City of love and beauty

By Liz Light

In Verona, a Roman-built arena is a centre for opera, discovers Liz Light.

Verona's arena, built in Roman times, once bore witness to deadly gladiatorial combat but now hosts summertime opera. Photo / Liz Light
Verona's arena, built in Roman times, once bore witness to deadly gladiatorial combat but now hosts summertime opera. Photo / Liz Light

The stone seats of Verona's arena are smooth, polished to a shine by being sat upon by thousands of bottoms. I sit in one of the higher tiers, the giant oval loops below me, and try to imagine the scene when the Romans opened the arena in 30AD, almost 2000 years ago.

Romans were fond of large public spectacles and shows were funded by emperors to celebrate victories, marriages and in honour of particular gods. Theatre was popular - the acoustics in this arena are superb - as were circuses, executions and gladiatorial games where trained slaves fought each other to death or, for added titillation, fought wild animals including leopards, lions, hippos and elephants. The shows were accompanied by music, drinking and feasting, and sometimes lasted for days.

Most of what went on in the arena below me was bloody and debauched and Tiberius, the emperor who reigned when the arena was built, would probably find today's activities yawnfully tedious. And, not being an opera buff, I find La Traviata fairly hard going, too.

Because of this arena, its ability to seat 20,000 people and that it's almost sonically perfect, Verona has evolved to be a world centre for opera. There are 50 shows in the summer season and they feature many of the world's top names. Placido Domingo made his debut here. Romeo and Juliet, Aida, La Traviata, Tosca and others get numerous airings during the season so opera fans can satiate themselves with different shows over a couple of weeks. It's affordable, too. Cheap seats sell for €23 ($37), bring your own cushion.

Opera is the biggest of Verona's attractions and it seems extraordinary that an arena created so long ago still contributes to the creativity, ambience and wealth of a community in a way that the people who built it could have never imagined.

Verona began as a village in a loop in the Adige River and was claimed by Romans in 300BC - it was on the intersection of trading roads and the river made it defendable. By the time the arena was built, Verona was a large, prosperous city. Parts of the city wall remain from Roman times.

A severe earthquake in 1117 demolished many of the city's other Roman buildings. This led to a massive Romanesque rebuilding including the construction of two glorious churches, Sant' Anastasia and San Zeno Maggiore. San Zeno Maggiore, 1153, was the first to rise from the rubble and is considered one of the greatest achievements of Romanesque architecture but, glorious though it is, it doesn't pull my heartstrings as much as Anastasia.

I visit Sant' Anastasia (started in 1280 and taking a century to complete) during the Sunday morning service. I sit at the back and enjoy the ambience of incense, prayer, heavenly light from stained glass windows and flickering candles in giant gold candelabras.

Frescoes telling stories cover the walls; the annunciation, the virgin, Jesus as a chubby baby, a compassionate-faced man and a bloodily crucified prophet. This is Verona's largest church and by gradual proliferation, over centuries, it showcases the evolution of religious art including such art-history greats as Pisanello, Bellini and Tintoretto.

Another of Verona's claims to fame is that it is the home of Romeo and Juliet. I walk under an ancient archway into the courtyard of Juliet's house. On a stone balcony above the courtyard Juliet professed her love of Romeo to a friend and he, lurking in the courtyard, in the hope of getting a glimpse of her, overheard. This was the beginning of a star-crossed romance that ended in tragic deaths of both of them, but their story became one of the most enduring love stories of all time.

In 1553 Shakespeare wrote the romantic tragedy, setting it in Verona, based on events that happened a hundred years before. Never mind that Romeo and Juliet are fictional characters, and that though this house was the 13th-century home of the Capello family, and they probably had a daughter called Julieta, no one is quite sure where fact and fiction blend. No matter, young lovers flock here from all over the world to vow love until death. There is a bronze statue of Juliet with its right breast shining bright - millions of hands have stroked it. This is supposed to bring luck to love.

The city centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The cobbled streets and heritage architecture give it old-world ambience but the Veronese, who live and work here, are totally 2013.

Piazza delle Erbe, for instance, originally the Roman forum, is ringed with sumptuous medieval buildings but, at ground level, it's abuzz with cafes. I go there for breakfast and watch the world go by. Elderly gentlemen meet for espresso and chat while glancing at their newspaper and stylish women, often with cute little dogs, stand and gossip by the ancient fountain while their fury friends sniff each other and drink the water. The main shopping street is awash with designer shops - Prada, Armani, Moschino.

It's dislocating to attend a Sunday service in an 800-year-old church, have breakfast in a trendy cafe surrounded by medieval buildings and then peruse fashion shops.

When I reach the arena I revive myself with pistachio gelato. The massive, stone arena, 2000 years of it, reminds me that Tiberius, and the monks who built sublime Sant' Anastasia, created buildings of strength and beauty that have lasted in a useful and beloved way far into an unimaginable future.

It's a reminder that the marks we make now can potentially last until eternity.

- NZ Herald

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