Italian Folktales ~ Day 4 (June 28, 2011), Verona

Castelvecchio - Clock

Castelvecchio - View from top 3

Castelvecchio - M merlons

Castelvecchio Museum statue - braids

Bell with ladder

Castelvecchio Museum statue - profile

Castelvecchio statues

Castelvecchio Museum statue - More braids

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.

Castelvecchio Museum - Cangrande's smile

Italian Folktales ~ Day 3 (June 27, 2011), Verona

Verona wasn’t originally in our minds when we started tossing around possible itineraries for the trip. As we cast around for likely landing places within a reasonable striking distance of the Dolomites, though, the idea of Verona arose. When we remembered the Shakespearean plays set in Verona, we got a bit excited. And when we read about the Roman arena and the open air opera performances, we really started to think about it seriously.

But it was H. V. Morton’s description of the city in his wonderful book, A Traveller in Italy, that clinched it for me. His delight upon first seeing the pink marble of Verona was infectious. When I read this paragraph, I couldn’t imagine a trip to Italy without a stop in Verona:

Arriving in the early afternoon, I saw the city flushed with warm light; I saw the Adige flowing swiftly beneath the bridges, enfolding, in its reminiscent Venetian curve, squares, towers, and palaces; I saw the red campanili of many churches and, praise God, a main street closed to traffic. Think of it: a street from which the motor is banished; a street with no sounds but the delightful chatter of the Veronese, the echo of their feet upon the marble pavement, and the music of an aria floating pleasantly from a shop that sells gramophone records. In my first flush of pleasure I felt like echoing John Evelyn when he saw Verona three hundred years ago, ‘here of all places I have seen in Italy would I fix a residence’.

— H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Italy

On our first full day in Verona, we walked and walked and walked. We ate gelato, stopped for cold drinks, and walked the streets of pink marble.

I'm not kidding

We visited Juliet’s house, knowing full well it wasn’t her house. It was well worth seeing anyway, if only to see the graffiti-covered walls, painted every inch with notes from modern lovers, star-crossed and otherwise.

Juliet's House

Piazza Erbe

In the busy Piazza delle Erbe, we watched as Hyla took a cooling break in the waters of the piazza’s central fountain. Days later, after we had left Verona, we learned that the statue of a woman that graces the fountain is a Roman sculpture dating from 380 AD.

Piazza delle Erbe - painted walls

There was hardly a street or a corner where we didn’t see something that made us smile, even when our feet were aching, and we were sweaty and parched and hungry, and a bit bewildered by the time change and not knowing how to ask for stamps in Italian or where to find a public restroom. No matter. We were already falling in love with Italy.

Thank you, Mr. Morton.

Wolf mom




Door knockers

Italian Folktales ~ Day 2 (June 26, 2011), Verona

From the airplane window, we saw the Alps.

We’d flown all night from Canada to Paris, then had 45 minutes to run from one end of Charles De Gaulle to the other, through customs, through security, onto a shuttle bus, and then onto our little plane. We were out of breath, a bit disoriented from the overnight flight, and distracted, wondering if our luggage had successfully made the same journey we just did (it didn’t).

But the Alps startled us out of all mundane thoughts. We pressed our faces to the windows and gaped. This is how vacation starts.

Alps - From Paris to Verona

Crossing the Alps

Verona is lovely. The 2000-year-old Verona Arena is the city’s centerpiece. You can tell yourself how ancient it is, that Romans built it and filled its stone seats, but it’s hard to comprehend how old it really is.

Verona Arena with roses
Verona Arena

Verona’s people are friendly and helpful in ways that only non-Italian-speaking visitors who are new to town and have been separated from their luggage can fully appreciate.

If you’re new to the country, Verona will instruct you in the color schemes of Italy: rich brown, ruddy terracotta, delicate pink, subtle yellow. You’ll see flowers everywhere.

Flower balcony

If it’s hot, you might just have to eat gelato four times that first day because, well, it’s really hot, and the gelato is a revelation of flavors: bacio, gianduja, fior di latte, stracciatella, melone, fragola, limone, frutti di bosco, cannella. The servings are piccolo, Italian-sized. Go on, have another.

And then, just before dusk falls, when the later afternoon air is still steamy, but you have an inkling of what cool might begin to feel like, you line up at your gate at the arena, because the opera is getting underway in just a few hours and you want to enjoy every leisurely second of it.

Full stage
Parade with horses

June 26 trip diary
M ~ Thomas Mann evidently knew something about human nature, which worked out very well for Leiber & Stoller when they turned a near-verbatim ripoff* of Mann’s 1896 short story “Disillusionment” into the song “Is That All There Is…?” which was about, well, disillusionment, and which became a big hit for Peggy Lee in 1969.

Samuel Johnson knew human nature too, and he knew that because the world is what it is we often spend more time anticipating an event than actually experiencing it, and the experience itself can end up as a coda, nothing but a springboard to “ok what’s next?”. Johnson pointed this out many times but perhaps best when he wrote “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”**

And yet life doesn’t always have to work out that way, and for me, for each of us I think, the Opera in Verona ended up easily better, and more satisfactory, than our long anticipation of it might have led us to think possible – but not, for me at least, in the way i would have expected.

“Aida outdoors in a Roman ampitheatre, huge production, spectacle, a bigger performance maybe than we’d ever seen before!!” was where I was at. Given the venue, i was expecting I suppose, literally, a circus. And it was big, and it was over the top and yes there were even real live horses. But its effect was something very else.

The vast performance merged with, rather than overpowered, the Veronese night– so much so that at one point well into the second half of that big Verdi opera all that big Verdi music and those big Verdi voices slipped away almost entirely into the background — actually it was me slipping away, as two days of travel and no sleep and 80 degree heat and sitting still and wine and cheese and salami and bread and H and R and me on those rented cushions high up the hot stone bleachers all came together to reduce the noise and spectacle and drama to a lambent part of a greater whole as my mind and eye wandered from the deep blue night in the east to the barest ember-orange in the west, all along the busy line of campanile bell towers, terracotta rooflines and cable dish/antennas pricking the horizon just above eye-height beyond the stagelights necklaced around the vast rim of that old marble bowl. Even with my eyes closed the music would not take over. I may have slept, or nearly slept, at least for a few minutes at some point. Or maybe not– it was that hard to tell.

Great handfuls of swallows had come out as soon as the sun had dipped, and though it was quite dark by the time I’m talking about many of them still darned the air over the city, and even months later sitting at a desk it doesn’t feel particularly silly to say that with the sky so low and clear it seemed like the swallows were dipping and banking for the early stars rather than competing for bugs, invisible to us but not to them, floating in the cooling air.

People who’ve taken LSD often say that they’re different, or see things differently, long after the trip is over. That they’ve been changed or realigned for good. It may be too much to ascribe that same level of alteration to having attended a late outdoor opera jetlagged on the first night in a new country right after your lost luggage has been all but found, but then again it may not. I have to say that that feeling, the realization that a gigantic mannered art form had suddenly bowed like a practiced and smiling courtier and stepped back into the crowd without seeming ever to have moved, was new then and is with me still. But then again what am i talking about but something fitting in, Belonging– and it was Italy and it was opera, after all.

ps – Peggy Lee has two signature songs. The early one is “Fever” and the later one is “Is That All There Is…?”. You could make a good argument that taken together and in that order those songs sum up the arc from anticipation to experience better than Mann or Johnson ever did.
* i didn’t know this until today, either.
** So far as I know, no one has ever incorporated this sentence into a pop standard.