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Posts tagged ‘Travel’

One day in Ferrara

Medici, Farnese, Sforza, Borgia, Visconti, della Rovere... these are the names which dominated the Italian Renaissance… another is Este, one of whom, Alfonso I, was to marry the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Together they moved to the Este stronghold in the city of Ferrara, nestled in the rolling pastures of Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy. And that’s exactly where we headed when, earlier last month, we returned to our beloved Bologna.

Situated just 45km of Bologna’s twin towered metropolis, Ferrara is a small city which packs a historical punch but which could easily be missed. Arriving by train to surroundings so penurious as to inspire fear rather than awe, you might wonder whether the place is worth visiting at all. Yet as with so many Italian towns, buried at the heart of this one is an old city gem which represents the perfect manifestation of its historical past and which is quite the match of its better known neighbours, Bologna, Verona, Milan…

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At the heart of it all, the Castello Estense is an imposing castle from fairytale lore, with four imposing bastions and a water-filled moat encircling the complex with all the romance of ancient chivalry. As the name suggests, this was the home of the Famiglia d’Este, and as we wondered from room after frescoed room, we could imagine the imposing touch of the magnificent Lucrezia dominating her new martial home, picking perhaps at at fragrant blossom which filled a terrace abundant in orange trees. But with their floral bouquet the romance ended – the castle is an otherwise austere and imposing space, and rightfully so given its role to protect one of Italy’s most important families. Outside – another imposing figure lies in wait: a statue of Savonarola, the apocalyptic friar who set himself against the indulgences of the Borgia pope, and burned the excesses of Florentines in scenes which have implanted themselves on history.

Having ventured through the Castello and avoided the icy glare of Savonarola, we wandered down the road to another Este palace – the Palazzo dei Diamanti – named after the characteristic bugnato of its exterior walls, created from some 8500 pieces of marble carved to represent diamonds. The visual effect of the exterior is certainly striking, while inside, today’s National Gallery makes for an interior replete with artistic treasures: on the occasion of our visit, we were able to enjoy an exhibition of the stunning Boldini, painter of society women and magnificent 19th century fashions.

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Ferrara is famous also for its Gothic cathedral, boasting as it does one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in all of Italy. Sadly, for us, it was covered by scaffolding, so this treasure at least had to be saved for another day. Instead, just meandering around the tightly packed, bustling little old streets and enjoying multi-layered views of campanile and cafeteria, and feasting upon the pumkin filled pasta parcels which are unique to the region, was sufficient to prove why Ferrara is a UNESCO protected city, and one not to be missed when you are in the area.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Gardens of Eden

My post about the discovery of the secret garden of Peterhouse College in Cambridge will have left none of you in any doubt about my love for the gardens of Oxbridge. Be they less secret, the formal quads and extensive grounds of all the sprawling colleges are no less of a treat to behold. While my previous post concentrated on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, today I’m focusing in on the gardens which transform those places of learning into havens of tranquility. How life studying in these flower-filled Edens must differ from the smog-filled campus of my London university!

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As is evident from the photos I am sharing, we visited when the gardens of both Oxford and Cambridge were at their floral best. While my visit to Oxford was earlier in the year, and therefore decorated with the happy nodding heads of yellow daffodils and cautiously opening blossom, by the time of our April trip to Cambridge, tulips were abundant in a panoply of ravishingly colour, while blossom trees seemed to test the limits of their own staggering colour as they exploded in shades of arresting fuchsia pink.  Sloping green lawns, many alongside rivers and waterways, lushly demonstrate Britain’s great love of green and pleasant pastures, while extensive oaks and willow trees suggested through age that they had born witness to many a famous student passing through these grounds.

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The presence of students quietly working in most of these gardens is evidence of their importance in providing the perfect level of concentration and tranquility to aid study and well-being. I only hope that study gives way to an unbridled appreciation of these magnificent grounds once the books are closed.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Colleges in abundance

Oxford and Cambridge are university cities, and perhaps more than any other university cities in the world, their character and urban geography are dominated by their colleges. When I was young, it was always something of conundrum to get my head around: do Oxford and Cambridge have one respective university or many, and if the former, why are they split into so many smaller units? Yet those units, or colleges, are evidentially what make these universities so special, and famous. As a student applying for either university, the applicant applies for the prestige of the whole, but the particular specialism, history or atmosphere of the relevant college. And it is precisely that individual character belonging to each of Oxford and Cambridge’s colleges which makes strolling around them such a joy.

