M ~ With our too-short time in Verona winding down, we left our hearts with Can Francesco.
Can Francesco Scaliger — Cangrande I della Scala — the 14th century nobleman who made Verona a Power, at least for a while. The Big Dog (that’s what Candgrande means) who took an ancient dusty Roman crossroads town and in 20 years turned it by means of blood and guile into a small duchy that controlled the neighboring towns of Vicenza, Padua, and Treviso.
Cangrande’s fist was full and heavy enough that he not only attracted the attention of the Visconti family that ruled Milan 90 miles to the northwest, but resisted them. It took 80 frantic years of literal and figurative backstabbing on the part of his nephews and their sons to fumble Cangrande’s power away, the city finally in 1405 falling subject not to the Viscontis, but to commerce– Venice waved its checkbook, pointed to its fleets, and within a few years Verona’s walls were sporting winged lions just slightly above all the inlaid ladder crests of the della Scalas. The city did well under the protection of Venice but the Verona you visit today, Cangrande made it.
By the time the city lost its independence Cangrande was already long in his grave anyway of course, and what a grave– the Scaliger Tombs, the group of outdoor high gothic memorials just off the Piazza dei Signori, of which Cangrande’s was the first.
The Big Dog was a hugely successful soldier but he was also famous for his mercy and fairness. He was a savvy and dedicated politician, talented at both diplomacy and intrigue. But for all that, maybe he’s most important today because he was also a patron of the arts, and one with a collector’s eye. Though a leader of the northern Ghibellines he was also the main patron of Dante, that exiled Florentine Guelph. He was patron to Petrarch too– and to Giotto, while we’re at it– really, any fan of the renaissance ultimately owes Cangrande at least a passing nod and a glass raised a bit in thanks.
History – that mesmerizing endless line where even the most successful folks are nearly all quickly and easily forgotten, but where some few giants still hang on, if only in some cases because they made it onto someone’s plinth. It’s hard to ignore someone as a statue, either passive and farseeing, or glaring and indomitable. They look down (or past) us as we move like mayflies through their squares and parks and churches, where they stand or sit or charge, uniformly serious and thoughtful and nearly always aloof.
And then there’s Cangrande.
Who apparently was so affable and his cup so full of life that it spilled over into death: both representations of him at the Scaliger tombs — a recumbent effigy and a famous equestrian statue (now a replica, with the original tucked out of the weather in a museum down the street) show him with an undeniably impish and even goofy grin, which they say is how he went through life, a truly light-hearted man. As hard as it might be for us to imagine that in someone with the cares he must have had, they say it’s true.
Esprit de corpse? Esprit de l’Scaliger? Call it what you will, the effigy and statue have it, and we have to assume the man himself had it first, and in spades. Come to my city, the Big Dog still says– Come to Verona, and bring your joyful heart.