Let’s meet up in a slightly mysterious place just as few steps away from the Piazza dei Signori. This is the Scala Tombs.
This is actually the burial place, in Gothic style of the della Scala Lords. The most ancient graves are just simple stone tombs, laid on the ground, while the more elaborate ones are made up of sarcophagi, each flanked by its own statue, an awning, and a truncated pyramid with a mounted statue of the prince on top. The building of the three main mausoleums began after the death of Cangrande I della Scala in 1329, and his tomb is the one you can see above the porch of the Santa Maria Antica church, outside the railings. Beside that and inside the gate there is the tomb of Mastino II della Scala, and this one is both more complex and also more richly decorated. On the opposite corner you will see the tomb of Cansignorio della Scala who really wanted to stand out beside all his relations, and this is why his tomb is literally swarming with famous people and curious features, to such an extent that it almost looks like a children’s merrygoround…Maybe he overdid it a bit! (take note: the mounted statues of both Cangrande and Mastino are copies: the originals are kept in the Castelvecchio Museum.
You might find it amazing to see a miniature cemetery containing such over-the-top monuments right next door to the windows of the palaces where the della Scala families lived! In fact it is very rare to find a burial place right in the centre of a city, in the middle of all the houses. But the della Scala Lords deliberately chose to do this because they wanted to keep the memory of their great power alive in people’s minds even after their own deaths…do you think it worked? Works of art never go out of fashion! Unfortunately nowadays it isn’t always possible to go in past the railings so as to be able to see the tombs from close up. But that doesn’t stop you from being able to admire these bizarre constructions, and to appreciate their finer details. The railings which surround the Tombs are an authentic masterpiece (refurbished and modernised in some places). The workmanship is called a “free mesh” which means that a series of circular rings are threaded together (embellished with the della Scala emblem and miniscule halberds) without actually anchoring them; much like the chain mail that Medieval knights used to wear. If you look carefully at the details, and also at the overall effect of these monuments then it is very obvious that the della Scala family really wanted to give a “lively” impression here…without resigning themselves to anything, least of all to their own deaths! There were other noble families living at the same time, all proudly convinced of their own importance in the city’s affairs, and animated by the same strong, passionate, and often violent feelings, which meant that duels and arguments were always happening.
One of these conflicts in particular has made Verona famous throughout the world, and it seems to have occurred during the reign of Bartolomeo della Scala (1301-1304), older brother of Cangrande I: the love story between the beautiful daughter of the Capulet household, and the young son of their rivals, the Montegues.
Maybe one of the people sculpted in the stonework there in front of you knows the secret details of this story, and can “narrate” his or her version of the story of Romeo and Juliet.” At the beginning of the thirteen hundreds there was a grand party for the Carnival celebrations. Everyone was invited, and no one wanted to forfeit their invitation…Romeo Montague met a splendid young girl there whose name was Juliet, and, without knowing that she belonged to the Capulet family who were his father’s sworn enemies, he fell desperately in love with her. Friar Lawrence came to his help, and the two young lovers were secretly wed, but their families’ mutual hatred meant that their union was impossible. After a series of quarrels and killings Romeo was forced to leave the city, and Friar Lawrence concocted a plan so that the two lovers could escape together and go and live somewhere else in peace. Juliet drank a potion that made her fall into such a deep sleep that she seemed to be dead. Romeo was supposed to rejoin her secretly and take her away with him. But unfortunately failed to get the message in time, telling him that his dear love was not really dead, and when he saw her seemingly lifeless corpse, he killed himself. On her awakening, Juliet decided to follow her lover to the next life, and when their relations discovered their children’s tragic deaths, they decided to stop fighting ever again. And thus, love won through in the end over hatred, and the lovers’ sacrifice was not in vain.”
