZO DEL CONSIGLIO, the Palace of the Council that occupies the north-west side. This building is one the highest expression of the architecture produced by Veronese Humanism inspired by the architectural rules of Classicism, above all, those indicated by the Roman Vitruvius – firmitas-strength, utilitas-functionality, vetustas-beauty.
Under the portico above the entrance door is a bronze panel, a gift from the Venetian Senate, recalling the people of Verona’s allegiance to the Republic: Pro summa fide summus amor. MDXCII, For the greatest fidelity, the greatest love, 1592.
The statues along the cornice offer an occasion to take a look at all the effigies that overlook the piazza, almost a small pantheon of the glories of the city. Here are portrayed the real or presumed citizens of Verona of the Roman epoch: the poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, the naturalist Pliny the Elder, the poet and naturalist Aemilius Macer, the theorist of architecture Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, and the historian Cornelius Nepos.
Having passed under the Volto della Tortura, we come to the ARCHE SCALIGERE – the Scaliger dynastic funerary monuments, the coemeterium, an everlasting proclamation of their glory.