Verona -- The Florence of the North?
SOME GUIDEBOOKS INTRODUCE VERONA as the Florence of the North. The two cities do have rivers flowing through them, and have mountains behind them, but that's in many ways where the resemblance ends. Put simply, Florence was a Capital City and Verona was not. In other words, though Verona was at times quite powerful, it also spent long periods under foreign rule; because of this it didn't have the sort of long-term influence over its neighbors that Florence did, and didn't attract the sort of wealth that Florence did. There was no massive urban renewal program in the Renaissance, and this, for the tourist, is a very good thing: The old survived.
Both Florence and Verona were major Roman cities (Verona may have been more important, though I'm not sure). However, whereas the layout of the streets in the middle of town is the only surviving trace of Roman Florence, Verona has all sorts of Roman things. Foremost is the Arena, which must have been glorious in its day, rivaling the Coliseum. Now most of the outer ring of travertine facing is gone, but the rest is still there, and so well preserved that it's still in use, hosting one of the most exciting opera festivals in the world. There's also the amphitheater, on the other side of the Adige, a bridge, and a number of Roman gates, including the Porta dei Borsari, whose delicate arches and architectural motifs would look quite at home on a wedding cake.
Florence, like Verona, once had beautiful Romanesque churches. However, in Florence few survive -- Santissimi Apostoli and San Miniato come to mind. The rest were torn down in the Renaissance to make way for Brunelleschi & Co.'s creations (The inside of Santa Trinita's Romanesque façade emerged during the restoration of the church in 1908 -- it's fascinating, much more to the measure of man than the newer structure -- enter the church and turn around). Verona has many Romanesque churches well worth journeys:
- San Giovanni in Fonte was founded in the 700s and rebuilt following the great earthquake of 1117. It has an astounding early 13th century baptismal font, with bas-reliefs of the life of the Savior, and exciting fantastic animals on the capitals of the columns and throughout the church.
- Sant'Anastasia is younger, a gothic basilica originally dedicated to Saint Peter the Martyr by the Dominicans; it's large, dim, airy, and has holy water fonts supported by hunchbacks on the first pillars by the doors.
- San Fermo is a Romano-Gothic church on two levels. The lower, built by the Benedictines in the 1060s, is Romanesque, whereas the upper, built by the Franciscans in the 1300s, is Gothic. The upper church has a spectacular Gothic pulpit and a wonderful sculpture of Christ Arisen, with the soldiers sleeping all around.
- San Lorenzo's threshold is a side door under a 15th century portico; crossing it is a step back in time, to the days when the women worshiped from a gallery above while the men stayed below (at least according to my guidebook). In any case, this is the only non-monastic church with a gallery I have seen, and it is hauntingly beautiful.
- San Procolo is Verona's earliest church (5-600), and to be honest not much has survived. However, archaeological excavations under the floors have brought to light the necropolis, and if you look over your shoulder as you descend to the crypt you will see the open graves (no bones), and a Roman lead coffin on a pedestal.
- San Zeno is Verona's most famous church, worthy of a pilgrimage to see the doors, which are decorated with 48 8th and 9th century panels depicting scenes of the Old and New Testaments, and the miracles of San Zeno. They've got an enormously distant feel to them -- stick-figure people who look like those in the Bayeaux Tapestry, gargoyles and monsters. Nothing remotely like this in Florence. The inside is cavernous, with a more recent ceiling, a crypt, and a beautiful high Renaissance Nativity by Mantegna.
There is of course much more to Verona. In particular, don't miss Juliet's house (on Via Cappello). Her balcony can be seen from the road, and the passage leading to the door is covered with people's signatures and declarations of love, some decades old -- the authorities gave up trying to keep it clean long ago.
There is also the Festival Della Lirica, and more, in the Roman Arena. What better way to spend a weekend than visit the city, explore the churches, see Juliet's house, and close with a good romantic tragedy like La Traviata?