If mediaeval Verona was a film, there is no doubt who the star would be: Cangrande della Scala. Do you remember Braveheart, where Mel Gibson, in the guise of William Wallace, personified Scottish pride? Well, Cangrande is the embodiment of the Veronese spirit. Who would play him today, maybe Chris Hemsworth or Ryan Gosling? If you have an idea, we’re open to suggestions!
Verona's great lord and leader, the most celebrated of the Scaligers, third child of Alberto I Della Scala, brother of Albonino and Bartolomeo. The coat of arms of this illustrious family, under whose control the mediaeval commune of Verona grew in size and standing, can be found everywhere in the city: on the railings of the Arche Scaligere, in the palaces, this symbol of a glorious past is still much-loved and much-used, including on the badge of Hellas Verona football club and many other businesses.
A symbol of the city and a fascinating character, Can Francesco, known as Cangrande, was the lord who turned Verona into a leading city during the great Guelf-Ghibelline struggle for control of the Holy Roman Empire during the rule of Henry VII of Luxembourg who, on his deathbed in 1313, implored Cangrande to defend the empire. Ever since childhood Cangrande had demonstrated a natural aptitude for leadership and politics, with an extraordinary military gift which he displayed by leading Verona’s army into battle from the age of 14.
Destined for Greatness
At first, he ruled Verona alongside his brother Alboino, before assuming sole control of the city in 1311 when his brother died. It was then that his strong personality came fully to the fore, bringing Verona one of its most prosperous and important periods, a cornerstone in the balance of power in northern Italy and a leading cultural centre for the entire country. The much-loved Verona ruler built a rich and splendid court around him, attracting intellectuals, artists and scholars of the time to the city, most notably of all Dante Alighieri, who spent much of his exile from Florence in Verona as the guest of Cangrande, to whom he dedicated the third part of his Divine Comedy. It is also claimed that Giotto visited Verona and, according to art historian Giorgio Vasari, he painted some frescoes in the palaces of Cangrande and a portrait of the leader. Unfortunately, no trace of that remains so we can only imagine the splendour of these lost works.
A Death Shrouded in Mystery
Cangrande died in Treviso in July 1329, just after having conquered the city. The causes of his death, put down at the time to a stomach illness, are still a mystery. Having died young and in good health, thoughts have always turned to a possible poisoning and this theory was backed up by recent discoveries in 2004, when Cangrande’s body was exhumed for an autopsy.
Cangrande’s tomb lies at the main entrance to the church of Santa Maria Antica and the statue of him on horseback which originally stood atop it can now be seen in the Castelvecchio museum.
A bold arched canopy is sustained by two projecting shafts, and on the pinnacle of its roof is the statue of the knight on his war-horse; his helmet, dragon-winged and crested with the dog’s head, tossed back behind his shoulders, and the broad and blazoned drapery floating back from his horse’s breast,—so truly drawn by the old workman from the life, that it seems to wave in the wind, and the knight’s spear to shake, and his marble horse to be evermore quickening its pace, and starting into heavier and hastier charge, as the silver clouds float past behind it in the sky. (John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice)
The Values of Verona
Cangrande is the person who, more than any other, symbolises the splendour and grandeur of Verona’s past, someone who is still much-loved by the city, a symbol of its values and its glory, representing the wisdom and honour which were and which will always be the values of Verona.