We’ll meet up in the square in front of the church of San Zeno: even the outside of the basilica is a true masterpiece! The church was built between the 8th and the 9th century, on the site of the tomb of one of the best-loved bishops of Verona who was actually proclaimed patron saint of the city: St. Zeno.
After the earthquake in 1117 which destroyed many buildings in Verona, the church was rebuilt in a relatively short time, between 1120 and 1138. That might seem like a long time to you, but you must realise that in those days the construction site for cathedrals had no cranes or diggers or, in fact any of the modern machinery, and so the building work used to go on for decades. The results were excellent, also because the basilica still retains the same coherent and harmonious (Romanesque) style throughout. Look carefully at the façade: if you have got some binoculars then you can have a good time following all the strange characters who animate the countless stone “comic strips” The large panels on either side of the great door are actual illustrated stories.
Now look at the bronze doors which many people think are the most important feature of this church…. Each one is made up of twenty four panels where both New and Old Testament stories are narrated, along with the miracles worked by St. Zeno, and the lives of some of the other saints. We do not know who sculpted these panels (at least two different craftsmen between the 11th and the 13th century). What is incredible is the extraordinary “liveliness” of the tiny figures who sometimes seem to be almost “jumping out” of the scenes that they are starring in, as though they wanted to actually live out their past adventure all over again...
Let’s take a last look at the church façade so as to admire the enormous rose window, known as the “wheel of fortune”, and around which six sculpted figures representing human existence are set, as well as a Latin inscription which is translated like this: (try reading it out loud!)
“It is I, Fortune who decide the destiny of mortal men. I raise up; I command; I distribute all that is good and all that is evil. I clothe the naked, and I strip those who are richly adorned. If anyone trusts me then they will be mocked...”
The sculptor who signs his name is Master Briotolo. Normally the entrance to the church is through the door on the left side, through the magnificent cloister which is all that is left of an important Benedictine abbey. Enjoy yourself by going all the way round it and "studying" the different angles and perspectives created in each corner by the long rows of columns. You can also try to identify all the animals and the symbols that have been sculpted in the grave stones and on the stone tomb-covers which are conserved in the corridors…there are a lot of famous people who have been buried here, and the Abbey was well- known to kings and even emperors who often used to stay as guests.
Now, let’s go into the church: you do know, of course that from now on you must be quiet and well-behaved because holy places must always be respected, no matter what your own religion may be. You will notice straight away that the inside is made up of different areas: lengthwise, the church is divided into three naves and the ceiling is hull-shaped…a “nautical” term which describes the building style using sea-faring language. Then there is an "upper church" (you have to go up some steps and past a stone railing to get to the altar) as well as a underlying crypt where St. Zeno himself rests in peace! If you want to go and pay him your respects, go down the steps and through a “thicket” of splendid pillars...watch carefully for the capitals which are highly adorned with strange and fascinating carved figures. Now, it’s time for us to list four ‘unmissable’ things inside the church that you must find for yourselves:
1. The huge porphyry basin.
2. The Triptych by the artist Andrea Mantegna.
3. The lion and the ox, both made out of red marble.
4. St. Zeno laughing!
Let us leave the saint, and return to our open-air activities, turning left up the street that runs alongside the river Adige, and is called the Regaste San Zeno: Go up the stairs that lead to a raised walkway overlooking the river, because from up here you can enjoy a particularly good view…Then, go down the stairs you will find, just level with the small oratory of St. Zeno (San Zenetto) on the opposite side of the road. It is well worth crossing the tiny, charming gardens so as to get in and see, over on the right hand side, the enormous stone upon which St. Zeno used to sit when he was fishing!
If you carry on down the road you just left, you will already be able to see the walls of a massive historical castle, because you have arrived at Castelvecchio. From the entrance where the ticket office is, you will immediately find a series of exhibition rooms which illustrate the history of Medieval Veronese sculpture in the form of statues, sculptures in relief, decorative remains and architectonic elements. You can enjoy yourself by looking at these extraordinary exhibits from all sides in order to absorb some of the details that you are learning to recognise! (Also, read each room’s visitors’ information sheets to find out more). Carry on then through the various galleries as far as the glass door exit where you can stop for a moment to admire the great bronze bell on your right...it’s chimes used to peel out in 1300 in Piazza Erbe (where it hung in the Gardello Tower).
And if you look carefully you can see that here too there is an engraving portraying St. Zeno while he is fishing! Go through the very ancient Morbio doorway and you will find yourself in the private garden belonging to the della Scala Palace. The best way to visit the Palace is by “climbing up” the Mastio Tower (42 metres high). On the first floor of the Palace, do go and see the ancient sword belonging to Cangrande I della Scala, a great prince who died in 1329, and nearby there are some highly precious jewels from the same epoch which were used to adorn both the men and the women in the family.
Moving onwards, stop at the fourth room in this part of the museum where, on all four of the walls you can admire the frescos that have miraculously survived. They look almost like a very old fabric, and the patterns are reminiscent of the far east.
In the same room, don’t miss the two paintings which are turned towards the far wall because they are amongst the most beautiful in the entire collection. One is the "Madonna with a Rosary" by Stefano di Giovanni, and the other is the "Madonna with a Quail" by Pisanello (for these too, read the information sheets if you want to know more). Let’s go on more quickly if you like, as far as the second floor of the Palace where you can look around and see other masterpieces, or else go directly to the inside of the Mastio Tower to the weapons room where swords, shields, helmets, bits of armour, halberds, falchions, iron-shod sticks and much, much more are all exhibited. You can find it all! But lets get back to the open air, to where the mounted statue representing Cangrande I della Scala is waiting for us on his plinth.
