Saturday, 14 June 2014

51. Wonder: Verona Arena

(For the Verona Arena preview, please click here.)

If you asked us today what masterpieces of modern architecture might survive the millennia, for our descendents of the year 4000 AD to admire, what would there be? It depends on what the next 2000 years bring. If it's the rise and fall of civilisations, then I wouldn't expect much. Would the Millau Viaduct still span the Tarn Valley? Would the Sydney Opera House still grace Sydney's harbour? I doubt it. Both have been given life spans of around 200 years. I expect that proper maintenance could keep them going indefinitely, but without that then weather, age, and deliberate vandalism would see them fall. Therefore, if given a magic eye into the future, I'd be surprised to discover that of all the buildings to survive despite a lack of care, our sports stadiums had fared best. And I'd be even more surprised to discover that their heyday wasn't right now, it is still more than a thousand years ahead, used for such silver-jumpsuited future-sports as cyber-pogo, electro-petanque, and MegaWhirlwind 3000 (TM). It's the kind of surprise any Romans with a magic eye might feel upon looking at today's world. Only the barest remnants of their cities remain, but their amphitheatres are still standing. And some in particular are flourishing, perhaps none moreso than Verona Arena.

This is Verona Arena, on a very hot day, gearing up for opera season. The first opera was held here in 1822, and it has been a regular event on the summer schedule since 1919. Clearly, opera was not what the Romans designed their arena for, but happily the structure suits the purpose well. Today it seats around 22,000 but in Roman times it would have been up to 30,000. A large arena can be used for pretty much anything, and Verona Arena certainly has. Aside from opera, it also hosts other music concerts, football games, festivals, and even visits from the pope. In the past, it has been a fortress, a brothel, a wedding venue, and used for things like jousting and bullfights, and many more. Verona Arena is versatile.

Of course, as with the other Roman amphitheatres, it was designed for killing. Killing people, killing animals, killing in the name of sporting combat or just a bit of mundane slaughter. The Romans didn't seem to mind, they were pretty content as long as things got killed. Perhaps Christians too, although perhaps not. The Arena's more famous (although baby by about half a century) cousin in Rome, the Colosseum, is often claimed to be the setting for many Christians being martyred, but this is without evidence and possibly myth. Likewise for Verona Arena - if Christians were ever killed here, it was not recorded. You've got to look beyond Roman times for some Christian deaths, to February 13th 1278, when 166 of the wrong kind of Christians were burnt at the stake for being Cathar heretics. The man who sent them to their death was promptly rewarded with a castle by Pope Nicholas III. Seriously, if you're ever worried about today's society, just look at pretty much any society in all of history.

Probably, Verona Arena was built around 30 AD. We can't say for certain as no written documents survive saying as such, but the Roman author Pliny the Younger mentioned its existence and he lived in the late 1st Century to the 2nd Century AD. The Romans took control of Verona in 49 BC, so it must be between this time. The honed-in date of 30 AD is suggested by studying the weaponry of gladiator sculptures. Styles and types of weapons changed just as much in Romans times as they do today.

It wouldn't have taken very long to build. In the Middle Ages, cathedrals may have taken centuries, but the Romans were in a hurry, and amphitheatres were far simpler structures. The Verona Arena is big but it is not especially complex or sophisticated. A walk around it, inside or out, makes this pretty clear. It's pretty similar all the way round. Take a look at the pictures below - that's pretty much the deal.

This similarity all the way round means the different sections could be built simultaneously. The Romans were expert builders and although Verona Arena was a big project, it was not an especially demanding one. It was just another amphitheatre, no new boundaries were pushed. How long the Arena took would have depended simply on the manpower available. We can't say for certain, but we're talking years rather than decades. The resulting structure was only slightly smaller than the Colosseum - the arena for combat is 74 metres by 44 metres compared to the Colosseum's 87 metres by 55 metres; the overall length and width is 140 metres and 110 metres compared to the Colosseum's 188 metres and 156 metres. In regards to height, it's definitely smaller: Verona Arena is 31 metres high to the Colosseum's 50 metres. The architect is unknown, which is fairly typical as Romans don't seem to been that fussed about remembering who built what. More commonly they noted down for posterity the people who had funded the project, but even those are unknown in the case of Verona Arena.

