The city of Verona, with its romantic qualities and artistic history, was not always the stunning tourist destination that can be seen today. The city has a long, robust history and was an important centre both strategically and politically. The original settlement, now known as Verona, was founded by ancient tribes, and the current historic centre was founded during the 1st century BC as a Roman colony. Built on a grid structure, the city has a famously impenetrable defensive wall which could only be entered through two gates, Porta Leoni or Porta Lova, which later became Portone Borsari.
Verona, as a city was founded in 49 BCE and has ever since continued to grow as a stronghold as well as in wealth. Even the word Verona (wehre is german for defend) is attributed to its strength and resistance, and over many centuries to come Verona remained protected from the various invasions that instead left other towns desecrated.
Verona even boasts one of the richest collections of Roman remains in Italy, including what's left of the Porta Leoni; the rebuilt Arco dei Gavi; Ponte Pietra, the Roman theatre; and the Amphitheatre Arena, second in size only to the Colosseum in Rome.
During the 5th century, Verona became the second capital of the Italic Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, was controlled by the Lombards until 774, and eventually ruled by Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire until the turn of the millennium. Many of the city's most prominent religious buildings were constructed during this period including the church of San Giovanni in Valle, parts of the church of San Lorenzo, the church of San Fermo, and the Duomo, rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed it during the 6th century.
The now famous Arena was built during the reigns of Emperor Augustus, and Emperor Claudius as an arena for gladiator combat, games and spectacles. The amphitheatre took on its latest incarnation as a theatrical hall during the renaissance period when it started to be used for theatre performances.
The Arena's very important, and globally impacting history with opera began much later, during the early 20th century on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of composer, Giuseppe Verdi. Tenor Giovanni Zenatello and theatre impresario Ottone Rovato took it upon themselves to launch an opera festival in celebration of the great composer by featuring the opulent, and visually stunning masterpiece, Aida. They managed to secure the prolific conductor Tulio Serafin to conduct the inaugural performance of Aida, catapulting the festival into the immediate interest of the public and while earning respect and importance, and has been a permanent part of the Arena ever since.
With the founding of the Opera Festival also came the founding of the Opera Festival Orchestra, an orchestra of supreme talent and history that has been host to such composers as Pietro Mascagni, Riccardo Zandonai, and Mikis Theodorakis who also participated as conductors. Other conductors who have made guest appearances at the Festival include Sergio Failoni, Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, Rudolf Kempe, Daniel Oren, and Lorin Maazel.
The wealth of operatic repertoire available and access to singers, directors and musicians of the highest calibre means that any opera imaginable could potentially be performed at the Arena, but often, a special spot is reserved for a few key elements:
First and foremost, the operas of Giuseppe Verdi are still celebrated annually. The most extravagant being the opera that inaugurated the festival, Aida, which often features live animals, lavish costumes and innumerable extras, but other favourites such as La Traviata, Otello, Nabucco, or Un Ballo in Maschera will leave any opera lover or opera newcomer in awe of his artistic genius.
The operas of Giacomo Puccini are also mainstays of the arena, his penchant for drama and hummable melodies from the likes of La Bohème, Tosca, and the opulent Turandot are perfectly suited to the grandeur of the Arena and the romance of watching an opera under the stars in Italy.
Besides the Arena, Verona is lovingly remembered as the backdrop for the tale of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet are thought to have lived in Verona, some say only in fiction while others believe the Capulets and Montagues really did stroll the streets of Verona. Regardless, Juliet's balcony remains one of the most important and visited locations in Verona, and the programming of the Arena reflects the world's love for the bard and his epic romantic tale. There are two versions of Shakespeare's story that any opera lover will instantly recognize: Romeo et Juliette, by Charles Gounod, and i Capuleti e i Montecchi, by Vincenzo Bellini. Both are gorgeous, unforgettable settings that are often featured at the Arena.
I also wrote the original version of this article: VERONA: FROM SHAKESPEARE TO VERDI A CITY OF MUSIC AND LOVE, which can be seen on the website KissFromItaly