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Verona 20 September 2011

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Verona: Amfiteatro Arena

Out our window, we saw a fragment, the only part standing, of the Amfiteatro's outer wall, presently being shored up. Amongst the fittings and random chimneys and vents of modern building, it stands out stark and monumental, fascinating every time I looked at it.

Long lines waiting to get in discouraged us the day before, and so we elected to visit the Amfiteatro first thing it opened. After a good hotel breakfast – breakfasts, especially those in hotels, are iffy in Italy primarily because the native Veronese (or whomever) who shop and present them have no understanding of why anyone would want breakfast. Isn't an espresso enough?

Apart from a crew noisily setting up a stage for upcoming productions of Cats and Peter Pan, we were the first in the Amfiteatro, and an amazing structure it is. Originally built in 30 CE, it has been standing for going on two millennia. It has had a little work done over the years...

Out our window, night and dawn (mouse over; patience...)

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There's a thrill to entering the way the gladiators did -- "We who are about to die salute you" -- between massive columns supporting the whole unbelievably solid mass that has endured so many centuries. Where the careful walls have peeled away, it can be seen that rubble filled the cavities. It is easy for a builder to imagine how this immense thing was created, a stone at a time; how the falsework for arches was built to last over many uses, and arches were built one at a time right around the oval.

What is not so easy for a builder to imagine is how many men worked on this, over how many years, and how the immense amount of stone was quarried, moved, shaped, and placed.

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Even less easy is to imagine: how the actual stone got laid down. Marble, Wikipedia tells us, is made up of carbonate materials that have been metamorphosed by time and pressure from ancient sea- and lake-bed deposits, and so quite often there are inclusions of formerly inhabited shells, as here. Over the centuries, more water has fallen than we can imagine, puddled, eroded; uncountable butts have rested here. (Unaccountably, except for the marble seats and steps, the most commonly found thing here are cigarette butts. I had to clear some to take this picture. Are these archaic, fossilized butts? Or do people come here and smoke, possibly after sex, and throw their butts around? The mysteries of Italy...) 

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In modern times (since 1850) the acoustics here have been put to work for opera, and in the last few dacades this has become a very popular summertime destination for opera buffs from all over. The modern seating, pretty flimsy by Roman standards, the theatrical lighting, and the necessary and ever-present preservation work that is partly financed by the popularity of the summer opera season rests uneasily on the old Roman stones, but they are so massive and enduring, it can hardly be said that they change the experience. Sitting beside the ancient fossilized shell, I thought I heard it whisper, "this too shall pass." 

Good attitude. Outside the arena, life goes on. Again, thinking like a builder, I meditated on the difference between our western American culture of structures that barely survive half a century before they become tear-downs.

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Here, in Verona, the town has grown out and around its Roman antiquities, in some cases incorporating them into walls, foundations, in some cases, as here, making the immensely costly decision to keep them, honor them, and possibly turn them to some modern use. How would it change the way we think about our cities if we preserved at their center elements that were 2,000 years old?

Verona, built at a crossroads of trade routes running north to Austria and east-west between France and Venice, proudly retains its Roman plan in its centro storico. The streets have gotten kinked over the centuries, the mighty Adige continues to roar around three sides of the city, making it a natural fortress. In the marble sidewalk outside the arena there is a bronze map of the old city, reminding the Veronese and visitors alike why this place is the way it is.

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mouse over to see what these shapes are about

Encircled by a roaring river fresh from the Alps, Verona was a commercial center, marketplace, and administrative center, at one time second only to Rome in importance – hence its possession of the third largest known Roman Arena. Built around a market square, with the administration to one side of the square, a fortress across the river on one side and the arena just outside the city walls (as was the Roman practice) this was a model city. 

Somehow, though – blame it on Shakespeare – the city has forgotten its reason for being, and ultimately, to us, feels a little empty. 

So, we retrieved our luggage and made our way to the station in a leisurely manner, expecting to be early as usual, only to discover we had mis-read our ticket, and the train had left three minutes before. The joys of travel!

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