For a couple of centuries, Verona Arena would have been the place to go for locals who fancied seeing people hack bits of each other, or slay innocent animals. The common image of such spectacles is of gladiatorial combat, and this would have been the case, but the more overlooked spectacle of animal slaughter was probably more commonplace. The archaeologist Filippo Coarelli writes: “the capture and sale of beasts to be used for spectacles in amphitheatres had been organised on an almost industrial scale." Yes, the Romans were very serious about killing animals. Not just exotic creatures like giraffes and rhinoceroses, which would have been headline acts, but much more routine animals such as rabbits. People might pop down to the Arena for lunchtime and watch a few rabbits being chopped up.

Verona Arena was placed outside the city walls. It wasn't just for the citizens of Verona, but for the whole area. With a city population of 15,000, an amphitheatre with almost 30,000 capacity was clearly over-sized, but the Arena was for the wider world too. It brought in outsiders. This changed in 265 AD. The Roman Empire had become a more dangerous place, with Germanic barbarian tribes threatening invasion, and having a massive amphitheatre right outside the city walls was madness defensively. Emperor Gallienus extended the city walls so that the Arena was incorporated inside the city, knocking down some of the outer layer of the Arena in the process. Verona Arena was now contained within Verona, limiting it to the population of 15,000. A phase in its life of grand mass spectacles was over.

And centuries passed.

In those centuries, the Roman Empire fell and Western Europe slipped into the Dark Ages. What was Verona Arena doing? Not very much, most likely, but who knows? There's some evidence it may have been used as an occasional fortress in the 9th or 10th Centuries, but mostly people were just wallowing about in mud, wailing in the darkness, and dying, or whatever people did in the Dark Ages. No time for mass entertainment. But we know that the Arena remained in good condition - maps from the 10th Century depict it intact. Which is why, after over a thousand years of doing pretty well, it's such a shame that an earthquake in 1117 did so much damage.

See the outer part of the Arena in the picture? That's all that remains of the outer ring, that once surrounded everything else we see today. It collapsed from the earthquake, and the people of Verona used the pink-and-white limestone rubble as a quarry, thus it's all but gone. In essence, we see a naked Arena today. Although the Roman amphitheatres were functional structures, the outer walls were their fancy dressing that gave them beauty. In its day, Verona Arena would have been decorated with columns, statues, and pink-and-white marble, all part of the monumental outer ring that wrapped around the smaller core. The tiny part remaining is a reminder as to how ruined the Arena really is, and the merest glimpse of how it once looked.

Despite the catastrophic earthquake, the Arena began to flourish. Indeed, its Middle Ages history is a lot more interesting than the Roman, partly because more information is available but mostly because it had more varied uses. For some time it was disused, except as a (rather deluxe) shelter for the homeless, but by the 13th Century, Verona had begun to appreciate it had some worth. Not just for burning heretics, but as an elaborate brothel. A 1298 addition to a law referring to the Arena allowed prostitutes and pimps to live there and only there. Oh, and one little catch: the law stipulated that they all had to wear a hood with a bell! Hookers with bells on, that how the Middle Ages rolled.

At the same time, an annual budget was set for the maintenance of the Arena. Over the next centuries, further protection was given, with heavy fines for vandalism and especially taking stones away. Giving such protection to an ancient building is extremely rare in history - it's only really since the 19th Century we've started to care about preservation. It would be nice to think it was an early example of heritage appreciation, but the reality is likely more prosaic: money. The prostitutes paid good rent and made the city a lot of money, and it was in everyone's interest to keep them there. If you're wondering where they lived, then they obviously didn't live in the central arena- that would be somewhat exposed - but within the numerous arches and rooms that surround it.

The Arena served other functions during that time too. It was used as a venue to determine "justice". This might take the form of duelling, the winner of the duel obviously being the correct party. There was also the "judgement of God", where a defendant had to pass a challenge, such as taking something from a boiling cauldron or carrying a red-hot iron. God would (obviously) protect the just. At least one wedding is recorded as having been held in the Arena, and in 1382 we have an event called the "Castle of Love". This truly awesome spectacle saw a makeshift castle erected with beautiful maidens placed inside. Gentlemen in knightly costume from around the country then contended against each other to take the castle by storm, and presumably their maiden of choice. This is still the kind of thing you can find on Japanese TV these days.

