Friday, 5 July 2013

Preview: Verona Arena

Opera season in Verona: where shall we go? Why, there's the 2000-year-old arena of death and slaughter!

This is Verona Arena, and it's fair to say that it's done a few things over the year. One of many Roman amphitheatres scattered across Italy and the former Roman Empire, it's one of the biggest and one of the best preserved. Sure, the Colosseum in Rome is the big daddy of the amphitheatre world, but nobody would claim it's in terribly good condition, and it doesn't exactly host regular large-scale events. But the Verona Arena, which pre-dates the Colosseum by around 50 years, is looking good and keeps on going. 200 years ago it had bullfights and dogs attacking bulls; 300-400 years ago it had jousting tournaments; 600 years ago it had weddings and crazy festivals; 800 or so years it was a homeless shelter, a red light district, and a place to burn heretics; before that it was a fortress; and way back in the day, when the Roman Empire was still using it for its intended purpose, men and women and animals were getting hacked to bits for the public's entertainment. Today it hosts opera performances and pop concerts... hey, are we being short changed?

Verona, in northern Italy, was appropriated by the Romans in the 1st Century BC. It had existed long before that, as a vital link in both river and land trade routes with a constant flow of traffic. The Roman recognised this, and gave it a more efficient road and street system as well as enhancing the city's facilities. A theatre, forum, temples, fancy archways, and city walls, among other things were built, but the inclusion of a large amphitheatre was a significant statement. Any city with an amphitheatre had its status confirmed, and Verona was given a big amphitheatre. Curiously, the location of the Arena is outside the Roman city walls. One benefit of this was to make the amphitheatre not the exclusive use of Verona, but for the wider area; hence why a city of around 10,000 had an arena with a capacity approaching 30,000. Likely though, this was a "bonus feature". Verona Arena's slightly irregular position probably just indicates that when the Romans designed their new version of Verona, they had no plans for a permanent amphitheatre. Possibly there may have been a temporary wooden one, but by the time they decided it would be a good idea for a big permanent stone one there was longer any suitable space in the city. Verona Arena's location also indicates it was built during a peaceful time. The Arena is higher than the city walls, therefore absolutely terrible from a defensive point of view - it's like building a big tall tower right next to your castle, an absolute gift for your enemies. As the Arena has no surviving inscriptions to date it, the above details plus the sculptural style have led to an estimate of around 30 AD for its construction.

Typically, the Romans didn't record the name of the architect in charge. Usually, for public works, the names of responsible officials might be noted, as well as any members of the local aristocracy that had chipped in with funding, but no such records survive for the Arena. Perhaps it was seen as no big deal, artistically at least. Amphitheatres such as this might be pretty damn huge, but they were regarded as functional rather than beautiful. Competence and professionalism was expected from the architect rather than inspiration. And by Roman standards, it was a fair assumption. The Verona Arena is not especially complex or sophisticated. A giant oval bowl with seating, it's pretty similar all the way round and so it would likely have been built quickly. Manpower would have defined the speed of construction rather than any technical constraints; the Arena was likely built by several different teams working on several different sections simultaneously. It came to a total length of 152 metres and width of 123 metres (these numbers are a little smaller today), and was 31 metres high. Half the effort would have been quarrying and transporting the stone, a limestone from the nearby Lessini mountains.

 So, functional, yes. But - the Romans were expert builders, and their function has become our beauty. All the pillars and arches and vaults used to form the Arena are pure structure and function. The beauty is involuntary - but it's there. Verona Arena stands as a testament of a perfect adaption to function; just as nature ultimately derives from function through adaptation, so does good architecture. And when it comes together, it looks great.

Although Verona Arena's history begins in the early 1st Century AD, it's a pretty light history back then. It's mentioned in Roman texts, but not much, and not with any great fanfare. It was there to do a job, and it did so. A couple of centuries later, upon threat of invasion from northern Germanic tribes, the city walls were extended to incorporate the Arena so that it finally became part of the city, but by then its time was coming to an end. Emperor Constantine began the banning of gladiator combat in 325 AD, and by 405 AD the fighting ground to a halt. Verona Arena fell into disuse rather than being deliberately destroyed; in fact, the usually destructive Germanic tribes actually did a little bit of restoration on it.

But then came along the Middle Ages - and they came up with all kinds of creative uses for a large stone arena. Although a massive earthquake in 1117 destroyed the outer ring, the inner part - that we see now - still stood strong, and it was the perfect venue for public events of all sorts. Many of these continued in the spirit of the Romans - mass killings and executions. I'll cover all this in a little more detail in my eventual review, as although the Verona Arena is a Roman building, it took the Middle Ages for its personality to bloom. Verona, in its own peculiar way, began to appreciate its amphitheatre. Restoration of ancient buildings is not something that really happened much prior to the 19th Century, but way back in the 13th Century the Veronese were taking steps to improve the run-down Arena. By the 15th Century, it was illegal to vandalise it, and especially big punishments were handed out for removing blocks. Prostitutes were housed there - they paid good rent and were a tidy little earner for the city, and thus it was in everyone's interest to keep the place in good order. By the 16th Century, the prostitutes had made way for shops and artisans, and although the Arena itself held all kinds of events in the following centuries, some of the arches were still occupied by the likes of a blacksmith and bicycle mechanics right up until the 1950s.

These days, opera is the big deal of the Arena. Way back in 1822 it held its first performance, and the 19th Century saw a few more of these, but things really kicked off by 1913. By happy coincidence, the Arena has excellent acoustics and so makes a perfect outdoor music venue during the summer. Almost 2000 years on, the Verona Arena is still alive and well - and these days so are all the people inside.

Given that I've already got the Colosseum on my list, the Verona Arena might seem a strange additional choice. After all, the Colosseum is much larger and more famous. It was my sister who first suggested it to me. She'd visited and was impressed it was still functioning; I too like the idea of an ancient structure still being actively used, and for its original purpose of entertainment. The Verona Arena is not a museum to itself, and it's not some ruined edifice reminding us of a lost era, it's a place people go - and have gone for 20 centuries - to be entertained. There are lots of old Roman amphitheatres out there, but not many are still regularly used. Verona Arena is big and well preserved, and while I suspect it may not end up being high up on my Wonder rankings, I think it is truly wonderful that it's around. How many buildings around us now will still be working in 2000 years time?

I've never been to an opera, and Danielle has spoken on more than occasion about her aversion to the genre, but nonetheless an opera we will see. When? I think the season doesn't start till June, so I guess it will have to be summer some time next year. As ever, I'll give a fuller account of Verona Arena and its history then, as well as my own impressions. Perhaps I'll be swept away by the opera like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

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