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.
The history of the city of Verona can be dated back to prehistoric times. It first developed between the 4th and 3rd century BC and became a Roman municipium in the 1st century BC. In the 5th century, the city was occupied by the Ostrogoth Theodoric I and later by the Lombards and in 774 by Charlemagne. In the early 12th century it became a free commune. Verona prospered in particular under the rule of the Scaliger family and Cangrande I is popularly regarded as the art patron of the whole city. In 1405, it fell into the rule of the Republic of Venice and from 1797 on, it became part of the Austrian Empire. In 1866, it joined the Kingdom of Italy. You must be as surprised as I was when I first heard that Verona had gone through so much in history. However, it is exactly these changes in history that gave the city its current rich cultural heritage. Thanks to the city walls built originally for preventing the invasion of other military forces, the historic center of Verona avoided 19th century development such as industry and railroads. Wandering around in the city, you will see elements from the Roman times, from the Romanesque period, from the Middle Ages and from the Renaissance. Except the buildings destroyed during the Second World War, the surviving architecture and urban structure reflects the evolution of this fortified town over its 2000-year history.
The core of the city is located in the loop of Adige River and what you should not miss are the Piazza delle Erbe (the fruit and vegetable market) and Piazza dei Signori with fantastic buildings such as Palazzo del Comune, Palazzo del Governo, Loggia del Consiglio, Arche Scaligere, Domus Nova and so on. What’s more, as the city containing one of the richest collections of Roman remains in northern Italy, Verona is like a live history book in which you will see fine examples of Roman architecture like the city gate, Porta Borsari, the remains of Porta Leoni, Arco dei Gavi, Ponte Pietra, the Roman theatre, the Amphitheatre Arena and so on.
I believe you will realize the values of the city once finishing reading the compliments given by the UNESCO.
In its urban structure and its architecture, Verona is an outstanding example of a town that has developed progressively and uninterruptedly over 2,000 years, incorporating artistic elements of the highest quality from each succeeding period.
Verona represents in an exceptional way the concept of the fortified town at several seminal stages of European history.
In this post, I’m gonna take you to have a close look at the most outstanding Roman remains in the city. That is to say, the Arena Roman Amphitheatre, the Roman Theatre & the Archaeological Museum, the Lapidary Inscriptions Museum, Porta Leoni and Porta Borsari. Please note that you can visit the two gates free of charge and the entry tickets to the rest of the attractions that I mentioned above are included in the Verona Card. In my opinion, after visiting these sites, you would have a rather clear about what the city was like in the Roman times. Now let’s start our journey by visiting the symbol of the city, the Arena Amphitheatre.
1. The Arena Amphitheatre
Please note that the Arena is open: Tuesday-Sunday: 8:30-19:30. Monday: 13:30-19:30 (The cash desk closes at 18:30 and there will be reduced opening hours during the Opera Festival in Summer)
I have been to the Colosseum in Rome and I was really surprised when I learnt that there’s an amphitheatre like that in Verona as well. Compared to the one in Rome, this amphitheatre is smaller. However, it’s still magnificent as it is the 8th largest in the Roman Empire and the 4th largest of its kind in Italy.
Located on Piazza Bra, where a lot of historic buildings date back to different periods of time, the Arena Amphitheatre was built in around the middle of the 1st century A.D. and at that point it was outside the city walls of the Roman Verona. The entire theatre occupied an area of almost 19,000 square meters with the internal auditorium took up more than 3000 square meters. It is mainly built with limestone from Valpolicella and nowadays the only part left from the external ring is the “ala (wing)“, which is more than 30 meters high and whether you’re standing outside or inside the theatre I’m sure you won’t miss it. The four arches in the external ring are like huge windows and from them you can imagine how great the Arena was when it was first built.
In the inner ring, the 72 arches are preserved and the Roman numbers on them were to make sure that the spectators would find their seats accordingly, similar to the functions of the numbers that we see nowadays in the opera houses or cinemas. The cavea consists of 44 rows of stairs (seats), which are accessible through 64 vomitoria. It is said that originally the theatre could contain 30,000 spectators but nowadays, considering safety and some other reasons such as optimal visual angles, it can seat around 15,000 people depending on the performances.
Since the ancient Roman times, this theatre has been offering spectacles to the public for almost 2000 years. Meanwhile, it had also been used for other activities such as the administration of justice. Now, let’s take a look at what has happened in this amphitheatre in those 2000 years.
In ancient times, like in the Colosseum in Rome, duels between gladiators and exotic animals were usually held here. It is said that athletic competitions such as boxing matches might have also been held here. At that time, sculptures and fountains were used as decorations but nowadays only a few of them survived and they have been moved to the Archaeological Museum at the Roman Theatre for protection. From the 3rd century, the popularity of the duels held here started decreasing mainly because of the disapproval of the Christian society and from then on the amphitheatre began losing its original function.
