Step back in time with me, to when Verona was just as beautiful as it is now but with far fewer people and luxuries. We are in the early 1800s and Austrian troops control much of northern Italy. This is not a relaxing or joyful time, there is an uneasy calm between the Austrian army and the citizens of Verona.
The Veneto Fortresses
Verona was very much the focal point of a large area which ranged from Lake Garda to Monte Baldo and the Lessini mountains and bordered by the Adige, Mincio and Po rivers.
Verona was one of the four fortresses that made up a system of defences known as the Veneto Quadrilateral built by the Austrian Empire, a significant time in Verona's history because of scale and the architecture of the structures. The other fortified cities which made up the rest of the Quadrilateral were Peschiera del Garda, Mantua and Legnago.
What was the point of these defences? Quite simply, it was a very well organised system designed to hinder the movement of enemy armies on the river Po plains, as well as allowing Austrian troops to move around safely and transport supplies more easily. This was helped by the railway lines constructed around the same time between the four cities and the important Milan-Venice line. In the 1830s and 1840s, under the command of General Franz von Scholl, work began in Verona on building the Torri Massimiliane towers, known locally as the Torricelle. Built on the open hillside just outside the city centre and linked by the city walls which protected Verona, they are now in a quiet and leafy area which is ideal for exercising or relaxing away from the din of the city. This protected the northern side of the city whilst to the south the Venetian era bastions were restored and modernised. Later, after the first war of independence in 1848, the Austrian army decided to further strengthen the city’s defences by adding a series of external forts, such as fort Santa Caterina in the Chievo district, Santa Lucia and many others.
Verona, inside the Quadrilateral, became a logistically important city, the stronghold of the army, the centre of operations and a supplies depot for the region's entire garrison, a total of one hundred thousand soldiers.
The city’s very social and economic fabric changed. You can imagine what the impact on everyday life would have been for the fifty thousand citizens of Verona to suddenly find themselves “hosting” more than twenty thousand men who had different customs, a different language and who were, above all, soldiers.
There was an uneasy tension between the people of Verona and the Austrian military; whilst they tolerated their presence, they would not frequent the same bars. On one hand, the city was safer with the new fortifications and major new developments, such as a military hospital, an enormous bakery, the artillery arsenal with foundries and barracks, as well as a very useful railway network still in use today, but on the other hand the people of Verona suffered under the Austrians, who forcibly occupied the city. Most notably, the residents of Verona could not use, or approach these new facilities in their city.
This was on top of restrictions on agricultural and industrial businesses and the severe controls on construction, even for civilian buildings. And then there were heavy taxes imposed to build the new forts and censorship of the major works of Italian literature: a horrifying measure!
A clear example of this separation of Veronese and Austrians can be seen in the construction of the cemeteries. The cemetery for Austrian soldiers who died in service in Verona is close to San Procolo fort, a long way from the civilian one, whilst officers were buried in a separate part of the main cemetery. If you visit Verona’s main cemetery, you can find the tomb of General Franz Von Scholl who ordered the fortification of Verona, beginning with the Torricelle.
Historical Buildings from the Austria Era
The most senior Austrian officers, led by commander Josef Radetzky, moved into Palazzo Carli in 1851.
This 18th century palace is located in Via Roma, in the heart of the old town, close to the Arena and the Castelvecchio. Many important figures were welcomed here, such as Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and his beautiful wife, Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sissi, as well as King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy, after the third war of independence. But the most noteworthy event to occur in one of its grand halls, the Sala degli Stucchi, was the surrender of Verona to the Italian army signed on 16 October 1866.
Other buildings used by the Austrians which can still be seen in the city include the convent of Sant’Eufemia, used at the time as government offices, and Palazzo Barbieri, where the civil guard was garrisoned and which has recently been reopened to the public, offering guided tours of the main rooms which feature works by Farinati and del Veronese. To learn more about this palace and to book your guided tour, visit the Verona tourist office (Ufficio IAT) where the staff will be happy to help you.
In addition to these two buildings, there is also the mighty Franz Joseph I Arsenal, which has remained intact and which, happily, is now used for a different purposes: it is a park where the Veronese love to wander and soak up the sun, whilst children play in the waters of the huge central pool. It also hosts an increasing number of fairs and events of all kinds. For example, in September there was a record fair and every May there is the Beereat Festival where you can come and try out some of the many different beers and specialities served from the food trucks.
Every Thursday morning, the Arsenale park hosts a market for locally sourced fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. Lastly, to complete this tale of 19th century history, I will take you to Ospedale Santo Spirito, which is no longer a hospital, and the Santa Marta supply depot, which was set up to produce bread and vital supplies for the army. Nowadays, its western halls contain classrooms of the economics department of Verona university.
I think it is very interesting to note how the city has changed in little more than a hundred years, and how pleasing it is to see how the military buildings from that time are today seats of learning, culture and entertainment. This is why I am so proud of Verona!