As the UNESCO comments:
The historic city of Verona was founded in the 1st century B.C. It particularly flourished under the rule of the Scaliger family in the 13th and 14th centuries and as part of the Republic of Venice from the 15th to 18th centuries. Verona has preserved a remarkable number of monuments from antiquity, the medieval and Renaissance periods, and represents an outstanding example of a military stronghold.
In my last post, I talked about Verona as the setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. In this and the following two post, let’s come back to reality and focus on the historical and cultural heritage of this ancient city.
Did you know that Verona is a city with 2000 years of history? It was once a major political and commercial center in Roman time (starting from the 1st century BC) and in the next post I’m gonna show you the remains and traces from that period of time. In the 12th century, Verona obtained a new urban shape as a free commune and in the first half of the 13th century, it came to be under the rule of the noble family of the Scaliger, Lords of Verona until 1387. In 1405, ruling power of the city was passed on to the hands of the Republic of Venice and it was under the control of La Serenissima for almost 400 years until the territory was invaded by the Grande Armée, the Napoleon troops.
I’m sure that when you wander around in the city you will notice the amazing Romanesque monuments such as the basilica dedicated to Saint Zeno, the city’s patron saint. This building was constructed using volcanic stone, marble and brick and it dates from the 9th to the 14th centuries. What’s especially worth noticing about this basilica are the rose window, the bronze panels, the interior of it, the Saint Zeno altarpiece by Andrea Mantegna and the crypt. The biggest church in Verona, however, is the basilica of St. Anastasia. It’s a splendid example of Italian gothic style and once you enter, the ceiling decorated with painted flowers will surely catch your breath right away. Make sure not to miss the famous sculpture “gobbi (hunchbacks)” at the entrance and one of the most famous frescoes by Pisanello, St. George and the Princess. The Cathedral Complex is composed of the Churches devoted to St. Mary of the Assumption, Sant Giovanni in Fonte and Saint Elena, the canonical cloister, the library, the canonical museum, the front square and the bishop’s palace. When you are appreciating the gothic structure and the Renaissance decorations inside, I believe it won’t be difficult to see the extraordinary altarpiece by Titian, the Assumption of the Virgin. Last but not least, the forth main church in Verona is the Church of Saint Fermo. For me, it’s special and outstanding because it’s formed by two superimposed religious buildings. The lower church in its Romanesque style, dates back to the 11th century and was built by the Benedictine monks while the upper church, in its Gothic style, dates back to the 14th century and was built by the Franciscan monks. Don’t miss out the late Medieval frescoes, chapels and in particular the remarkable wooden ceiling in the shape of a ship’s hull in the upper church.
Feeling intrigued? In the next four chapters, I’m gonna give you a virtual tour of the four churches and give you a more detailed introduction to them. As I mentioned in the previous post, the entrance tickets to all the four churches are included in the Verona Card and it’s really a good deal to buy it (for more information about the Verona Card, please click here or read my previous post). Also, the visit to the four churches are very well-organized and once you enter, at the ticket office you can get an audio guide and a map which tells you what and where the main attractions are. If you want to read more about the churches later you can also ask for a brochure in each of the church and the history, a small map and a brief introduction to the main attractions are all written there. I was very happy about how the city made the churches and the knowledge about them easily accessible to the general public. I sometimes hear people saying that “I’m not religious, what’s the point of visiting churches?” Well, I myself am not religious but each city that I visit, I always visit the main churches. Why? Because for me, churches are not only the places for religious services. They are also witnesses to history, architecture and of course art. I can say that without any doubt, these four churches are as important as the art galleries or museums that I planned to visit in Verona.
In the next four chapters, I’m gonna first of all tell you the opening hours of each of the church. Afterwards, I’ll give you a brief introduction to the history as well as to the highlights of the churches such as the paintings, sculptures, frescoes and so on. Now let’s start our journey with the Basilica of Saint Zeno, dedicated to the patron saint of Verona.