In the Middle Ages, the internal auditorium continued to be used for various events, in which most were related to the administration of justice, for example death sentences. In the 13th century, the Arena became an ideal den for the criminals and from the late 13th century to the early 16th century, the city’s prostitutes were ordered to live here to do their “business”.
In the Modern Age, the amphitheatre began to be protected and many scholars and architects began to study this splendid Roman heritage. The external vaulted areas also became shops for many artisans and merchants. At the same time, performances here began to prosper again thanks to the Veronese noble families who organized tournaments and other events to welcome the arrival of the important Italian or foreign personages in Verona. In 1713, for the first time, a small wooden theatre was set up in the auditorium to perform the Merope by Scipione Maffei and after that, public services, comedies and events such as races, ascents in hot-air balloons, circus performances and hunts (one of which was staged for Napoleon Bonaparte) had been more and more frequently carried out here. In 1890, the Legendary Buffalo Bill presented his Wild West show in the Arena.
Since 1913, this amphitheatre has been a super popular and famous site for opera in the summer season and the first performance, Aida, composed by Giuseppe Verdi, was held on the occasion of his 100th birthday. If you are interested, the 96th Opera Festival will be held from the 22th June to the 1st September in 2018 and for more information such as the program or for reserving your seats please visit the official website www.arena.it.
If you wanna know more about the Arena, I suggest that you can obtain a brochure called “The Arena Amphitheatre” from the tourism office or you can visit the detailed information panels within it (once you pass the ticket office, the info panels are in front of you). If you speak Italian, you can also visit the official website www.museomaffeiano.it for more information. Now let’s move towards another building for entertainment in Roman Verona, the Roman Theatre.
2. The Roman Theatre and the Archaeological Museum
Please note that the Roman Theatre and the Archaeological Museum are open: Tuesday-Sunday: 8:30-19:30. Monday: 13:30-19:30 (last admission: 18:30)
The Roman Theatre is located at the foot of San Pietro hill and at the opposite side of the historic center of Verona. In order to reach the theatre from the city center, you have to cross Ponte Pietra, a Roman arch bridge crossing the Adige River. As the oldest bridge in Verona, it was built in 100 BC and in 1298, the arch closest to the right bank of the Adige was rebuilt by Alberto I della Scala. Unfortunately, four arches were destroyed by the German troops during the Second World War but were again rebuilt using the original materials in 1957.
If you love photography, I can assure you that in this part of the city (around the Roman Theatre), you can take great photos of Verona for example, on the Pietra bridge, along the banks of River Adige as well as in the Roman Theatre and the Archaeological Museum. The panorama viewpoint in front of the San Pietro Castle (also located close to the Roman Theatre) is probably the best place to have an overview of Verona but I’m gonna write about it together with the Lamberti Tower in the next post. In my opinion, whether at dusk or dawn, in the day time or at night, the atmosphere and view of the city change but the charm stays the same. As I discussed with my friends, Verona, especially the historic center, seems like a small city but its beauty is highly concentrated. Unlike in some big cities, where you need to take a bus or tram to travel for half an hour to visit one attraction, in Verona, all you need to do is to take a walk. Nevertheless, you won’t finish discovering its heritage in one or two days because you are walking in history and everywhere you go, there’s something that you wanna learn about. Now I’ll show you some pictures that I took from around the Roman Theatre (except from the viewpoint in front of the San Pietro Castle) and I hope that you can have a general idea of what you can expect. To be honest, I was really surprised when I saw how clear the water of the Adige river was.
Now let’s come back to the Roman Theatre. The large theatre complex originally occupied the entire hill and at the summit, there was originally a temple. After the abandonment, many civic and religious buildings were added on the ruins. What we can still see nowadays of the original theatre are the cavea (the rows of stairs), some tiers of the loggias and some remains of the stage. From June to September, the Roman Theatre hosts the Veronese Summer Festival with musicals, dance and theatre performances and so on.
As for visiting the Archaeological Museum, you can either start the itinerary by lift or by walking up the stairs. For me personally, I don’t think it’s that hard to climb up the stairs (it took me around 5mins or so) and what’s more, I got a great view of the historic center of Verona, the Adige river and the Pietra bridge.