Nobody knows whether these characters really existed, but whilst historians are doing their utmost to study the contemporary chronicles so as to discover the truth, the rest of the world is happy to just stop and dream after reading William Shakespeare’s magnificent verses, written at the end of the 16th century and telling this tragic story where love and friendship triumph over hatred and vendetta. Let’s leave the solitary horsemen of the burial tombs and, turning right at the corner of the railings we can go down Via Arche Scaligere which is just a bit further on, to the left. Here you will see a magnificent fortified building which, tradition has it, used once to be Romeo’s House. “This smallish palace with crenellated walls (nowadays it is a privately owned) has been identified as the house of the Montegues in several ancient chronicles. It probably used to be a great deal bigger, and is even thought to have taken up the entire block. It looks severe, and from close up it will remind you of the nearby della Scala palaces, with the same alternating Romanesque and Gothic styles, shown in the blocks of white tufo stone and the red terracotta bricks. On the façade of this building you will find a plaque inscribed with some verses by the poet and playwright William Shakespeare: Read these lines – they seem almost like a riddle...If Romeo really did live here once upon a time, then he wasn’t here, but somewhere else…”
Continuing along Via Arche, you will find yourself in Viviani Square; keep to the right and when you get to Piazza Erbe, turn left into Via Cappello...does this name mean anything to you? A few steps further down, on the left, you will find an arched entrance which opens in to the courtyard adjacent to Juliet’s House: she was the princess of the Capulet’s household. “This dwelling place belonged to the Dal Cappello family for several centuries from the thirteenth century onwards. Their emblem (a hat, which is what the word cappello means) is carved into the stone. So, is this really the house which used to belong to Juliet Capulet? We cannot be completely sure. However you will hardly fail to notice that everyone stops here to look at the balcony from which, tradition has it, Juliet spoke to Romeo. It is in fact very old, but the balcony you can see here was certainly not the original (it was once part of a sarcophagus!) and was joined on to the house façade around 1940…because people wanted a place to visit to authenticate the legend!”.
Inside this smallish palace the rooms have been restored and furnished in the style appertaining to the epoch in which Romeo and Juliet were said to have lived: while on the outside, covering the walls of the house you will be amazed to see and read the graffiti that all the modern “young lovers” have insisted upon leaving – thousands of messages, layer upon layer over the years…But wouldn’t it have been better to have used romantic cards?
As you exit from the courtyard adjacent to Juliet’s house you will find yourself back in Via Cappello. To get to our next stop you should turn left, and while you are walking we will tell you a bit about the road you are walking along. As you can see, Via Cappello is now an uninterrupted vista of fine shop windows, much frequented by both the Veronese and by tourists. What you might not know is that this road dates right back to Roman times when it was called the cardine Massimo (cardo) and was one of the two main streets running through the city. It linked the forum (what is now Piazza Erbe) to the city gate you are about to reach: called the Porta Leoni (the Lions Gate). “We don’t know what this gate used to be called in olden times, however it is well known that its present name dates back to at least the fourteenth century ( to tell the truth many Veronese refer to it in a familiar way as “Porta Leona”). The name derives from a stone sarcophagus lid decorated with two lions, and which stands nearby. If you want to see it then you should walk on, beyond the gate and towards the bridge of Ponte Navi where you will find the two little lions beside the statue of King Umberto I in the small garden on your left before you get to the bridge.”
In Roman times this was one of the two main city gates ( the other one was the Borsari Gate), and it faced in a south-easterly direction where the cardine massimo finishes. Nowadays you can see a part of the façade, and, a bit further on, the foundations of one of the two tall monumental polygonal towers. If you want a more detailed idea of what the gate actually looked like when it was built (during the 1st century a.d.) then you can look at the two explanatory sheets situated inside the “fornice” (the arched opening) which show the gate in its original form, and with the surviving parts marked in red.
Porta Leoni has always been very much admired, especially during the Renaissance times when it was copied by a number of artists who were all impressed by the harmony of its proportions and by the refined artwork used to decorate it. What do you think? Do you like it? Who knows if Romeo and Juliet stopped to look at it, and maybe even confided their secrets to each other under the shade of this antique arch!
Before we go on, then how about dedicating your attention to this gate of ours: we’ll let you in on a secret! If you look at the façade sideways on, then you will be able to see that there is a narrow air space that separates the external layer made out of white stone from another older internal façade made out of bricks and white “tufo” stone. The “new” façade was built during the 1st century a.d. and behind it is hidden the much older gate which belonged to the city wall built a century earlier! Here’s a sticky problem for you to find the answer to…You must certainly have noticed that the Gate is quite a long way beneath the present-day level of the road…and this means then that the mean level of the city must have risen over the course of the centuries. Can you explain how this could have happened?
Now we can carry on with our itinerary, in search of other clues left by Romeo and Juliet. After the Lion Gate walk on towards the river Adige which flows not far away, and to your right, before you get to the bridge called Ponte Navi (the Ships’ Bridge) you will see one of Verona’s most beautiful and most important churches. This is St. Fermo Maggiore. “The Benedictine order of monks began building this church during the 11th century on what was traditionally held to be the very spot where the two saints St. Fermo and St. Rustico were martyred. Then, at the beginning of the fourteenth century the Franciscan monks erected another church in Gothic style actually above the underlying Romanesque building, and the newer structure blends in perfectly with the older one below.”
