…is where I was for the last few days. (My concept of a nice weekend away stretches as far as Bury St Edmunds or Norwich, but Him Indoors is made of more imaginative stuff.) This was all arranged quite a long time ago, so I was excited to read just recently in Volume 2 of Alfred, Lord Tennyson that the Poet Laureate had visited the city in 1880, on a journey which his doctor had prescribed: the cure for a ‘liver attack’ and ‘hearing perpetual ghostly voices’ was either America or Venice. The best berths in the next liner to Canada had already been taken, so Tennyson and his son Hallam went to Venice instead, via Munich, Tegernsee (to visit Lord Acton), Innsbrück, and the Dolomites, where they stopped at Piave di Cadore, the birthplace of Titian. After sampling the delights of Venice at length, their return journey took them through Verona, where ‘my father was enchanted by the romance of its situation, nestled among vine-clad hills, with the Adige rushing round the walls, and by the beautiful Giusti garden – famous for its cypresses throughout two centuries that looks out towards the western hills.’
Here are the gardens on Monday: UK readers may need to have it explained that strange lighting effect comes from two rare and interlinked phenomena called ‘blue sky’ and ‘sunshine’.
Two years after Tennyson’s visit, the Adige rushed with a vengeance, in a flood which submerged large parts of the city and destroyed one of the bridges, and a massive project was undertaken to build new embankments. This must have had a similar effect to the construction of the Thames embankments – on the plus side, much less risk of uncontrolled and frequent inundation, but on the minus side, the cutting off of the river from much of the life of the city.
A generation earlier, Dickens had visited, on the trip which gave rise to Pictures from Italy (1846), though ‘I had been half afraid to go to Verona, lest it should at all put me out of conceit with Romeo and Juliet.’ He dutifully visited ‘Juliet’s house’, ‘now degenerated into a most miserable little inn’ (the degeneration it suffers today would, I think, have dismayed Dickens even at his most popularist and rumbustious), and ‘Juliet’s tomb … in an old, old garden, once belonging to an old, old convent…It was a pleasure, rather than a disappointment that Juliet’s resting-place was forgotten.’ (Again, heaven knows what he would make of it today.) He was enormously impressed by the Roman amphitheatre, and almost apologises for the ‘homely and fantastic’ impression that looking down into the interior made upon him – ‘like the inside of a prodigious hat of plaited straw, with an enormously broad brim and a shallow crown’. And he sums up – ‘in the churches, among the palaces, in the street, on the bridge, or down by the river: it was always pleasant Verona, and in my remembrance always will be’.
For Hobhouse, in his Italy (published in 1859, but recounting his many travels throughout the peninsula from 1816 onwards), the structures of the city show its historical destiny as a border town – in ancient times one of the major Roman garrison cities, since the Adige with its abrupt right-angled bend formed, then as now, a barrier between both north and south and east and west; and more recently (and for the same geographical reasons) the boundary between the Veneto and Lombardy, and hence critical to the strategy of Austria-Hungary when defending the territory acquired at the Congress of Vienna from the Italian nationalists advancing from the south and west. The balcony from which Garibaldi addressed the populace has a plaque, and of course there is a huge equestrian statue of him elsewhere in the town; and the military significance of the place is emphasised by the impressive walls and gates – Roman, medieval and later – and the numerous memorials to the dead (civilian as well as military) of many wars.
Hobhouse is interesting on the tombs of the Scaligeri, making the point that, as so often, the worst of the dynasty (in terms of both morality and competence) has the most elaborate memorial. He also mentions that the Titian ‘Assumption’ in the cathedral was one of the many artworks carried off by Napoleon from Italy, and later restored (unlike the Veronese ‘Wedding at Cana’ from S. Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, which was small enough to be cut up and carted off by the French but too big to be returned, apparently).
But of course for the art of Verona, we need to turn to Ruskin, passim. Ruskin adored Verona: ‘A Joy For Ever’ (in vol. 16) gives his reasons, and throughout the works he discusses the architecture, the paintings and frescoes, the relationship of Cangrande della Scala with Dante, and much else besides. He sent Frank Randal, one of the band of ‘travelling artists’ he commissioned in the 1880s, to make sketches and paintings of the most important buildings, views (including one from the Giusti gardens) and frescoes (for those in the open air were deteriorating rapidly) for the museum of the Guild of St George. ‘Venice is richer and grander, but not so pure in feeling or so lovely in grouping’, he says. I’m not sure that he would think so today – traffic (in spite of a largely pedestrianised centre) and twentieth-century development have undoubtedly made it less lovely than it was – but none the less, I’m with Shakespeare and Dickens on this: Verona is indeed both fair and pleasant.