In The City of Star-Crossed Lovers

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Giardini Giusti, Verona.

It turns out I’m not the only one who has been longing for green.  And the marketers are on to us.  For 2016 there are all sorts of green tinted products to help us satisfy our verdant cravings.  Tired of that old, white mixer? Treat yourself to a fresh, apple green one. And then you can serve what you’ve whipped up in that (lurid) mixer on plates in a ‘relaxed, yet sophisticated, lemongrass green’.  While you’re at it, why not freshen up your study with a minty filing cabinet, or go all out and repaint your walls with ‘Paradise Found’,  ‘an organic, aloe green with an undertone of blue that offers at once a subtle, but serious sense of ease and rejuvenation (…which…) fills today’s consumers’ need for sturdy reassurance against the growing threats to global, national and cyber security.’  At least that is how Pittsburg Paints describes its 2016 ‘Colour of the Year’.

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Aloe in the Botanical Gardens of Palermo.

As usual, I’m not up to the subtleties of the marketing gurus.  Isn’t a ‘serious sense of ease’ oxymoronic?  And to my eyes PPG 1135-5  looks a lot closer to an agave than an aloe – something those marketing gurus may have been aware of, which is why they added the bit about the blue undertone.

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Nearby, the distinctive blue-green ‘leaves’ of the Agave.

Or maybe the orange blossoms were altering my perception of the aloe.  I suppose if you’ve studied fine art you know all about this ‘muddying’ of colours, but it still fools me.  Most recently in my kitchen.  I like to keep a pile of tomatoes on an oval platter I bought years ago in Tuscany.   For the longest time, whenever I went to make a salad, I’d look for the reddest tomatoes, presumably the ripest, but as soon as I picked them up they didn’t look nearly as red.  I’d put them back and choose redder ones. It took me quite a while to catch on to what was happening.  Maybe the same thing might be ‘colouring’ my perception of the aloe.   While I was checking the orange/green combo, I decided to see if I was right about the tomatoes.  I googled ‘red next to yellow’.  I was prepared to find out there was something off with my perception of colour, but what I didn’t expect to come up was an entire page of sites filled with alarming photos of venomous snakes.  It turns out that in the snake world,  ‘Red next to yellow kills a fellow’.

I had more luck with my ‘orange next to green’ search.  After only a couple of dead ends – mostly because they were too complicated – I landed on the ‘Law of Simultaneous Contrasts’.  The trick here was to remember something you learned in kindergarten, namely that if you mix yellow finger paint with red, you get orange.  And if you managed to find a clean bit of yellow and mixed it with blue, you’d get green.  The reason this matters is that because of the way our eyes perceive colour, when we look at orange next to green,  the yellow in one cancels the yellow in the other, which means that, if anything, the fleshy bits of those aloe plants should look a bit bluish.  Which they don’t.

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In my kitchen, red next to yellow has fooled me, but so far it hasn’t killed me.

Maybe those marketers figured aloe had a higher recognition factor among the general public. Certainly, when I take groups to the Arid Greenhouse at Allan Gardens even the non-gardeners in the groups know about aloe-based lotions, while only a few are aware that the tequila for all the Margheritas they’ve tossed back on holidays to Mexico comes from the agave.

In ogni caso (in any event)… getting back to green gardens. Another thing that has come up since the last two posts is that it has occurred to me that in my search for green I needn’t have gone all the way to the south-west of France.  On my way to Vicenza, my next base, I would be passing through Verona, a city with the greenest – and possibly least visited – of the great gardens of northern Italy.   This was not always the case – the relative lack of visitors that is.  In the past Giardini Giusti was considered one of the most beautiful gardens in the Veneto, an essential stop on the Grand Tour, visited by emperors and czars and Europe’s wealthy elites, as well as musicians and writers such as Mozart and Goethe.  The ‘problem’ is that, like Florence and Rome, Verona is rather overcrowded with must-see things, which means that by the time most visitors nowadays have ‘done’ its centro storico, they’re too tired or too hungry to even think of visiting a garden.

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The first must-see site that visitors to Verona encounter is the Roman Amphitheatre (1st century AD), one of the largest and best preserved in Italy.