Cambridge colleges

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While Oxford feels like more of a living city beyond its colleges, Cambridge is very much a city which has grown around the confines of each respective college. This makes walking around the city almost maze-like, as you attempt to ascertain which passages are public and which privately college owned. Even in the colleges themselves, there is a clear hierarchy at work, as sections are cordoned off for the sole respective enjoyment of students, fellows and finally, the public. Yet even in the public parts, one gets a real and immediate sense of the very tangible history imbued by these colleges in all their ochre stonework and architectural mastery.

In both Oxford and Cambridge, I loved strolling around the colleges which dominate both cities. Collectively, they hold examples of almost every architectural style since the medieval period. Their gardens (for which a separate post will be shared) are stunningly cared for and places of the utmost tranquility. Their great dining halls ooze tradition and Hogwarts-esque formality, and their chapels are a veritable museum of exquisite stained glass and biblical artworks.

Oxford colleges

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I have not gone to the rather laborious task of labelling each of my photos in respect of their locations. Instead, I present something of a hodgepodge from each city. Amongst the Oxford photos are the colleges of Balliol, Christchurch, Trinity, Magdalen, Brasenose and New College. In Cambridge, you will see glimpses of Downing, Peterhouse, Sidney Sussex, Pembroke, Emmanuel and Corpus Christi amongst others. All combine to present these cities at their most beautiful and historical best – certainly worth visiting, even though, in some, an entry fee is very much a sign of more modern times.

A bit more of Cambridge

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Masterful Museums

Not all the nation’s artistic treasures are in London it seems. For Oxford and Cambridge play host to two of the most spectacular museums in the country. Both the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge hold stunning collections of art and antiquities which befit the learned character of their sponsor universities.

They are, in effect, like all the museums of London rolled into one, conveniently collected under one respective roof. Here, a plethora of ancient relics including treasures from ancient Syria, Egypt and Rome, sit alongside collections of art with a broad sweep across the ages, from Italian renaissance altarpieces to works by Edouard Manet and Pablo Picasso. They host temporary exhibitions so significant that they bring culture lovers from across the world to these alternative cultural capitals. And their collections are hosted in buildings so grand that they out-do some of the world’s most prominent palaces and museums.

Oxford’s Ashmolean

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It is on those buildings, and not the collections themselves, that this smaller set of photographs concentrates. Both buildings share a common theme, with ostentatiously grand classical facades imposing themselves upon the visitor with an immediate magnificence. Designed by Charles Cockerell in the 19th century, the yellow stone and marble mix of Oxdord’s Ashmoleon harmonise with the yellow colleges scattered about the city, but stands out for its unapologetic Palladion grandeur in amongst buildings fashioned out of medieval Britian.

The Fitzwilliam building was designed along similar lines, coincidentally with the contribution of the same architect, Charles Cockerell. It is whiter, grander almost from the outside, but here the real treasure is within – in an entrance hall of startling beauty, laced with gold, mosaic, stained glass and marble statutory, designed by Edward Middleton Barry and screaming with Victorian splendour. How can one choose between these two magnificent spectacles?

Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam

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My photos focus on that Fitzwilliam interior, and on the yellow-stone exterior of the Ashmoleon (the latter view being conveniently enjoyed from the windows of my hotel room!). To see the magnificent collections contained within… you must visit, as soon as you can!

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Punting Pleasures

While the archetypal image of Oxford and Cambridge may be a gown-donned student, mortar-board on head, rushing around on a bicycle with a book under the arm, another is the slightly more tranquil pursuit of punting. Whether it be on the calm, narrow bends of the River Cam in Cambridge, or on the tranquil and bucolic waters of the River Cherwell in Oxford, punting in either city is the ideal way to experience their charms from a unique and consistently stunning viewpoint.