If you take the stairs as I did, you will see a polychrome mosaic (from the 3rd century A.D.), which adorned the dining room of a rich Roman house, outside the walls of Verona (Piazza Bra); the Jesuates cloister, which dates back to the 15th century; many stones with inscriptions, which date back from the end of the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.; and the church built in 1432 dedicated to Virgin Mary and St. Jerome, the guardian saint of the the Jesuates. If you keep walking up, an exhibition about Roman Verona will surely satisfy your curiosity by showing you how people at that time lived in this area. It is also in this exhibition that you will see the models and explanations of the Roman public buildings such as the Gavi arch, the Arena Amphitheatre as well as the Roman sculptures from Verona. All in all, I think this museum is the best place for you to learn about Verona in Roman times.
Now let’s move back to the historic center of Verona and visit the Lapidary Inscriptions Museum located close to Piazza Bra.
3. The Lapidary Inscriptions Museum
Please note that the Lapidary Inscriptions Museum is open: Tuesday-Sunday: 8:30-14:00 (last admission: 1:30, closed on Mondays).
As one of the oldest public museums in Europe, the Lapidary Inscriptions Museum was instituted in 1745 by the Veronese history and culture lover Scipione Maffei. Please note that you can visit not only the rooms on the first and second floors, but also the basement and the courtyard. It collects epigraphs and other findings of different periods and in general the rooms on the first floor exhibit ancient Greek inscriptions and reliefs while on the second floor the rooms exhibit the Roman and Etruscan ones.
In my opinion, this museum is quite visitor-friendly because there are info sheets available in English, Italian, German and French whether in the rooms or in the courtyard. Before you start visiting each room inside the museum building or visiting the courtyard, I recommend you taking the info sheet first and then you can read about the reliefs and inscriptions that you like or are highlighted. The names of all the pieces and their brief descriptions are printed on the labels located close to them (available in English and Italian) but if you wanna learn about certain pieces in detail, you have to read the info sheets (the numbers of the important pieces are in accordance with the numbers on the info sheets. Please don’t forget to return the info sheet to the original box for the other visitors once you finish you your visit of one specific room.
It’s hard to say which of these reliefs or inscriptions are the most valuable despite that some of them might be very ancient. Personally, I think the best way to visit this museum is to discover and learn about which ones you are curious about or which ones you think are interesting. For example, I was impressed by the stories of articles No. 10, Slab with votive relief (from Attica, 5th century B.C.); No. 11, Slab with votive relief on both sides linked to the foundation of the Athenian sanctuary (from Athens, 5th century B.C.); No. 17, Slab dedicated to Loukios Murdios Heraklas (from Smyrna, 1st century B.C.); No. 22, Front of a sarcophagus with the myth of Phaeton (from Rome, mid-3rd century A.D.); No. 24, Small urns in terra cotta with the duel between Eteocles and Polynices (from Chiusi, 2nd century B.C.) and so on. As I mentioned above, don’t forget about the courtyard because there’s also a big collection there.
Last but not least, let’s take a look at the two Roman gates that you might have already encountered by accident while wandering in this beautiful city.
4. Porta Leoni and Porta Borsari
The pictures shown above are of the Leoni Gate (the 1st pic) and of the Borsari Gate (the 2nd and 3rd pics) and the former is located close to Juliet’s House while the latter close to the basilica of St. Lorenzo.
As for Porta Leoni, remains of the late-Roman-Republic gate (50/40 B.C.), originally a brick construction with towers at the corners and a central courtyard, can still be seen nowadays. Between 50 and 70 A.D. two new stone façades were built up against the gate’s north and south fronts. The partially demolished city walls were replaced in 265 A.D. by a new circuit built by the emperor Gallienus. What’s in front of you is the reconstruction of the north façade in the middle of the 1st century A.D. and behind it are the remains of original late-Roman-Republic gate. I think it won’t be difficult to notice the arch of it as the color difference between it and the reconstruction is quite big. As for the most ancient gate (built in the middle of the 1st century B.C.) there should have been two arches on the ground floor, a series of small windows on the first floor and a large loggia on the second floor .
The other gate, Porta Borsari, of which the original Roman Republic structure was almost identical in typology to Gate Leoni, was once another main entrance to the city. It dates to the 1st century AD, though it was most likely built over a pre-existing gate from the 1st century BC (now its has disappeared). An inscription dating from emperor Gallienus’ reign reports another reconstruction in 265 AD.
Having learnt so much about Roman Verona, do you agree with me now that Verona is indeed a city with rich historical and cultural heritage? No wonder sometimes it is even ranked as the second most important city (after Rome) in Italy in terms of the quantity and quality of Roman remains. In the next post, let’s follow the river of history and start exploring Verona in Medieval and Renaissance periods. What’s especially interesting to you might be Castelvecchio & Museum, the Lamberti Tower, Piazza delle Erbe, Piazza dei Signori and most importantly, the panorama viewpoint in front of the San Pietro Castle.