Verona is set inside a meander of the Adige river which on one hand was a providential natural bulwark against invaders and enemies, but on the other limited its expansion.
The cultural prosperity of the vibrant centre of commerce and trade which is Verona could therefore only develop inside a limited area. Therefore, it is quite natural that every corner, every house, every street, bears vestiges and traces of different eras, piled on top of one another in a delightful mishmash of styles.
Roman tombstones, columns and inscriptions are scattered everywhere (just think that the stones from the Arena were used for over 1000 years as a common building material!), and many buildings bear traces of frescoes, friezes and decorations from various eras.
Some treasures, the main ones, are known and well-indicated, others have been standing next to them for centuries, less visited but no less noteworthy…to name a few:
Across the Adige
Veronetta is a neighbourhood of Verona that lies beyond the Adige. It is a residential area, not very touristic, but this does not mean that there isn’t much to see. Via XX Settembre, Via Trezza and Via Carducci are rich in buildings with beautiful façades whose doors open onto courtyards and gardens. After the 16th century, in fact, the left bank of the Adige was prized by rich and noble families because they could build sumptuous mansions surrounded by vast gardens there.
The most majestic, elegant and large is the Giardino Giusti (Giusti Garden).
In 1570 the nobleman Agostino Giusti, a descendant of a family of wealthy wool merchants which had settled in Verona centuries before, commissioned the construction of a palace-garden that, a few centuries later, was praised and admired by Wolfgang Goethe (“Journey to Italy: from Verona to Venice” September 17th, 1786).
The garden is located on a land that the family bought in the early 14th century on the left bank of the Adige in order to build a factory for dyeing fabric. Rich in romantic and evocative views, rare botanical varieties and artistic and architectural elements, it also boasts its own collection of Roman inscriptions. An unexpected oasis in the heart of Verona!
The Veronetta neighbourhood offers many other wonders too. Venture along the slopes of the hill to discover the Corte del Duca, or the Salita Fontana del Ferro and do not miss an opportunity to stop, even quickly, in the church of San Giovanni in Valle: an interesting example of Veronese Romanesque, it is mentioned as early as the 8th century AD; and its current form dates back to the 12th century. In the crypt there are two paleo-Christian sarcophagi which indicate that this area housed a cemetery dating back to the origins of Christianity in Verona.
On the right side the remains of the sunny and pleasant cloister can be found, and a part of the bell tower, also from the Romanesque period.
Veronetta also includes Piazza Isolo, so named because until the end of the 19th century it was an island in the middle of the Adige, from which – along with the beautiful views of the river – we can view the church of Santa Maria in Organo with its spectacular wooden inlaid choir. The inlays, made in the late 15th century by Fra’ Giovanni da Verona, depict landscapes, books, musical instruments, people, architecture, polyhedrons, animals, and religious objects, with an incredible sense of perspective. They are considered the peak of the art of inlay, born directly from advances in perspective drawing whose techniques and themes have been easily applied to.
It is one of the most characteristic streets of Verona and it has existed in the same place and direction since the Roman times. Nothing is left from those times, except perhaps the cellars of the buildings that flank it, many of which were built in the 13th and 14th centuries. One side is entirely covered by a coarse brick portico, overlooked by homes and warehouses once used by the molinari (millers) who worked in the many mills on the Adige. The mills ground cereals, but also natural pigments, sulphur, lime and oak bark for tanning leather: they disappeared in the late 19th century when, after the terrible flood of 1882, embankments were built to protect the city.
Now the porticoes of Via Sottoriva are occupied by taverns and restaurants which, in the shadow of the arches lapped by the river breeze, offer the dishes and wines of the Veronese tradition.
At one end of Via Sottoriva there is the equally delightful Piazzetta Pescheria, while on the other end the street opens into Piazzetta Bra’ Molinari, formerly occupied by the Adige and its mills.
It has connected the two banks of the Adige since pre-Roman times and it is imposing and admirable.
After walking on it eastward, on the left we can see the small church of Santo Stefano. The Romanesque façade encloses an interior with clean lines, made even more graceful by delicate frescoes.
Returning upon our steps, just before reaching the Ponte Pietra, on the other side of the street we can see a few stone stairs, they mark the start of a path up to Castel San Pietro. It is a walk that climbs along the side of the hill, passing right by the Roman Theatre and some truly remarkable spots where time seems to stand still due to the absence of cars because of the (very) many steps. The view from Castel San Pietro is striking and unforgettable and once you have reached it you will also have the opportunity to refresh and rest. Castel San Pietro is also accessible by car but the climb on foot is an unforgettable experience.
It is certainly one of the main attractions of Verona. What is easy to miss, however, are the little gems that surround it.
Starting from the Cloister. It is accessed via a rather insignificant arch located right across from the small 15th century portico of the Church of Sant’Elena; it is characterized by a double row of arches and we can still see large portions of the mosaic floor of the first paleo-Christian church that had been built in that same area.
Inside the Duomo we can admire the layering of the churches that have been built here starting from the paleo-Christian era. The baptistery of San Giovanni In Fonte, built in the 12th century, is definitely worth a visit. Inside it we can admire a giant octagonal baptismal font dated early 13th century, carved from a single block of marble and decorated with exquisite bas-reliefs of episodes from the childhood of Jesus.
Returning towards Piazza Erbe, on Via San Mamaso 2, don’t miss the colourful and exquisite late-Gothic façade of Palazzo Miniscalchi.
Corso Porta Borsari
It follows the ancient Via Postumia and connects Piazza Erbe with Porta Borsari which takes its current name (it was originally called Porta Iovia) from the borsari, the tax collectors.
Many alleys start from Corso Porta Borsari, some of which lead to beautiful and fascinating places.
At a short distance from Piazza Erbe, a Romanesque arch leads into the Corte Sgarzerie, at the centre of which stands a great loggia from the time of Scaliger rule. The name, deriving from a finishing process done on wool using a local cardoon, is evocative: this is where the final machining, measuring, and trading of wool took place. Since before the year 1000 and through the entire 14th century, the wool industry was one of the main activities of Verona, and the processing of wool was among the city’s most important arts; the cloth of Verona, produced according to proprietary production techniques, was famous throughout the known world.
But the Corte Sgarzerie treasures do not end with the beautiful and graceful loggia that almost entirely occupies it.
In Verona it often happens that maintenance works in cellars and basements unearth treasures that have been buried for millennia. It so happens that some restaurants may serve cocktails next to the base of a temple of the imperial era, or a massive Roman Solomonic column can become the backdrop of a display in a store window.
A large stretch of the portico which in Roman times surrounded three sides of the Capitolium (the main town temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) was unearthed between 1988 and 2004 right below the Loggia in Corte Sgarzerie. It is accessible only on certain days of the week, but the visit gives a good idea of how many wonders are still preserved in the underground of Verona.
The Capitolium area can be accessed by crossing Corso Porta Borsari and walking up the short Vicolo San Marco in Foro. Instead, walking down again toward Corso Porta Borsari along Vicolo Corticella San Marco, we find ourselves in front of the tiny church of San Giovanni in Foro, dated 12th century.
Toward the end of the Corso, just before Porta Romana, a narrow and short street leads to the church of San Matteo, now deconsecrated. Shortly before reaching it, a modest opening leads into Vicolo del Guasto which follows right along a portion of the majestic and candid Gallienus walls that, in Roman times, defended the southern side of the city.