A close study of this important statue reveals a number of curious and fascinating details.
Let’s leave our noble friend here and go into the Gallery where numerous paintings by famous artists up to the 18th century are waiting for us… Remember that I had already mentioned that you were going to meet someone who is really nice, but just a bit mischievous – a boy with red hair…Try and find him somewhere in the first room that you come to. You will be amazed to discover that this young boy looks out at us with his mischievous smile from a portrait painted in 1500 by a great Veronese artist called Gianfrancesco Caroto. But what on earth is he showing us? Is it his own drawing? Maybe he wanted to paint a portrait of you - to make fun of you...whatever it is, we will never ever know!
The real beauty of this portrait lies in the way the boy wants to get us to “play” with him, and the way that his smile and his expression seem to have been captured as though in a still photograph where we can “read” to a certain extent something about his own life and character. If you carry on now, through the various rooms, let yourself be carried away by your own imaginations, “drowning” yourselves in the world of imaginary stories inspired by many of the paintings you will see. We will be waiting for you at the exit, where we will go on with our itinerary. Make your way out of the Castelvecchio courtyard and cross over the drawbridge situated beneath the Clock Tower. The plaque attached to the façade of the Tower tells you that just nearby, in the middle of the road, there used to be an important monument dating back to the Roman era: The Gavi Arch.
The Gavi Arch stayed in its original position right up until 1805, the year in which it was destroyed by Napoleon’s French soldiers who were occupying Verona because, being in the middle of one of the main roads it stopped the troops, their wagons and canons from being able to pass. For many years the remains of the Arch were conserved inside the Arena. Finally in 1930 it was rebuilt, not far from its original setting, in a small garden on the river Adige, near Castelvecchio.If you would like to see it for yourself, then all you have to do is to go along the short stretch of pavement that runs alongside of the old moat, walking in the opposite direction to Castelvecchio. You’ll soon get to a small square with a few trees overlooking the river Adige, in the middle of which stands the Arch. Now that it is right here in front of you, look at it carefully, and one of the things you will be able to observe is that some parts are less ruined than others (in fact these bits are not actually authentic, but have been made to fill in for a missing piece that was lost or destroyed). On the main sides of the Arch you will see that there are some empty niches, each of which used to hold a statue, but which have now all been lost.
If you pass under it, you will be walking on the paving slabs of black basalt stone that were used in Roman times to cover the roads (and where you can still see the furrows made by their wagons as they thundered past!). At this stage, there are two alternative itineraries that we can suggest: One of these is to carry on imagining that you are in Verona as it was 2000 years ago, and you can set off from here at the Gavi Arch and go along the main street called Corso Cavour and which follows the course of the ancient Via Postumia. In Roman times this stretch of road was actually outside the city walls, and was surrounded by fields and orchards and lined with tombs and funereal monuments.
Then, at the far end of the Corso you will find the thoroughfare blocked by a huge arched stone structure which was one of the ancient city gates, and which gave entry into the city centre. This is the Borsari Gate, and from here you have access right into the heart of Verona, amidst streets full of amazing shops. If you carry straight on then you will get to Piazza delle Erbe (see itinerary “An invitation to Verona”).
If, on the other hand you want to discover some of the other “smiling” characters that abound in our city, then you should go all the way down Via Roma as far as Piazza Brà at the far end where you should turn right. Just a few steps along here should take you to a very unusual place, called the Maffei Lapidarian Museum which contains the private “collections” once belonging to a noble Veronese gentleman in around 1700. He was a marquis, and was called Scipione Maffei. Maybe you too collect things – stamps, or cards or coins – and you already know just how passionate a collector will feel about wanting to find new “pieces”, either buying or swapping advantageously until his collection is complete. Maffei was like that too, and for more than twenty years he used to search out and buy anything that interested him: ancient stones (from the Latin lapis which means “stone”) and all sorts of other objects, such as statues and funeral urns bearing inscriptions (epigraphs) in different ancient languages (especially Greek, Latin and Etruscan). His collection of epigraphs, which was the first of its kind in Europe, was opened to the general public, and for more than a century, visitors to Verona came to look at what was reckoned to be one of the wonders of this city. Later the interest for classic antiquities decreased and Maffei’s collection was almost forgotten.
Only in 1982 the Maffeiano Museum was completely renovated, and modern day visitors too can admire the tombstones, headstones, statues and funerary urns which come not only from Verona but also from other places of the ancient world: there are Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Christian and medieval remains. Amongst all, there is a face which is smiling since 2000 years at everybody looking at her: go into the “Greek room” and look for the remembrance stone of Bathyllos. It was placed on the sepulchre of a Greek young boy called Gaio Silio Bathyllo, who lived during the 1st century A.D. Facing outwards, Gaio is shown between his two parents who are gazing fondly at him, while a small dog is curled up at his feet. In the background there are two masks leaning against a pillar, which might be a clue that the family had something to do with the theatre.
Now, before leaving the Greek room, go out on the terrace facing Piazza Brà: from there you can admire a magnificent monument which you surely can’t miss: the Arena (See itinerary “An invitation to Verona”).
This is the end of our itinerary. We are looking forward to seeing you to spend another nice day together in our city.
See you soon!
The Verona For Kids project of the Municipality of Verona is dedicated to those who travel with children. Visit the website to discover the other itineraries and games designed specifically for children. But it's not over: go to the Tourist Office and you'll find all that you need to go treasure hunting.