Verona: The Castelvecchio

The Castelvecchio.

The famous Castelvecchio (‘old castle’) of Verona was built in a bend of the river Adige. An equally famous bridge, the Ponte di Castelvecchio or Ponte Scaligero, connects it to the other river bank. Both the castle and the bridge were constructed by Cangrande II della Scala, lord of the city between 1351 and 1359. The castle is currently an important art museum, which I visited in the summer of 2021. My visit was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and COVID regulations were taken very seriously. Face masks were mandatory of course, but visitors also had to present a COVID Green Pass before they could enter. A lady whose test result had expired was resolutely denied entry. Unfortunately the COVID regulations temporarily prohibited walks on the castle walls, but that did not matter much, as there was still a lot to see.

History

Cangrande II della Scala was the son of Mastino II della Scala (1329-1351). He had an older half-brother named Fregnano, who was Mastino’s son from an extramarital affair with an unknown lady. Although Fregnano was an illegitimate child, he firmly believed he had the right to rule the city because of his age. Regretfully the coup that he staged in 1354 was a dismal failure. It cost Fregnano his life and made Cangrande completely paranoid. Cangrande – who was henceforth also known as Can rabbioso, ‘angry dog’ – decided to build a new castle at a strategic site on the edge of the city. The location he chose allowed him to not only fight off external enemies, but also – and much more importantly – to retreat to a safe shelter if rebellions erupted in the city itself. Moreover, the bridge across the Adige, which was only accessible to inhabitants of the castle back then, offered possibilities to escape to the north, to the Holy Roman Empire. The Scaligeri were Ghibellines, loyal supporters of the German emperor. This is demonstrated by the shape of the battlements of the castle and bridge: these have the shape of a swallow’s tail (see Sirmione: Rocca Scaligera).

Castelvecchio and Ponte Scaligero.

The Castelvecchio and Ponte Scaligero were built between 1354 and 1356. In 1376 Antonio and Bartolomeo II della Scala added a large keep to the castle. The original name of the Castelvecchio was the castle of San Martino in Aquaro, after a church dedicated to Saint Martin that stood on the premises (it was demolished at the start of the nineteenth century). Then in 1387 Verona was captured by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, lord of Milan. The Viscontis built a new castle on the Colle San Pietro, and so the castle of San Martino became the ‘old castle’.[1] In 1405 Verona was annexed by Venice, and from the end of the eighteenth century it was first under French and then Austrian rule. Over the centuries the castle has had several purposes. It served as an official residence, a warehouse, an arsenal and a barracks. Since the 1920s the complex offers accommodation to a museum.

Castelvecchio and Ponte Scaligero.

During World War Two the castle was heavily damaged by Allied bombardments. Retreating German troops furthermore blew up the bridge across the Adige in 1945. Fortunately restoration work commenced almost immediately after the war had ended. The damaged wing of the Castelvecchio was repaired and the destroyed bridge was replaced with a faithful copy that incorporates some original material. In 1951 the bridge was completed. Then in the 1950s and 1960s the museum of the Castelvecchio was renovated by the architect Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978). On 19 November 2015 the museum became the victim of a brazen art theft. Seventeen works of art were stolen, but fortunately later recovered in Odessa, Ukraine. Nowadays the works can be admired in Verona again.

Ponte Scaligero.

Collection of the museum

The collection of the museum consists of sculptures, paintings, drawings and weapons. In this post I will focus on the first two categories. Many works once adorned churches in and around Verona, and several of these churches have now been demolished. A beautiful Roman sarcophagus from 1179 for instance once stood in the church of San Silvestro in Nogara, which lies south of Verona. On the sarcophagus we see Saints Sergius and Bacchus, who were said to have been martyred at the start of the fourth century. Also worth closer inspection are a relief with Christ between Saints Peter and Paul and a statue, still partly painted, of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with her famous attribute, the breaking wheel. The statue of Saint Catherine was made in the first half of the fourteenth century by the Maestro di Sant’Anastasia. This unknown sculptor also made a splendid sculpture group of the crucified Christ between the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. The sculpture group is nicknamed l’urlo di pietra, the ‘scream of stone’. One immediately understands why.

Sarcophagus featuring Sergius and Bacchus.

Christ between Saints Peter and Paul.

Catherine of Alexandria / Crucified Christ.

The museum furthermore possesses two original equestrian statues from the tombs of the Scaligeri, which can be found elsewhere in Verona at the church of Santa Maria Antica. The equestrian statue of Cangrande I della Scala (1311-1329), whose real name was Francesco, is attributed to the fourteenth-century sculptor Giovanni di Rigino. On his back, Cangrande has a helmet with a dog’s head. The fact that he is not wearing the helmet allows us to study his face quite well. The man’s mysterious smile immediately catches the eye. Elsewhere in the castle is the equestrian statue of Mastino II della Scala. Unfortunately I have not been able to view it during my visit to the Castelvecchio: the relevant section of the museum was inaccessible to the public at the time.

Cangrande della Scala – Giovanni di Rigino.

Polyptych – Turone di Maxio.

Madonna of the Quail – Pisanello.

The excellent collection of paintings starts with works from the fourteenth century. In addition to a fresco featuring a battle between knights, we for instance see polyptychs from the school of Altichiero (ca. 1330-1390) and by Turone di Maxio, a follower of Giotto from Lombardy. His work can also be admired elsewhere in Verona (see Verona: San Fermo Maggiore). The ‘Madonna of the Quail’ by Pisanello (ca. 1395-1455) from around 1420 is one of the works that were stolen during the 2015 art theft. The painting got its name from the large quail at the feet of the Madonna. There are more birds, probably pigeons, in the rose bush. Pisanello was exceptionally good at painting flowers, plants and animals.

The museum also possesses works by painters from the same family. Jacopo Bellini (before 1400-ca. 1470) was the father of Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1516), while Giovanni (ca. 1379-1451) and Antonio Badile (ca. 1518-1560) were also members of the same family of painters. In the museum we can admire a Saint Jerome in the desert by Jacopo Bellini and two Madonnas with Child by his son Giovanni. The polyptych by Giovanni Badile – the Polittico dell’Aquila – is stylistically still clearly medieval. Decades later Giovanni’s relative Antonio Badile painted a triptych featuring Saint Cecilia between her husband Valerianus and his brother Tiburtius.

Polyptych – Giovanni Badile.

Boy with drawing – Giovanni Francesco Caroto.

The most intriguing work in the collection of paintings must be the boy with the drawing by Giovan Francesco Caroto (ca. 1480-1555). This painting from 1523 was also part of the works that were stolen in 2015. Unfortunately we do not know the name of the child that Caroto painted. It is sometimes assumed that the boy suffered from Angelman syndrome. The drawing he is holding could be a self-portrait.

Other painters whose works we can view in the museum are, among others:

  • Domenico Morone (ca. 1442-1518);
  • Liberale da Verona (ca. 1445-1530);
  • Francesco Francia (ca. 1447-1517);
  • Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1465-1526);
  • Alessandro Bonvicino (ca. 1498-1554/64), nicknamed Il Moretto;
  • Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640);
  • Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644);
  • Luca Giordano (1632-1705).

A couple of these works can be seen below.

Note

[1] The Visconti castle was in its turn replaced with an Austrian barracks, constructed between 1852 and 1858.

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