Sunday, July 27, 2008

Two Professors in Verona

Verona is, if you can get past the ersatz Shakespeare tourism, utterly charming. It is an old Roman town (apparently Catullus was a local boy) in the Veneto, about an hour and a half by train west of Venice. Like Arles, Verona still has its Roman arena, which serves as the municipal performing arts center where operas are performed in repertory during the summer season; what we thought was an Egyptian Revival monument in the Piazza Bra' turned out to be large set pieces for Aida, winched in by crane before each night's performance.

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Medieval Verona was the seat of the Della Scala family and was ruled by the memorably named Cangrande della Scala ("great dog"), who offered Dante a place to stay when he was exiled from Florence. It has a couple of really spectacular medieval palazzi and churches, including the marvellous Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore, whose rose window is conceived as a Wheel of Fortune:

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St. Zeno himself is entombed in the crypt in a glass-sided coffin, which is a bit of a surprise if you are not expecting it. Time and again it was borne in on me, the old sense in which a saint is so often, in Europe, a local figure, whose cult is sanctified by local belief and testimony. One of the things that happened in Hawai'i while we were away was a vote at the Vatican to elevate to sainthood Father Damien of Moloka'i, although it's not clear whether the actual canonization has taken place. One of his two attested miracles is said to have taken place in Hawai'i. These miracles were documented and investigated by a team of experts. But in another time, it might have been the faith of local believers that sainted Father Damien, not an official committee. So also San Zeno, the African bishop of Verona.

One of the most atmospheric things about Verona was the stucco facades of the buildings, painted in warm colors, and punctuated by ornamental stone window casings. The smooth, weathered color of the walls and the battered stonework give the impression of great age, but also of a very human comfort.

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The Italian Gothic makes its Arabic roots more visible than the French Gothic does.

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The Shakespeare thing is mostly due to Romeo and Juliet (strangely enough, there is no Two Gentlemen of Verona tourism) but it is ersatz since, even if you grant that the Italian story Shakespeare adapted into his play had some basis in reality, it wasn't set in Verona, but (I think) Siena. Thus, to identify the Montagues and the Capulets with local families, and then to identify houses which they might have owned in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and then to make sure one of them has balconies, and to decide which one must have been Juliet's, is increasingly fabulistic. There are cookies called Juliet's Kisses (baci di Giulietta) and Romeo's Kisses (baci di Romeo) sold in local bakeries, etc., etc. The thing that makes the whole exercise memorable is the way it reflects the literary fascinations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Grand Tour became a practice in English-speaking countries. The important thing, oddly enough, is not that this was Juliet's balcony; but Lord Byron thought this was Juliet's balcony, and that does in fact make it memorable.

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