By 1530, after 250 years of being forced to live at the Arena, the prostitutes were told to leave. Now, artisans and merchants replaced them, using the space as shops (this practice went on right up until the 1950s). The general restoration and maintenance continued, with more laws forbidding stone removal. Seating was rebuilt and three arches likewise. Again, commercial considerations were behind this, but it would be nice to think that some of the restoration came from a genuine appreciation for the building itself. By the 17th Century, it began holding jousting tournaments, and by the early 18th Century performances started to be held there, such as comedy, dancing, and something described as rope jumping, which I assume was more interesting than it sounds. As for comedy, I once stumbled upon a book of 18th Century comedy, and here's one of the gems: 

"A Westminster Justice taking Coach in the City, and being set down at Young Man’s Coffee-house, Charing-Cross, the Driver demanded Eighteen-Pence as his Fare; the Justice asked him, if he would swear that the Ground came to the Money; the Man said, he would take his Oath on’t. The Justice replyed, Friend, I am a Magistrate, and pulling a Book out of his Pocket, administer’d the Oath, and then gave the Fellow Six-pence, saying, he must reserve the shilling to himself for the Affadavit."

Bullfighting, from the 19th Century, proved more popular.

It's funny how a place that has hosted so much barbarity and misery can seem so pleasant, but that's the Arena today. It's a building that has changed greatly over the years. People may have been killed there 2000 years ago and 800 years ago, at the very least, but it seems difficult to imagine now. These days it simply seems like a grand stone stadium that hosts spectacular opera. My mother and sister joined Danielle and I for a visit, and our visit was on a scorching hot day. It was my sister, Morag, who had tipped me off about Verona Arena some years ago. She preferred it to the Colosseum, which was enough of an endorsement for me. Her reasons were sound: it was still-used, looked prettier on the inside, and made for a lovely day out just sitting on the steps, eating a picnic, enjoying the space and the elevated position within the city. Sadly, at around 35 degrees Celcius, this option was not available for us. My mother soon retreated to the cool of the inside, and I joined her soon after, beaten by the heat. The contrast between inside and outside was profound. Inside, within the heavy limestone and masonry, the corridors were cool and very refreshing. Outside, there was nowhere to shelter under the full force of a sun in its 30s. Even sitting outside was difficult, watching a performance of any kind or being part of one seemed unimaginable. Did the Romans postpone events because of the heat? Or did the rabbits get killed regardless?

The heat got in the way of a nice day out, therefore, and prevented us from simply sitting on the steps and enjoying the Arena. Although the inside was mercifully cool, it's not a place you want to spend terribly much time in - it's essentially a corridor. And if you're interested in learning a little more about the Arena, well, the Arena doesn't do much to help. There's practically nothing in the way of information, except for a row of strange payphones. This is a concept I've seen elsewhere it Italy, usually in cathedrals. Grab the receiver, pop in a Euro or two, and listen to a heavily-accented Italian woman seemingly on a poor line from the depths of the ocean describe some history. It's a peculiar experience - was this what audio guides were like in the 1970s? A few information boards might better serve today's tourist.

Inside, there isn't much to do, and on a roasting day without a performance to watch, outside doesn't offer much either. It's unfortunate I couldn't have timed things so as to attend an opera, as I have no doubt as an opera venue it is sensational. Likewise, it's a shame the weather wasn't a little more moderate so that we could each a sandwich and relax on the terraces. But none of that affects my judgement on Verona Arena as a Wonder, it just means I was unlucky not to have enjoyed the process of judging as I might have. I spent a little more time wandering the Arena, walking along the seats and steps, and clambered to the top of the Arena, peering over the edge to the city, and gazing across the entire amphitheatre.

Nice, yes, but not mind-blowing. I haven't visited the Colosseum yet, and I wonder how it will fare against it. I've visited a few Roman amphitheatres now - full-scale constructions in Pula, Nimes, and Verona, as well as countless Greek-style theatres built into hills. I've also visited more modern stadiums than I could guess, including world-class ones such as the Maracana in Rio and the Birds' Nest Stadium in Beijing. And you know, I like them... but without the people, I can't help but feel a little disappointed. An empty cathedral still has atmosphere, a ruined city remains evocative, but an empty arena just seems empty. Something is missing. It doesn't matter whether the arena is 2000 years old or just 2 years old, they are inherently functional structures and when not serving that function they lose something of their appeal.