Roman gladiators battling it out have, of course, long been replaced by operas – although the challenges of mounting the al fresco performances often have a battle-like quality about them.  In 2015, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Festival Operistico di Verona and the bicentenary of Verdi, a spectacular, modern take on Aida was mounted.   Magicarena is a fabulous, behind-the-scenes documentary of the preparations leading up to opening night.  You don’t even have to like opera to be drawn into the stories – of the musicians, the costume makers, the props guys, the sound technicians, the student comparsi who pay their way through university as extras.  And then there’s the testy diva who refuses to sit on a prop, violent downpours that flood the stage, and out of control torches that have to be doused back stage while the performance keeps going.  By the time opening night arrives, it really does seem like magic.

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Although enormous – it seats 17,000 spectators – the acoustics are so good that not even the soloists need microphones.

Even if you can’t arrange to be here for a performance it’s well worth checking out the interior.  If you’re lucky and arrive when the stage is being set up, you can just sit yourself down on the stone steps where the spectators will sit for the rather lengthy performances – those in the know bring pillows – and be mesmerized by the goings-on for a while.  Just keep in mind that there’s lots more to see.  You haven’t even entered the historic centre yet.

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L’Ala (the wing). Only four arches of the three storey wall that originally surrounded the amphitheatre survived a devastating earthquake in 1117

Unlike the winding labyrinths of historic centres created during the Middle Ages, Verona’s centro is an easy to navigate north-south grid – evidence of its Roman origins – so you don’t really need to bother with a map.  Just follow the tour groups, which will be heading for Piazza delle Erbe, the social centre of the city and site of an ancient Roman market.  Theoretically it’s a five minute walk, but it will probably take you much longer.

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Via Mazzini is loaded with distractions guaranteed to thwart even the most determined garden visitor.

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How she can even walk in those shoes on the uneven pavement is beyond me.

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Is the ‘taster’ a lucky, random pedestrian or part of the set-up? In the background Piazza delle Erbe.

At the centre of the piazza is a fountain, a standard feature of piazzas throughout Italy.  What is not so standard is the statue on top of it – not an emperor or a pope or any of the usual male notables but a female figure – Madonna Verona, symbol of the city.  If you know more about Roman sculpture than I do, you won’t need to consult your guide book to notice that something is ‘off’ about the statue.  The body is Roman, the arms and legs medieval additions.

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In her outstretched hands Madonna Verona holds the city’s motto,  Est iusti matrix urbs hecs et lauds amatrix. (This city is the bearer of justice and the lover of honour.)  Aspirational or self-congratulatory?

At the north-west corner of the piazza is a tower, surprisingly austere given the elegant baroque and Renaissance façades next to it.  It’s called Torre dei Lamberti, Tower of the Lamberti’s , a powerful, noble family who owned most of this part of the city during the 12th century, a time when tall towers – preferably taller than one’s rivals – was the status symbol.  Plus ça change…   Nowadays the best place to get an idea of what those medieval skylines would have looked like is San Gimignano in Tuscany. (‘Towers and Tourists, May 18, 2014).  The Lamberti’s tower was one of the tallest, but a good part of its height had nothing to do with status seeking.

The Lamberti patriarch was having an affair with the town fornaia (four-nigh-uh). Nothing terribly unusual about that, but when Signora Lamberti found out, she went into a rage and killed – not her errant husband, but the hapless baker.  Once the noble lady had calmed down, she proceeded to the confessional booth seeking absolution, which, as was the custom, was duly granted – on condition she pay for an addition to the tower and a bell that would ring on the hour to remind her, to the end of her mortal life, of the evil deed she had committed.

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The bell in Torre dei Lamberti is called Marangona, Veronese dialect for baker.

One of the advantages of travelling solo is that your time is your own.  There was no bus I had to be back to by a certain time – although I would have to find my way back to the parking lot, where hopefully without too much wandering around I’d locate my car – a feat that seems to get harder the more places you visit.  I was tempted to sit for a while and do a bit of people-watching in the piazza.  But there is only one thing worse than arriving at a garden to find it unaccountably closed and that is to arrive just when the skies open (what kind of language equates the opening of the skies with a deluge?), so after a quick cappuccino I set off in the direction of the garden.  A 10-minute walk, if you can ignore all the distractions.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Verona’s strategic location attracted a succession of conquerors – Ostrogoths, Lombards, even Charlemagne – until the Scaligeri’s (whose castles we saw on Lake Garda) took over in the 13th century.  Unfortunately, the Scaligeri’s great love of the arts – Dante, Petrarch and Giotto were some of the many artists who thrived under their generous patronage – was matched by their love of power and after two centuries of feuding and murdering, the city was in such a state of disarray that Venice easily wrenched control from them.  One of the first things the ever canny Venetian rulers did was build an elevated passageway so the magistrates they had sent to govern the newly conquered city could go back and forth between the Domus Nova, their residence in Piazza delle Erbe, and Palazzo della Ragione – (Palace of Reason – what a name for the courts!) in nearby Piazza dei Signori without the risk of being corrupted by contact with the unruly locals.