The part you can see from Ponte Navi (bridge) is actually the rearward side of the church; the opposite end to the façade. St. Fermo is a combination of two quite different architectural styles: the Romanesque (comprising the bell tower, the façade, the lower apse and the underside of the upper apse), and the Gothic. The characteristic feature of the façade is the alternating rows of white tufo stone and red bricks. Can you think of any other Veronese buildings which have the same “zebra-like” stripes?
If you fancy taking a look at the inside of the church then go in through the side door and look upwards at the magnificent wooden ceiling “It is only thanks to a stroke of luck that we can still admire it today, as during the second world war, the church was hit by a fire bomb. But for some unexplainable reason the fire never took hold and so the ceiling was undamaged” that dates back to the first half of the fourteenth century. Notice the important central nave which stands without either supporting columns or pillars, and this is a typical feature of Franciscan churches. There are thousands of details here worth exploring, and we suggest that at the very least you take a good look at the frescos for which the church of St. Fermo is rightfully famous. There are two Crucifixions (one above the door you came through and the other above the main door), the Scenes, which illustrate episodes in the life of Saint Francis, the Angels giving praise and especially the fresco “signed” by Pisanello, and which surrounds the funereal monument by Nicolò Brenzoni, an Annunciation. Look closely at the figures portrayed: a Prophet (in the centre), the archangels Raphael and Michael (each side), God the Father (on high, inside a pink cloud) who is sending the Baby Jesus (in a smaller cloud) down to Earth. There is the Virgin Mary who is hearing the news of her coming maternity from the Archangel Gabriel. If you want to play a game, then you could try counting how many, and which kinds of animals Pisanello has hidden within his painting.
Why don’t you go down just for a quick look at the lower church which is the oldest part of the whole building. The surroundings are far simpler here, and more austere than in the upper church, but it is very evocative! Now, take a leap backwards into the past and imagine that you can hear the soft footsteps of Juliet, the rustle of her dress. Maybe she stopped here to pray, and perhaps she used to dream of celebrating her marriage to Romeo in a place such as this!
Let’s leave the church now and walk all the way along Stradone San Fermo, a wide road that is lined with historic and aristocratic buildings, in order to get to Juliet’s tomb, the last stage on our route. The sarcophagus which, according to the legend contains her body, is housed inside the ancient monastic complex called San Francesco al Corso, and which is nowadays used as a Fresco Museum dedicated to Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. Once inside the Museum, cross the garden and go down to the small crypt where you will find a small red marble urn…it is a highly evocative place! Stop here for a moment and allow yourself to be caught up in the atmosphere that has been built up around Juliet’s Tomb. “From time immemorial the sarcophagus stood in the garden above, and hordes of pilgrims used to come from all over the world to venerate Juliet’s burial place.
Meanwhile, around the church a religious convent was built, and soon the authorities no longer allowed that the heroine of a love story should be venerated there! This is why the urn was moved, and emptied of her poor ashes and even used as a drinking trough! (you could have worked this out for yourselves seeing as there is an obviously plugged-up hole in the bottom). In 1800 when these buildings stopped being used for religious purposes, people wanted to restore the sarcophagus to its original state…in fact they decided to do even more because when they realised that the legend was attracting large numbers of visitors to Verona – even kings and queens! – the setting you can see here was finally created in 1900.”
If you look carefully at the marble surface, especially on the edges, then you will notice that they are very irregular: Many little fragments have been broken off during the course of the years and taken away as souvenirs, or even good luck charms to be worn in a locket!
Even if Romeo and Juliet didn’t actually exist, yet they have given the world the everlasting myth of a love that could still win through, even against time and death.
Our “pilgrimage” following the footprints of Romeo and Juliet ends here: we advise you to finish your visit to the Fresco Museum by walking up to the upper rooms where you can admire the mural paintings which adorned so many of the Veronese houses during the centuries when it was renowned for being the “painted city”. There are also beautiful and important paintings housed in the former church of St. Francis. Finally, go outside and enjoy a well-earned rest in the peace and quiet of the small lapidary outside the Museum…we will be looking forward to seeing you for another day together visiting beautiful Verona!
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.