1. Basilica of Saint Zeno
Please note that this church is open:
- (March-October) Monday-Saturday: 08:30-18:00. Sundays and holidays: 12:30-18:00
- (November-February) Monday-Saturday 10:00-13:00 & 13:30-17:00. Sundays and holidays: 12:30-17:00
The Basilica of Saint Zeno is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and well-preserved Romanesque architecture in the whole northern Italy. Once standing in front of the basilica, I’m sure you will be amazed by the warm colors of the façade made of tufa stone and bricks. This church is dedicated to the 8th bishop and the patron saint of Verona, Saint Zeno, born in Africa. It was him who converted the whole town to Christianity. The early buildings date back to the 6th century and some historians think that the chapel of Saint Benedetto, which can still be seen in the cloister is part of this early church. Due to the growing worship of Saint Zeno, the Frankish king Pépin (Charles the Great’s son), bishop Ratoldo and the archdeacon Pacifico decided to build a larger church and a monastery. On the 8th of December in 806, the new basilica was consecrated and on the 21st of May in 807, St. Zeno’s relics were transferred here. At the end of the 11th century, new works to enlarge and renew the church started and almost all the present basilica dates back to this period of time. Of course, there are many other historical moments that made the basilica as it is nowadays. You can listen to a very detailed description about them when you are inside the church or you can read about them on the brochure that I mentioned above. Now let me show you what you should not miss in the basilica with some pictures and a brief introduction.
First of all, As I already mentioned above, the façade is absolutely amazing because of its harmonious and graceful colors and the rose window by Brioloto, also called the Wheel of Fortune, will surely catch your attention immediately. If you take a close look, you will also notice the detailed sculptural decorations on the porch by Maestro Nicolò. The reliefs on the right by Maestro Nicolò and his workshop portray scenes in the Old Testament and the Legend of Theoderic and the reliefs on the left by Maestro Guglielmo and his workshop portray scenes from the New Testament and duels between the knight and soldiers.
The bronze doors are absolutely a highlight in the basilica and once you enter you should walk towards the back of the church and you will see them close to the main portal of it. These masterpieces are works of different artists and were made during different periods of time. For example, the author of the most ancient panels, portraying scenes from the New Testament (left) belongs to the German School while the author of the most recent panels portraying scenes from the Old Testament (right) is a local artist. It was really interesting listening to what the scenes on the panels are about and I believe you will learn a lot about the stories in the bible. One thing I’d like to remind you of is that you need to follow the guide rather closely. Otherwise you might get lost as for which scene it is talking about.
Another highlight of the church is the main chapel. It was built in Gothic style between 1386 and 1398 and the wooden altar piece Maestà della Vergine by Andrea Mantegna is a masterpiece of northern Italian Renaissance painting. Unfortunately the original piece was stolen by Napoleon and now is on exhibition in the Louvre.
The crypt that we see today is the rearrangement of the 10th century crypt between the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries. It is indeed a forest of columns and the body of St. Zeno is preserved in the urn in the apse.
Some other parts of the church that you might be interested in are the frescoes on different layers (12th-14th century), the Most Sacrament Altar (the right apse is one of the most ancient parts of the basilica), Laughing St. Zeno, the Baroque Altar and so on. Now let’s move our feet to the biggest church in Verona, the Church of St. Anastasia.
2. Church of St. Anastasia
Please note that this church is open:
- (March-October) Monday-Saturday: 09:00-18:00. Sundays and holidays: 13:00-18:00
- (November-February) Monday-Saturday: 10:00-13:00 & 13:30-17:00. Sundays and holidays: 13:00-17:00
The church of St. Anastasia is a splendid example of Italian Gothic architecture and was designed by two Dominican friars. The work began in 1290 AD and lasted throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. By the beginning of the 16th century the construction came to its final stages but the façade is never completed. Being the largest church in Verona, the basilica consists of three aisles supported by twelve impressive pillars in red Veronese marble (this church also testifies to Verona once being the “city of marble”). When I first entered, I was indeed attracted by the vaulting, especially by the painted flower decorations. In fact, I was even hesitating about which picture I should use as the featured image of this post because both the interiors of the basilica of St. Zeno and of the church of St. Anastasia are so amazing.
This church is also without any doubt an art gallery mainly because of Pisanello’s well-known fresco “St. George and the Princess” above Pellegrini Chapel and Gabriele Caliari’s “Holy Water Stoup”.
Once you enter the church I believe you will notice the two holy water stoups easily at the feet of the first two pillars. Compared to the holy water stoups in other churches, they do look rather special. The left one featuring a hunchback (1495) was carved by Gabriele Caliari, father of Paolo Veronese and the right one, which is slightly larger and more decorated, was carved by Paolo Orefice. It is known as “Easter” because it first appeared in the basilica at Easter in 1591.
