The town of Soave gave its name to a famous white wine from the Veneto, but this was not the reason for us to go there. After visiting Custoza, we continued to Soave, some twenty kilometres east of Verona, to see the historical centre of the town. This centre is situated within fully intact walls with 24 towers. Moreover, above the town towers an impressive castle, the Castello Scaligero. Although it is apparently possible to park your car inside the walls, we decided to first drive around Soave and leave our car at a free car park on the Via Bassano. We then entered the town through the Porta Aquila, the northern city gate. Soave has two more of these gates, the Porta Verona in the south and the Porta Vicenza in the east. The historical centre is just small and can easily be explored on foot. All attractions are located close to each other.
Things to see
In Antiquity, Soave was on the Via Postumia, an important Roman road that connected Genua to Aquileia. It is possible that the name of the town derives from the Germanic people of the Suebi or Swabians, although we cannot be entirely certain. In the Middle Ages Soave came under the influence of the Scaligeri, the family that ruled over Verona between 1263 and 1387. The Scaligeri were responsible for important monuments in Soave, for instance the fourteenth-century Palazzo di Giustitia, built by Cansignorio della Scala (1359-1375). The palazzo currently accommodates a wine bar. It features battlements in the shape of a swallow’s tail, which are typical for cities and towns that were on the side of the Ghibellines, the supporters of the Holy Roman emperor in his conflict with the Pope. Above the balcony we see a sculpted Madonna and Child, with a fresco of Saints Lawrence and John the Baptist painted around them.
Saint Lawrence is the patron saint of Soave, which explains why the parish church of the town is dedicated to him. The San Lorenzo is practically opposite the Palazzo di Giustizia. The building originally dates from the thirteenth century, but the present church is clearly much younger. It was built between 1744 and 1758, and between 1877 and 1884 the church was enlarged by the priest and architect Angelo Gottardi (1826-1911). Inside we find works by, among others, Francesco Morone (1471-1529) and Paolo Farinati (1524-1606), but most of the art is of more recent date. From an artistic point of view, the San Lorenzo is not that interesting, but on a hot summer day it is certainly nice and cool inside.
If you leave the San Lorenzo again and take the Via Castello Scaligero to the castle, you will pass by a charming little church, the Santa Maria dei Domenicani, on your way up. It was built in 1443 by the Dominicans, with special permission from Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447). This pope was a Venetian – his real name was Gabriele Condulmer – and at the time Soave was under Venetian rule. Next to the church was a convent, which was demolished in 1871. The church itself has been deconsecrated and currently serves as a hall for exhibitions and concerts. Highlights of the Santa Maria dei Domenicani are the frescoes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that have been painted on the walls. The large fresco cycle on the right wall features stories from the life of Lazarus (San Lazzaro). This cycle is quite special. It should be noted that this Lazarus is not the man resurrected by Jesus, but a beggar from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Unfortunately about a third of the scenes were lost when a pulpit was placed against the wall and then removed again.
Although some scenes are missing, it is clear that the frescoes are about disease and death, heaven, hell and purgatory. At the top we see a Last Judgment, which features Lazarus, but also Moses (MOISES). In the scene below the Last Judgment, Lazarus has just died. His body is covered with ulcers and dogs are licking his blood. Above him his soul is taken to heaven by angels. To the left of this scene we see Job (YOB), the man from the land of Us mentioned in the Old Testament. He is accompanied by a bishop, while to the right of him three people are kneeling, probably a couple and their son. On the right we again see Lazarus, who is now also accompanied by a bishop. The lower six scenes are damaged, but it is clear that they are about the rich man. He can be identified by the caption dives epulo, which is Latin for ‘rich party animal’. Things do not end well for the rich man, for on the right he has been caught by devils, while in the scenes below we see images of purgatory and hell. The frescoes date from the second half of the fifteenth century. Their style is rather peculiar.
Obviously we also visited the Castello Scaligero. The history of the castle probably goes back to the tenth century, when Italy was ravaged by invading Magyars. It may have been built by order of Berengarius, great-grandson of Charlemagne, who was king of Italy between 887 and 924 (see Veneto: Torri del Benaco). My travel guide by the way claims that the castle was built on the remains of a Roman fort, and this does not sound impossible at all. In any case, in 1271 Soave was captured by Mastino I della Scala (1263-1277). Mastino had a brother called Alberto, whose son was named Alboino. Alboino’s son Mastino II della Scala was lord of Verona from 1329 to 1351. He was a genuine warmonger, and after initial successes he lost much of the territory that his ancestors had conquered. In 1338 troops from Venice and Florence took the castle of Soave, but Mastino II managed to snatch it back at the cost of over 400 dead soldiers.