Unlike those Venetian emissaries, today’s visitors jostle their way between the two piazzas – the groups can be a challenge for the lone traveller – at street level.  The upside of this is we get a good look at what is hanging from one of the arches.  Depending on which story you prefer, it’s been up there since the 17th century, or as far back as the 1st C, when Verona was founded.  It’s the bone of an Ichthyosaur, a sea-dwelling dinosaur – or maybe a monster who roamed the mountains surrounding Verona – and was hung in the centro to ward off evil spirits.  Or then again, it might be a relic brought back from the Holy Land during the Crusades and hung as an ex-voto in gratitude for a safe return.  Given that the locals called the arch  l’Arco della Costa, I have a feeling most of them preferred another story about a whale’s rib (costa).  One thing all versions agree on is the idea that it will hang there until the first person to have never told a lie passes below it, which leaves me wondering as I leisurely pass underneath about whoever thought that one up.  Who needs the threat of getting whacked by a whale bone to get us to do something that is apparently in our DNA?  If you find this concept as distasteful as I did (still do), you might want to listen to ‘Born to Lie’ from CBC’s ‘Ideas in the Afternoon’ series with Paul Kennedy’ (CBC Radio, Wed. Jan. 13, 2016) or if you prefer visuals, check out a recent episode of ‘The Nature of Things’ by CBC TV – ‘Babies:  Born to be Good’.  It will make you laugh as you wince.

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After 1,000 or so years, the whale rib still hangs from the Arco della Costa.  While telling lies is not a totally unsavoury trait – some of those little white lies can actually be acts of kindness –  somehow I don’t think that is what the people who put the rib up there had in mind.

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Piazza dei Signori is a smorgasbord of architectural styles – Roman, Gothic and with the Loggia del Consiglio (yellow building), the first building in the Veneto to be designed in the ‘new’ Renaissance style.

Towering over the piazza is a 19th century statue of Dante, whose decision to write the Commedia Divina, arguably the greatest work in Italian literature, not in Latin as was the custom in the Middle Ages, but in toscano, the Tuscan dialect, led to his being proclaimed ‘Father of the Italian language’.

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So why the glower?

I rushed through the piazza – no time to tour the palaces if I was ever going to get to the garden – there had already been enough distractions, one more of which was just a bit further along the alley.  On my right was an astounding little courtyard jam-packed with statues. To my admittedly untrained eye it took the notion of ‘busy’ to a whole new, and not terribly pleasing level.   Then I learned the statues were actually the tombs of the Scaligeri’s.   That at least made sense.  The following two photos are from my first trip to Verona, when as you can see, the sun shone.

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The Arche Scaligeri are way over the top for me, but those in the know consider them an outstanding example of Gothic art.

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This artist had a remarkably serene air about him as he sketched the riotous scene.

After the Roman Amphitheatre, but, I suspect, only because visitors have to pass by the amphitheatre on their way to it, the most visited site in Verona is la casa di Giulietta, complete with the balcony made famous throughout the world, not because of the writings of any Italian author, but of a foreigner, which may have something to do with the glowering expression on the statue in Piazza dei Signori.  After all, Dante had written about the Montecchi and the Cappelletti centuries before Shakespeare had even been born.  (Dante completed La Divina Commedia in 1320.  The reference to the feuding families appears in Purgatorio, VI v. 105-107.  Shakespeare wrote his play sometime in the mid 1590’s.)   But Shakespeare didn’t have to go all the way back to Dante for his material.  In the 1650’s an English poet, Arthur Brooks, had introduced England to the story of two doomed lovers with a (plodding) poem he called ‘The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet’, which was followed shortly after by an equally forgettable prose version of the tale. If the idea of two more or less contemporary authors, coming up with the same story-line, ‘out of the blue’, as it were, seems a bit of a tale itself, it probably is.   More likely is that they had come across one or maybe all three of the stories written by Italian authors decades earlier. The first, Luigi Da Porto, a nobile cavaliere (noble knight) from nearby Vicenza had published, to great acclaim, the “Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti”  (The Newly Discovered Story of Two Noble Lovers), a reading of which, according to one Italian commentator, will leave the reader stupiti by the number and quality of the analogies to the Bard’s version.  The other two renditions were equally well received.  Totally absent apparently was any rancour or accusations of plagiarism amongst the three authors.  After all, as one historian points out, they hadn’t so much copied each other, as ‘borrowed’ from an oral legend that would have been popular in royal courts of the era.