One of the most important chapels in terms of their artistic values is the Pellegrini Chapel, above which on the external arch, you can see Pisanello’s fresco of St. George and the Princess. Inside the chapel, the walls are covered in a series of 24 tableaux in terra cotta. Designed by Michele da Firenze, they tell the story of Christ’s life. To be honest, in a church of so many wonderful frescoes and sculptures, it took me some time to find this specific fresco, but now I believe after seeing the two pictures above, it would be a lot easier for you to find it.
The altar shown above is the Centrego Altar, dedicated to the Dominican monk St. Thomas Aquinas. The painting “Our Lady Enthroned Between St. Thomas and St. Augustine” is by a very skillful Veronese painter and illuminator Girolamo dai Libri.
Other parts in the church that you might be interested in are the Pindemonte Altar, the Mazzoleni Altar (you can see a painting by Liberale da Verona), the Crucifix Chapel (the most ancient part of the church as it is built on the site of the earlier smaller church dedicated to St. Anastasia), the Cavalli Chapel, the Giusti Chapel, the Boldiere Chapel (where you can see St. Peter holds in one hand a model of the city pf Verona) and so on. Now let’s move on to the cathedral complex.
3. The Cathedral Complex
Please note that the cathedral complex is open:
- (March-October) Monday-Saturday: 10:00-17:30. Sunday and holidays: 13:30-17:30
- (November–February) Monday-Saturday: 10:00-13:00 & 13:30-17:00 (on Saturday afternoon the church closes at 16.00). Sunday and holidays: 13:30-17:00
The cathedral, dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption is the central building of the complex made up of the churches of Sant Giovanni in Fonte and Saint Elena, the canonical cloister, the library, the canonical museum, the front square and the bishop’s palace. The first palaeo-christian basilica was built on the area now occupied by the church of St. Elena. It was consecrated by St. Zeno, bishop of Verona between 362 and 380 AD. A few decades later, it was replaced by a larger basilica. The second palaeo-christian basilica collapsed probably because of a strong fire or earthquake (please note that remains of both basilicas can still be seen under the church of St. Elena) and between the 8th and 9th centuries the cathedral was constructed on the area where it is nowadays. However, the cathedra suffered severe damage in 1117 because of the big earthquake and the reconstruction again took 20 years. The interior was completely renovated in the second half of the 15th and the second half of the 16th centuries with addition of the side chapels and the choir screen.
In this complex, you will have the opportunity to visit the baptistery, the archaeological excavations, the church of St. Elena and of course the cathedral. Now let’s explore the four parts one by one.
3.1 The baptistery
The church of St. Giovanni in Fonte, now the baptistery of the cathedral was built in Romanesque style in around 1123 AD. The octagonal baptismal font located in the middle of the church will draw you attention once you enter it. What’s even more amazing is that the font was carved from a single block of marble and once you enter you will see the narrative of the Baptism of Christ. The narrative continues counter-clockwise depicting the scenes of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Nativity, the Announcement to the Shepherds, the Three Kings and so on.
It is also here that I learnt about the symbolism of the baptismal font. “Immersion represents the death of the old man while exit from the water represents the birth into new life.” Do you know why the font was made to be octagonal? It is because number 8 refers to the 8th day, end of the earthly week and beginning of eternity.
3.2 The archaeological excavations
This covered vestibule served as a covered walkway which connected the cathedral and the church of St. Elena. As can be seen beyond the glass door, this place is surrounded by six columns from the 11th and 12th centuries. On the left of the steps you can easily notice a 14th century triptych depicting Madonna with child, two saints and someone brining an offering. What interested me most was actually a large bone hanging from the arch (as you can see from the picture above). I read from the brochure that some other Italian churches also have bones or fossils from large animals such as whales, elephants and crocodiles hanging from their beams and they are nothing but a symbol of the killing of dragons, serpents or other mysterious evil monsters. Actually I saw another large hanging bone close to Piazza dei Signori. Now let’s walk on the steps and enter the church of St. Elena.
3.3 The church of St. Elena
The church of St. Elena was dedicated to St. George and St. Zeno. Built in the 9th century, it was renovated in Romanesque style after the earthquake in 1117. What especially impressive is the elegantly carved wooden choir which dates back to the 15th century. It is in this church that you can see the foundations and apses of the first and second basilica built in the 4th and 5th centuries. On the wall you can also see the 9th century inscription which lists the relics that were brought to the church. The most important piece is probably the Holy Cross, which was recovered by St. Elena and this is probably also the reason why the church is named St. Elena. Last but not least, it was also here that Dante Alighieri discussed his “Questio de aqua et terra”.
