Flavius smirks at tourist-clogged modern Verona

Flavius smirks at tourist-clogged modern VeronaIn the first century AD Flavius, the ruler of Gallia Cisalpina, or Verona as we know it, had a problem. His city still had no colosseum. Flavius’s opponents were agitating for a broad band of territory south of the city as the site for people’s amenities:  recreation, education, galleries and future solicitude for the populace. So, more and more conscious of this pressure and fearing inaction might lead to an attempt to upset his political hegemony, Flavius announced in his official financial statement of 30 AD a grant of thousands of denarii for what he promised would be the greatest of Roman Amphitheatres and a perpetual endowment for Gallia Cisalpina. Moreover, he proposed to bring in white and pink limestone from Valpolicella and use the vast area outside the walls as the site for the Amphitheatre and an adjacent square for leisure, exercise and conversation.

Neither Flavius nor his cohorts had shown the slightest interest during the past decade in amphitheatres, popular recreation and leisure, pink and white limestone, or much else other than their obsession with the fortification of the city walls, the locking out of wandering transalpine travellers seeking asylum from northern invaders, and the growth of the Cisalpine treasure chest. So there was a certain amount of cynicism when, with startling suddenness, the massive Amphitheatre began to take shape.

Still, it was real enough and its huge white and pink blocks shone in the sun and gleamed ghostly in the moonlight. Flavius could not have known, of course, that, in later ages, his Valpolicellan wonder would be plundered for its stone and become a source of material for medieval architects. But it would survive and be transformed, to become in the twentieth century one of the world’s great venues for opera, the Arena di Verona. This was something of an irony really, because Flavius and his party were total philistines who were enthusiastic supporters of gladiatorial contests but were never seen inside the walls of a theatre or gallery and who regarded even the drinking of coffee as epicene and pretentious.

The years passed, and Flavius and all his machinations, ambitions and coterie took their place on the rubbish heap of empire. The vast square in the shadow of his magnum opus became a popular place for meeting, strolling, talking and, soon, eating and drinking. As Romans evolved into Italians, as Latin became the Italian language, as the loosely and often conflicting provinces of the peninsula finally united to become Italy, the square became the Piazza Bra — one of the most famous of its kind in the world and, along with the beautiful, compact city of which it was a part, the destination of tourists, opera buffs, Shakespeareans, lovers and coffee drinkers.

Even in Flavius’s Verona, Roman chariots would queue and clash because the streets were narrow and tortuous and were made more so by the constraints of the walls and the huge pressing mass of the Amphitheatre. Modern Verona, choked with cars and cacophonous with intolerantly revving motors and impatient horn blowing, is a severe test even for those visitors with their hearts full of Capulet love or Montague pride or Verdi flourishes. As pervasive as is the phrase ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Verona, it is equalled for frequency by Senso Unico — a typically euphonious Italianism which is, however, no more than a traffic direction.

Flavius smirks at tourist-clogged modern VeronaI know of one couple who translated each Senso Unico as an invitation to view a ‘Unique Sight’ and constantly found themselves heading the wrong way up one-way streets. This infuriates Italians not because they are worried about the breach of law, but because it holds everyone up and makes it necessary for them to lean on their horns, shout and raise their fingers. This clamour makes babies wail and brings headscarfed women to the windows of apartments above, screaming "Silenzio!" This is probably why Italians are so good at opera  — because Italian life unfolds each day not with the rational continuity of the novel, or the spareness of the short story, but with traditional opera’s volatility, its impatience with the mundane.

And then there was the Australian couple whom I know even better. Threading our car through Verona’s one way streets, roadworks and diversions, we suddenly found ourselves heading at last for blessed space. "Straight ahead and round that bunch of tourists", says the navigator of my days, and we burst into — yes, you’ve guessed it — the Piazza Bra, a Pedestrians Only area since Flavius banned chariots there. A car in the Piazza Bra attracts the voluble, arm-waving attention of a bicycle cop, and camera-pointing Japanese tourists send their spouses or children to pose beside it before it moves on in acute embarrassment, scattering tourists and even normally imperturbable pigeons who have never seen the like.

Somewhere, Flavius smirks.



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