In any event, it is obvious that there is a lot of  ‘borrowed’ material in the universally loved version that Shakespeare wrote, which leads to the thorny question of what constitutes plagiarism.  But before I get entangled in another digression, just a quick photo of the Lovers’ Wall – I’ll leave the throng to their selfies and recitations of undying love under Juliet’s balcony – and I’m off to the garden.

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The ‘Lovers’ Wall’. Given the irresistible urge to leave symbols of one’s devotion, perhaps a less destructive option than the love locks that pulled down a section of the Pont des Arts in Paris.

When I arrived at the entrance to the garden another literary work – this one entirely fictional – came to mind – ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’.  Walking through the gates was like entering a new, strange land, a place of quiet serenity unimaginable in the crowded, noisy city on the other side.

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And then, as I walked around, I became aware there was something else very strange about this tranquil, peaceful place.  It was as if I had been magically transported back to Tuscany.  For this garden had all the features of the classic Renaissance Gardens of that region.

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The cypress-lined avenues. The geometrically clipped boxwood.

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The pagan statues.

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Potted citrus like those in the gardens of Villa Medicea di Castello.  (The First Renaissance Garden, part III, Sept. 22, 2013)

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Symmetrical borders.

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A long, central axis.

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Fountains. And just beyond, a low, but instantly recognizable boxwood labyrinth.

The labyrinth is one of the oldest in Europe.  And, at one time, one of the most elaborate. An 18th century visitor, the otherwise brilliant Charles de Brosses, wrote that he became so disoriented he ‘was an hour wandering in the blazing sun and would have still been there had I not been taken out by one of the people of the place’.  During the craze for ‘romantic English Gardens’ that swept across Europe in the 18th century, that maze was destroyed to make way for the ‘rolling’ lawn typical of the English countryside. It has recently been replanted on the original design. Who knows how long it will take before it  again reaches the heights that amused and sometimes confounded visitors in the past?

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When, like Dante and countless others,  Count Agostini Giusti was forced to flee the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict in his native Tuscany, he found safe haven in the northern city. Knowing he would never return, he set about creating a garden like those he had left behind.

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Do they trim the tops of the unruly cypresses or just let them grow free?

While Count Giusti was not able to build his villa on a elevated site with views of the surrounding countryside as dictated by Alberti, (The Perfect Renaissance Garden, Sept. 29, 2013), Colle di San Pietro, a steep hill at the rear of his property provided the perfect topography for a bosco, the wild forest where the owners of the original Renaissance gardens would go to hunt or meditate.

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As I made my way up the hillside, now and then a bell tolled, the only reminder of the the city beyond the garden walls.

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From the bosco, a glimpse of the formal gardens far below.

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Partway up the hillside, a view even Alberti would have approved of. In the distance, the mountains where the mysterious ‘costa‘ may have been found.

As I continued along the path, I stopped to take a photo of the belvedere at the top of the hill.  While it was easy to understand why they would have created the lookout – the views were bound to be spectacular – the treatment of the façade was a puzzle.  So at odds with the elegant, formal gardens below.

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I’d seen the same creature, with the same menacing glare, in several gardens in Central Italy. It’s called a mascherone (mass-kay-roe-nay).  Big mask.  It started appearing in the gardens of the Late – some call it High Renaissance, when the optimism and hopes of the era were starting to fade.

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Although a bit worn for wear, the mascherone at Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati is obviously from the same mould.

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The mascherone at Sacro Bosco in the Lazio region provided a welcome setting for dining al fresco on hot summer evenings. (Sacred Forest or Monster Park?, May 12, 2015)

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A 16th century reminder that, despite our efforts to dominate and control her, we are ultimately at the mercy of an unpredictable and overpowering Nature.

The views from the Big Mask’s lookout were wonderful, but I didn’t dare linger.  The clouds had gotten a lot darker and, in addition to the bells, I thought I could hear the rumblings of thunder.

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What the mascherone sees.

I made it back to Piazza Bra and had just sat down at one of the trattorie that overlook the amphitheatre when it started to pour.

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Pasta e fagioli, fresh bread and a carafe of vino rosso. A pretty good way to wait out a downpour.

Next – In the City of Palladio

 

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