Between 1263 and 1387, the city of Verona was ruled by members of the Della Scala family, also known as the Scaligeri. The Scaligeri dynasty was founded by Leonardino della Scala, a condottiero (mercenary captain) who was nicknamed Mastino (‘mastiff’). He managed to acquire the offices of podestà and capitano del popolo and governed the city and the surrounding area until he was assassinated in 1277. In several towns around Verona we find castles and other strongholds called Castello Scaligero or Rocca Scaligera. Examples include picturesque Sirmione and also Torri del Benaco, Lazise, Villafranca and Soave. The castles are monuments of the family’s expansionism. For their spiritual welfare, members of the family visited the small church of Santa Maria Antica, next to the Piazza dei Signori, where in the fourteenth century their family residence was built, the Palazzo di Cansignorio. The history of the Santa Maria Antica goes back to the eighth century; it was constructed during the Longobard era (568-774). The present church, however, dates from the twelfth century. The church itself is not that interesting, but the tombs of the Scaligeri next to it most definitely are. In Italian they are called the Arche Scaligere.
Mastino I della Scala was, in a way, the successor of Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259), who as lieutenant of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen had ruled over Padova, Vicenza, Verona and Treviso (see Veneto: Monselice). Like Ezzelino, Mastino and his successors supported the imperial party in Italy, that of the Ghibellines. Judging by his nickname, Mastino can never have been Mr. Nice Guy. Together with his brother and successor Alberto I della Scala he was, among other things, responsible for the murder of 166 Cathars, members of a heretical sect who were publicly burned in the Arena of Verona. Only the sarcophagus of Mastino’s tomb has been preserved; it has been placed against the outer wall of the Santa Maria Antica. Around the corner is another sarcophagus, which may have been commissioned by Alberto (died 1301), but apparently this is not entirely certain. On the sarcophagus we see a knight between Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. On the lid is a German eagle between two ladders. The ladders are of course a pun on the family name ‘Della Scala’.
Alberto was succeeded as lord of Verona by his sons Bartolomeo (1301-1304), Alboino (1304-1311) and Francesco (1311-1329). The sarcophagi of Bartolomeo and Alboino can be found in the little square next to the church, opposite the sarcophagus of Mastino I. Bartolomeo is especially famous for giving shelter to the great poet Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265-1321) after the latter had been banished from Florence (see Ravenna: Dante’s tomb). His brother Francesco did the same, which is why Dante mentions him several times in his Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy). The close ties between the poet and the Scaligeri explains why Dante’s statue can be found in the Piazza dei Signori.
In the history books, Francesco della Scala is usually called Cangrande, which means ‘big dog’. He was a large, strong man who won much fame on the battlefield, where he fought against the supporters of the Pope, the Guelphs. In 1329 he died after a short illness. His tomb was placed above the entrance to the Santa Maria Antica (see the first image of this post). At the bottom we again see the escutcheons with the ladders, which are now held by dogs. Between the escutcheons is a plaque with a Latin text that includes the name Cangrande (Canis Grandis). Next is the sarcophagus which features the risen Christ between the Virgin Mary and an angel. On the sarcophagus is a bed with the effigy of the deceased. Lastly, Cangrande’s equestrian statue adorns the spire above the entrance. The statue is, by the way, a copy. The original work, attributed to the sculptor Giovanni di Rigino, can be found in the Castelvecchio, where one can admire the knight’s mysterious smile from up close.
Cangrande della Scala was succeeded by his nephews Mastino and Alberto della Scala, the sons of his brother Alboino. Mastino II (1329-1351) was brave, but reckless. After a couple of initial successes, he lost many of the territories that his ancestors had managed to conquer. His large tomb is much more splendid than that of his uncle. The sarcophagus of the deceased has been placed under a stone baldachin that features sculpted biblical scenes and statues of saints under their own canopies. The tomb is topped by the equestrian statue of Mastino, and again the statue is a copy. The sculptures are truly fantastic. Note for instance the scene with the drunkenness of Noah (Genesis 9:20-23). Above this scene we again see the escutcheon with the ladder and a winged helmet with a dog’s head. For almost his entire reign Alberto II della Scala (1329-1352) stood in his brother’s shadow. That likely explains why he never got a tomb as beautiful as Mastino’s. Actually, I could not find a tomb or sarcophagus for him at all.
Mastino II was succeeded by his son Cangrande II della Scala, who ruled over Verona between 1351 and 1359 (the first year together with his uncle Alberto II). It was Cangrande II who had the aforementioned Castelvecchio built, as well as the famous accompanying bridge. That was about all he did for Verona, and in 1359 he was eliminated by his brother Cansignorio (‘noble dog’). Cangrande II never got a full-fledged tomb, but the sarcophagus next to those of Bartolomeo and Alboino presumably belonged to him. And then we have the large tomb of Cansignorio, who ruled over Verona until his death in 1375 and had the Palazzo di Cansignorio built (see the photo above). The tomb is a work of the sculptor Bonino da Campione, whose work in Milan and Brescia I have discussed previously. A conspicuous feature of the monument is the fact that it is hexagonal. The sarcophagus of the deceased is surrounded by statues of soldier-saints, among them of course Saints George and Martin. The simplicity of the equestrian statue topping the tomb is remarkable. Cansignorio is wearing chainmail armour and a shirt featuring the Scaligeri ladder. His helmet is of a simple type and he does not carry a shield, while his horse does not have any cloth covers. This is all in marked contrast to the statues of Cangrande I and Mastino II.
The last tomb on the premises is a bit of an immigrant. I am referring to the tomb of Giovanni della Scala (ca. 1325-1359). He was a grandson of Bartolomeo della Scala, an illegitimate son of Bartolomeo’s son Francesco. Giovanni served under Cangrande II della Scala and was buried in the church of San Fermo Maggiore. In 1831 his tomb was dismantled there and moved to the Santa Maria Antica. The monument is attributed to a follower of the Venetian sculptor Andriolo de Santi.
The end of the story of the Della Scala family is not a happy one. Cansignorio was succeeded by his illegitimate sons Bartolomeo II and Antonio I della Scala. In 1381 the former was murdered, probably by order of the latter. Antonio was in his turn deposed in 1387 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, lord of Milan. In 1404 one Guglielmo della Scala, a natural son of Cangrande II, managed to capture Verona. Ten days later he was dead, after which the city was briefly ruled by Padova. Padova was subsequently defeated in 1405 by Venice, and then Verona fell under Venetian authority until 1797.