The current Castello Scaligero was built in 1369 by Cansignorio della Scala, already mentioned above. In 1375 he moreover built the walls of Soave, into which the castle was incorporated. Just twelve years later the Scaligeri were brought down by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, lord of Milan. He also took Soave, including the castle, but after his untimely death in 1402 the town was briefly ruled by Padova. Then in 1405 Padova was beaten by Venice, and so Soave became part of the Venetian terra firma and remained part of it until the fall of the Venetian republic in 1797. In the meantime the castle was occupied by foreign troops on a couple of occasions, in 1439 by the Milanese and in 1509 by soldiers of Maximilian of Austria, Holy Roman emperor. Maximilian’s men were expelled, then returned in 1510, only to be expelled again, but not before instigating a massacre in the town in August of 1511.
The struggle against the troops of the Empire was part of a bigger conflict which can be traced back to the actions of the bellicose Pope Julius II (1503-1513), Il Papa Terribile. The Pope quarrelled with Venice over cities in the Romagna and was responsible, in 1508, for the formation of the League of Cambrai, an anti-Venetian coalition composed of the Papacy, Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and Duke Alfonso I d’Este of Ferrara. The Serenissima was soon fighting for her very survival. After a defeat at Agnadello in 1509 she was forced to capitulate and humble herself before Julius.
But Italian diplomacy and politics were highly confusing in those days, as now the Pope allied with Venice against France, ultimately forming the Holy League, an anti-French coalition that included Spain, the Empire and Ferrara, in October of 1511. The League ensured that Venice – and Soave – were no longer troubled by the Empire. In a surprise move, Venice left the League in 1513 and joined the French side. This was a clever move, as the French ended up winning the war in 1515-1516. The result of the War of the League of Cambrai was that Venice, which at the start of the war was in danger of being wiped off the map, emerged victorious instead and had almost all of her mainland possessions restored to her.
The Castello Scaligero enjoyed many quiet years after 1511. As of 1556 the castle was leased to the Gritti family, relatives of the Doge Andrea Gritti (1523-1538). In 1696 they bought the castle. By this time cannons outclassed castles and city walls, basically rendering them obsolete. The Castello Scaligero was used as a farm and slowly but surely fell into disrepair. Fortunately it was fully restored in 1889, thanks to Giulio Camuzzoni (1816-1897), the former mayor of Verona. Visitors can nowadays enter the castle through the Porta San Giorgio, the northern gate. The gate gives access to the first courtyard, where the remains of a small church from the tenth century are still visible. This church was part of a castle from the days of Berengarius. It had three apses, all of which are still there.
South of the first courtyard is a second courtyard. One of the gates has a fresco of the Madonna protecting the faithful with her robes (Madonna della Misericordia). In the third courtyard we find another fresco, now featuring a man dressed in red and wearing a cap. He has been painted next to the Scaligeri coat of arms, an escutcheon with a ladder. The most important building in the last courtyard is the house of the captain of the guard (see the image above). On the stairs leading to the house we again see the escutcheon with the ladder, now held by a dog. The ladder refers to the name of the Della Scala family, while several members of this family had ‘canine’ names, such as Mastino (‘mastiff’), Cangrande (‘big dog’) and Cansignorio (‘noble dog’). In the dining room of the house we find two (modern) portraits on the wall. The one on the left is that of Lucia, daughter of Cansignorio. The portrait on the right is that of her husband, the condottiero Cortesia Serego (see Verona: Santa Anastasia).
North of the house of the captain is the mastio or keep of the complex. If you want to visit it, go onto the walls from the house and just walk there. The big tower offers a splendid view of Soave and the surrounding area. The walls, towers and gates can all be seen very well. Standing on top of the keep and admiring the lush green fields surrounding the town, it is hard not to conclude that the Veneto is beautiful.
Sources: Capitool travel guide Venice & Veneto (2012), Trotter travel guide Northeast Italy (2016) and brochure of the Castello Scaligero.