Roman, medieval, Venetian and Renaissance city. All these influences help make the centre of Verona a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Yet it has been the more recent Austrian heritage which has given the city today’s definitive layout.
From 1796 on, the French and Austrian armies clashed many times in Verona and the surrounding area. After one bloody battle in 1805, Napoleon entered the city (on a wall of the Palazzo Forti a plaque bears witness to his stay there), conquered it and occupied it until, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Verona was assigned to Austria-Hungary.
After that, and until its annexation to Italy in 1866 following the plebiscite (the false results of the vote are still shown on the door of the town hall in Palazzo Barbieri), Verona was a city on the frontier of the glorious but crumbling Habsburg Empire. A military stronghold on one of the most hotly-contested frontiers of that era.
The first thing the Austrians did was to strengthen the fortifications which dated back to the rule of the Republic of Venice. This is one of the reasons why the walls of Verona, with their Renaissance gates, are so well preserved today. Nowadays covered in grass and trees, they form a green ring where the Veronesi stroll, walk their dogs and go jogging.
The Austrians extended the walls of fortification to the hills north of the city, which everyone knows today as the “Torricelle” for the many guard towers and forts located on the walls. One of the most beautiful and best preserved, from which you enjoy a beautiful view over the city, is the Forte Sofia, built in 1837 and named after the mother of the future Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. Today it is run by an association of volunteers who organise guided tours every Saturday.
The most important example of Austrian military architecture in Verona is unquestionably the former Arsenal, the largest of its kind in the world after that of Vienna (but, compared to Vienna, it is much more intact). Just see it from above and you will see that you could fit at least 3 Arenas inside.
The Arsenal is also one of the great unsolved issues of city planning because it is close to the historic town centre (just beyond the Castelvecchio bridge), hemmed in by the loop of the river Adige and it would cost a fortune to finance the projects for its restoration.
Personally, I love strolling around the Arsenal. I do this often because it is the shortest and most convenient way between the city centre and Borgo Trento. The fact that it is in a state of substantial disrepair, with parts literally falling off and breaking into pieces, does not detract from its charm. In fact, in some ways, it amplifies it.
It is composed of four principal large courtyards, around which the buildings were erected, covered with lawns, trees and open spaces where there are often fairs, markets and theatrical performances. You can explore it as if it were an ancient ruin, even if it is less than 200 years old.
The central building, called the command centre, is in the best state of conservation and houses a fascinating section of the Verona Natural History Museum dedicated to botany, with one of the oldest plant collections in Italy.
Just outside the Arsenal there are beautifully landscaped gardens, ideal for a picnic on a spring day, and a large pool of water where the Veronesi find relief from the heat in the summer months.
Another impressive building from the Austrian era is the Santa Marta former military bakery. It was built in 1863 on the remains of an old monastery to bake bread and hard tack for the Austrian soldiers stationed in the city. After a careful restoration, it today hosts the Faculty of Economics at the University of Verona and the building is so beautiful that I almost want to go back and be a student again.
Inside the Santa Marta you can visit a small permanent exhibition, with interesting vintage photos and information about the history of the complex of buildings. And don’t forget that Verona, just a hundred and fifty years ago, was principally one large barracks.