Like cathedrals too, amphitheatres and modern stadiums - let's call them both arenas here - suffer from a similarity. There are a lot of cathedrals around, and this makes even the grandest of them all a little less distinctive and original. The same, for me, goes for arenas. They may be different sizes and some are spectacularly conceived, but ultimately they have a central area for performances surrounded by a large area for spectactors. They are all basin-like.

My assessment for the Colosseum will have to wait until I visit (in just over a week), but for Verona Arena this is its major shortcoming: it's just another arena. At around 140 metres long by 110 metres wide, it covers roughly the same area as a large cathedral, but is far shorter - the remains of the outer ring reach almost 31 metres, but the inner ring is less by several metres. In terms of magnitude, it doesn't make a huge impact. Nor is it beautiful. The decorative elements have long been lost, so we're seeing the stripped-back masonry. Over my few days in Verona, the Arena grew on me in terms of looks; although a bit plain it also has a rough attractiveness. It's in a lovely position with the open park space of Piazza Bra on one side and the old city on the other. The two storeys of arches are attractive. Nice, in other words, but not killer.

Verona Arena's main appeal is its history - 2000 years old, from Roman times, with a whole bunch of medieval shenanigans. Anything left over from the Roman times is impressive, simply in terms of age; anything monumental is even more impressive, as 20 centuries is a long time for something big to survive. Verona Arena might be stripped back, but it's not a ruin, and that's no mean feat. Functionally, it's an incredible monument, surviving and adapting for centuries, from gladiatorial combat to large-scale operas. But it suffers by comparison. It's not unique. It's testament to the Romans that many of their amphitheatres are still standing today, and Verona Arena is just one example of them. True, it's one of the finest. But the finest? Probably not. Even with its outer ring intact, I don't think this would be making big waves on my Wonder list. It's simply not grand enough. It doesn't command the attention like the best Wonders do, it doesn't pack a visual knockout punch. It's a survivor, and a grafter, providing mass entertainment for ancient Romans and modern Italians alike. But it's not a world beater.

Some criteria then.

Size: 140 metres by 110 metres, but only 31 metres at its highest. It takes up a reasonable area, but isn't huge.
Engineering: Very efficient Roman construction, but hardly pioneering. Just another amphitheatre.Just another amphitheatre that survived 2000 years and counting...
Artistry: Sadly, the more ornate outer ring is gone, leaving the inner shell. It has a rugged handsome look, but is never a striking beauty.
Age: Almost 2000 years and going strong. This is one of the oldest on my list.
Fame/Iconicity: I'm pretty sure opera lovers are familar with it, but it's very much overshadowed by its bigger version in Rome.
Context: Look at a map of Verona, and everything seems to revolve around the large oval of the Arena. It's surrounded by a beautiful city, becoming part of it rather than dominating it.
Back Story: Its Roman life is curiously unknown, and probably routine, but from medieval times it goes through a whole new lease of life.
Originality: One of a large number of Roman amphitheatres, many now ruined, but many still in good shape. It's in great shape, but it doesn't stand out from them a great deal.
Wow Factor: It doesn't make a very grand first impression, but it is a grower.

Verona Arena has to go down firmly into the category of very likeable, but not immense. It reminded me in many ways of the Pont du Gard. Both are Roman, both have survived what the centuries have thrown at them, both (given the appropriate weather) make for a lovely day out, and both are very likeable. But in the end, both are a little limited. Like modern bridges and arenas, they were built to serve a function. No doubt they have exceeded their duties and their ongoing survival testifies as to how well-built they are, but that slight air of functionality still hangs in the air. Verona Arena doesn't have the air of outrageous fantasy that benefits Wonders, it doesn't seem like humanity has exceeded itself. It's just a job done, very, very well. I'd place it around the Pont du Gard mark, just a little below the Forbidden City and above Avignon's Palace of the Popes.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers 

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Verona Arena
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha  

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

1 comment:

  1. You are right in that it is quite remarkable how many Roman amphitheatres/arenas etc are still around. I get the impression that they were considered to be a obligatory piece of infrastructure in any Roman city of a certain size (rather like our own stadia today I suppose).

    As for being able to watch a spectacle in 35 degree heat, in Roman times they had retractable roofs over the seats. In the film Gladiator you can see them unfurling them.

    Perhaps even their spectacles were held on a seasonal basis like ours (this is just me speculating).


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.