3.4 The cathedral
As a fan of Titian (Tiziano Vecelli), the first chapel that I went to see was the Cartolari-Nichesola Chapel with his painting, the Assumption, on the altar.
Some other chapels that you might be interested in are the Calcasoli Chapel and the Maffei Chapel. The former one is dedicated to St. Antonio of Vienna and was frescoed by Giovanni Maria Falconetto, signed and dated 1503. The latter contains frescoes by Giovanni Maria Falconetto and stone carvings by Domenico da Lugo and the altar contains remains of St. Annone. If you listen to the audio guide, you will also learn about what the engravings on the floor mean.
Before leaving the cathedral complex, don’t forget to take a look at the two-storey main porch and the porch over the side entrance. Now let’s move to the fourth main church in Verona, the church of St. Fermo.
4. Church of St. Fermo
Please note that the church is open:
- (March-October) Monday-Saturday: 10:00-18:00. Sunday and holidays: 13:00-18:00
- (November-February) Monday-Saturday: 10:00-13:00 & 13:30-17:00. Sundays and holidays: 13:00-17:00
In fact, the most interesting feature about this church is that it is composed of two churches, a lower one and an upper one and the former is in Romanesque style while the latter in Gothic. Why is the church of St. Fermo made up of two churches? To answer this question, we need to start by looking at the history of it. In 304, just outside the Roman “Porta Leoni”, two saints, St. Fermo and St. Rustico were martyred. In 765, St. Annone, the bishop of Verona, recovered the mortal remains of the two saints from Trieste and placed them in a Palaeo-Christian church within a “confessione”. Between 1065 and 1143, the Benedictine monks demolished the Palaeo-Christian church, but to conserve the relics where St. Annone placed them originally, they built a Romanesque church on the same site on two levels with the lower church conserving the relics and the upper one for religious services. In 1261, the church (both the upper and the lower) was handed over to the Franciscans who transformed the upper church to the current structure. In the following centuries, altars, chapels and monuments were added gradually. In 1759, the sarcophagus containing the remains was moved to the upper church to avoid the flooding of the Adige river. Now let’s start by the upper church and see what are the most important pieces.
Once you enter the upper church, the presbytery will immediately catch your eyes because of the elegant colonnade surrounding it. As I mentioned above, the sarcophagus containing the remains of the two saints are placed under the altar. On the front of the triumphal arch, you can see Coronation of the Virgin and Adoration of Magi by Lorenzo Veneziano (14th century) and above them the frescoes portraying the prior (Daniele Gusmerio) on the left and portraying the patron (Guglielmo da Castelbarco) on the right by the Redeemer’s Master. I’m sure you won’t miss the spectacular wooden ceiling in the shape of the bottom of a boat once you look up, but if you take a close look, you will notice that it is actually decorated with about 400 saints painted on panels!
Other parts you might be interested in are the Brenzoni Mausoleum, the Pulpit, St. Anthony’s Chapel (which preserves the fragile altarpiece by Liberale da Verona) and the Alighieri Chapel (where the last decedents of Dante Alighieri are buried). Now let’s move on to the right transept of the upper church and by going down the stairs starting from site number 9 on the map, we will be in the lower church soon.
The lower church has remained its Romanesque appearance from the 11th century and the 12th and 14th centuries’ frescoes are especially worth noticing. On the third pillar to the left you can see the Baptism of Jesus. During the restoration of the vaults in 2005, original Benedictine decorations were found which include flowers with six panels, considered to be the symbol of the redeemer.
Most of the information I provided above are both from the brochures that I obtained from the churches and from the info boards located in them. If you are particularly interested in one or more of the four main churches in Verona, I strongly recommend you listening to the audio guides because they can provide you with a much more detailed description and explanation of the history and architecture about them as well as the valuable artworks within. I guess after reading this post, you could understand why I said at the beginning that these churches are no less important than the art galleries or museums in Verona. In the next two posts, I’m gonna focus on the Roman remains and the Medieval and Renaissance buildings in the city. If you are a photography or are interested in being one, I’ll also recommend you some places for a spectacular view of Verona. See you soon!