Ed over at the Ed Mooney Photography has been running the Capturing History Challenge for several weeks. If you never visited, do it right now! It is a weekly photo challenge for pictures of historic places taken by the participants, going up every Wednesday on Ed’s blog. I’ve taken part once (here’s where you can see the gallery with my Torre dei Lamberti) and plan to do so again. When Ed came up with this idea for a Halloween special edition I just couldn’t resist.
The idea is to enter photos of historic sites with a spooky story or legend attached to them.
How cool is that?
Of course, given the subject of my trilogy, I went for a ghost story in my city – Verona – and would you imagine? I found NONE.
There are lots of ghost stories all over the province, usually attached to one or other of our many castles, but none, I repeat, none in Verona.
I mean, how’s that? We have the most famous story about lovers who took their lives for love and no ghost? That’s just disgraceful! Although I’ll admit, Ed might have a point when he tells me, “Maybe ghosts in Verona don’t like to show themselves.”
I just had to cope with that, right? But it wasn’t all bad, because this gave me the possibility to choose for the challenge one of my favourite places in Verona: the Arena.
The Arena has stood here for some 2000 years, she’s an old lady with a lot of history.
She was probably built by emperor Augustus during the I century AD in the local Veronase pink marble. She originally stood outside the city walls so to allow people from the country and neighbouring cities to enter it without entering Verona proper. But in 265 AD the threat of the barbarians prompted emperor Gallieno to build a curtain of walls around her too.
Shaped as an ellipsis like all amphitheatres to allow a better acoustic, she’s 74 m. long on her long axis and 45 m. on her short axis. There’s a floor in the centre covered in packed dirt: the ‘harena’ as it was called by Romans. Even if now they aren’t visible, there are tunnels underneath the floor, which once allowed to operate machines for the games. The cavea is made up of 45 rings of steps, each about 45 cm high, that act as seats. No, it isn’t particularly comfortable, believe me on that – though when you go see a show in the Arena you hardly care about it.
There used to be two outer rings of arches, but today only the inner one is still intact with its 72 arches. Of the outer ring, only a small fragment remains, what we Veronasi call The Wing – and that’s where the spooky part of the story comes in.
The Arena is an imposing building even today, so imagine what she must have looked like to Medieval people. They believed men couldn’t have built it.
In fact, legend has it that there was once a nobleman who was accused of a horrible crime and sentenced to death. The day before his sentence was carried out, he promised that if his life was spared, he would build a beautiful theatre for the people of the city. He was told they would spare his life if he could build that theatre in just one night.
Desperate, he cried in his cell, and at night the devil appeared. He promised he would build the theatre if the nobleman surrendered his soul to him – which the nobleman did do.
So a hoard of demons rose from the ground and started building the Arena. But when the nobleman saw them, he regretted his pact and started to pray the Virgin Mary to save him, because he repented his former life.
Moved by his pledge, the Virgin Mary sent her angel to toll the morning bells before the sun rose. Surprised by the sound of the bell when it was still night, the demons fled, never completing the theatre, and because the pact wasn’t fulfilled on his part, the devil couldn’t claim the nobleman’s soul.
I agree, this legend doesn’t make much sense.
It actually looks like the outer ring still stood until 1183, when an earthquake badly damaged it. After that, the Arena was abandoned and used as a stone cave. Then in the XVII century, she was restored and started to be used for shows and public assemblies once more.
Inside the Arena
The opera season
In 1913 a Veronese tenor, Giovanni Zanatello, organised an opera show to celebrate 100 years from Giuseppe Verdi’s birth.
There’s another story here, and it may as well be a legend, though not spooky. Mr Zanatello wanted a majestic place for such an important celebration, and of course, he thought to the Arena. But he was unsure whether she was suitable for music and song, so he made an experiment. He stood in the middle of the floor with a piece of paper in his hands. A friend went up to the very last ring of seats. When Zanatello ripped the paper, his friend heard the sound perfectly from where he stood. The Arena passed the test.
The show which was enacted was the Aida, one of Verdi’s most lavish operas. It was on 10th August 1913, one of the most important events of the early 1900s, which called opera lovers from all around the world.
That was the beginning of one of the most renowned opera events worldwide. It still takes place today, probably one the most important events set in an amphitheatre. It attracts world-famous singers, directors and orchestra directors and scenographers every year. The Aida is still the queen of the season, the only show enacted every year.
But the opera isn’t the only music played in the Arena. In fact, she’s a very popular location for rock stars. Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Jamiroquai, Eric Clapton have all performed there. Orchestra director and composer Ennio Morricone has directed several concerts there. In the last decade, rock operas have also been performed, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Riccardo Cocciante being the first and most popular still today.
Seeing a show in the Arena is truly a magic experience… and not spooky at all.
I have many favourite places in Verona, but the Arena is top of my list, which accounts for me having been carried away with my camera. And you are lucky because the day I went inside to get the photos of the cavea, they were dismantling the structures for the opera season. So the floor and the cavea looked pretty messy, and I restrained myself with my camera.
But hey, I might post again.
All photos by yours truly (Sarah Zama)