“ There is no world for me outside the walls of Verona, except purgatory, torture, and hell itself. So to be banished from Verona is like being banished from the world…” (Romeo, Act 3, Romeo and Juliet by W. Shakespeare)
City of love, portal to Italy, homeland of illustrious Latin writers, epicentre of Roman and Gothic architecture, seat of kingdoms and seigniories, extraordinary military stronghold, industrial and agricultural hub, a unicum of culture and art. Rarely has so much distinction been been attributed to a city of such modest size. The best summing up of the magnificence of Verona is conveyed in the words of the poet Marziale (AD 100) in the first description of the city (Iconografia rateriana, IX sec.): Magna Verona, where the Latin magna encompasses in one word “great, illustrious, grandiose and magnificent”.
The new city was laid out as a grid of streets crossing at right-angles to one another, forming residential blocks (74 m per side) called insulae. In the centre where the main streets met – the main decumanus (here in a south-west – north-east direction, the present-day Via Borsari and Via S. Anastasia) – was the forum with the temples and the government buildings, and the main north-south cardo (now Via Cappello and Via Leoni). The theatre, the odeon, and the arena were all outside the city walls, but later the arena was included in the new perimeter wall commissioned by the emperor Gallieno in AD 265, a defensive work built to withstand the threat of barbarian invasions.
Over this vast span of centuries the grandiose buildings and the structures still conserved – including the Borsari and Leoni gates, the amphitheatre, the theatre and even the paving and the bridge over the Adige – document a happy epoch for the the city and still today make it the most “Roman city” of north Italy. The cultural climate that went hand and hand with the growth of the population and its economic prosperity was illustrated by the celebrated writers who were born here, or are thought to have been born here: the poets Catullus and Macer, the scientist Pliny the Elder and the architect Vitruvius, the historian Nepote, honoured with effigies along the cornice of Palazzo del Consiglio in Piazza dei Signori. A diagrammatic reconstruction of the plan of the city at the time of the first empire can be seen on the paving in Via Mazzini.
The city’s political importance hardly lessen with the decline of the Roman empire. In AD 403 it saw the victory of Stilicho – as supreme commander or magister militum – over the Visigoth Alaric; from 493 to 526 it was the seat of Theodoric’s Ostrogoth kingdom which had defeated King Odoacre here. Later still it became one of the principal Lombard cities and seat of King Alboin; occupied by Charlemagne’s Franks in 774 it once more saw a royal court under his son Pipin and with King Berengar I. The first Early Christian churches, both Aryan and Catholic, can be dated to this long period, and too the main Benedictine monasteries and – especially during the Carolingian and Ottonian empires – the first great cultural institutions: it seems certain that a schola for the teaching of medicine and law was established next to the school for priests and the school of calligraphy under the patronage of Archdeacon Pacifico. Significant traces of these conquerors are found in the churches of S. Maria in Organo, S. Stefano, S. Fermo and S. Nazaro, and in the complexes of S. Zeno and of the Cathedral. On the other hand, the only complete pre-Romanesque monument is the votive chapel to saints Teuteria and Tosca, situated in Corso Cavour.
After 27 years of government by the tyrannical Ezzelino III da Romano, in 1260 Leonardino della Scala, known as Mastino, the Mastiff, was elected Captain of the City, opening the most brilliant period in Verona’s history, that of the Scaligeri (or della Scala) Lords of Verona, ruling until 1387. Their territorial expansion extended to Belluno, Brescia, Parma and Lucca; Verona became the stronghold of the pro-empire Ghibellines and the Court of Overlords a centre of patronage fostering artists, men of letters and the emerging mendicant orders. The city walls were extended between 1283 and 1329 to protect the outer suburbs – including those across the river – and a new, decentralised palace was defended by a fortress. The height of power came with Can Francesco known as Cangrande I (1291-1329), Dante’s celebrated patron and one of the main artifices of the urban renewal that made Verona the worthy capital of a great and powerful dominion whose fame has inspired story tellers and playwrights for centuries: at least three works by W. Shakespeare, for example, cite or illustrate the city, the most notable being Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew.
The city’s renewal under the Scaligeri family can be seen in the splendid Italian Gothic style of the religious architecture, the city’s government buildings, the Castelvecchio fortress with the bridge over the Adige, the grandiose family mausoleum of the Scaliger Tombs (Arche Scaligere), and in the redesigned loggias, courtyards and porticoes of the districts around the centre: and a plethora of art whose most illustrious masters were Altichiero, Rigino di Enrico, Giovanni and Enrico di Rigino, and the anonymous sculptors of the cathedral of S. Zeno, of S. Fermo, and of S. Anastasia.
At the end of the 14th century Scaligeri rule gave way to a short period of domination by the Visconti of Milan and the Carraresi of Padua: In 1405 the city ceded to Venice which guaranteed – except for a brief imperial parenthesis during the War of Cambrai (1509-1516) – four centuries of peace, up until the arrival of the French under Napoleon in 1797. In this period civic works were mostly limited to the redevelopment of the waterway port, the business districts, the building of sumptuous private palaces, and a few government edifices (examples in Piazza Bra); while the main attention was given over to reorganising the defensive system and especially to widening and refacing the southern wall with embankments, ramparts, entrance gates and ample spaces separating it from residential areas.