Punting in Oxford

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Much like taking a trip in a gondola in Venice, floating around on a punt is truly unique. Because the punt is traditionally a flat-bottomed boat designed for use in small rivers and shallow waters (hence the ability of the punter to steer the punt forwards by propelling a pole against the river bed), passengers enjoy the experience of lying back almost at the same level as the waters which immediately surround the punt, giving one the impression of skimming the surface of the water much like the ducks and swans which will invariably swim alongside you.

As these photos show, punting in either city is both a popular and a beautiful experience. Though in so far as the cities compete, I must give Oxford the gold medal in this race. For in Oxford I was able to punt relatively cheaply and with the tranquil luxury of having very few people around. By contrast, in Cambridge the cost was so exorbitant – and based on being ferried around in a shared punt with at least half a dozen others – that I decided to give punting a miss. One should never be made to punt with strangers. And probably just as well we gave it a miss, given the frequent collisions we bore witness to as the punts came around the narrow bends near St. John’s.

Punting in Cambridge

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But whether it be in Oxford, in Cambridge or in both, if you have the opportunity to indulge in a little punting, I urge you to do so. It’s so rare these days to have the chance to truly unwind, and watch the world around you from the unique and somniferous perspective of water.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Paradise at Peterhouse

I continue my Oxbridge season with a focus in on one of the cities in particular, and on one of its colleges to be exact: Peterhouse College in Cambrige. The colleges of Cambridge are many, mighty and almost universally magnificent, and on our recent visit we spent  two days utterly engrossed in just a few of these historical gems. It would be hard to pick a favourite, such is the mix of architecture they offer, the grandeur of their halls and chapels, and the cosiness of the gardens and quads they all inevitably exhibit. However, one college which really struck me like a charmed arrow of Cupid was Peterhouse. This impact was not so much because of the college buildings (which were, by the way, quite stunning); but because of its gardens.

We caught a glimpse of the Peterhouse garden from inside the grand Fitzwilliam museum. We had just been having a look at the museum’s impressive collection of art, including impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Sisley and Whistler. It was perhaps with those paintings imprinted on my mind’s eye that, when through the filter of a blind I saw a paradise garden of wild flowers and picnicking students through a series of windows forming a backdrop to the museum’s collection of antiquities, I naturally assumed that the view was some kind of manmade projection of a painting. It was only when I blinked again that I realised that the garden was real, and we set about trying to find it.

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Like all promises of paradise, this one was not an easy find. A walk around the museum’s perimeter met with several dead ends against frustratingly impenetrable high brick walls. Then when we entered the grounds of Peterhouse next door, we were met only with a couple of small carefully manicured courtyards. It was only when, at the dark end of a small corridor, we saw an old wooden door, that our curiosity was peaked, and we tried the old antique latch appended to the timbers. The door opened, and like the entrance onto a fairy-tale, a magical, golden light seeped through. Ducking to pass through the 5ft (or lower) door, like Alice walking into her Wonderland having grown big on “eat me” treats, we came across a winding path which led, as if by magic, to that very same floral paradise we had glimpsed from the museum. We had found our paradise garden.

These photos don’t do justice to the true ensnaring wonder of that place, although they go some way to express the extent of floral wonder which met us in that sun-filled Elysium. Long grasses, wild flowers, bees and butterflies created a scene straight from a nursery rhyme. And just in case we suspected that we had somehow become lost in the pages of that same otherworldly tale, small smatterings of students sat within the grass, revising and chatting quietly before us, as though to prove that the place was real. It was like a painted Arcadia, a land where only happiness could pervade.

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Sadly the passing of time meant that we had to leave this heavenly place soon after discovering it. But now we know where to find it, our return will be all the sweeter…if, of course, it turns out that this wonderland was real after all, and not just a figment of our wildest imagination.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Gargoyles and Gothic

The Daily Norm has been off air of late. The Norms have been busy blobbing their gelatinous way through the winter, and I have been doing likewise, although hopefully with less blob and more muscle (I live in hope). Finally the months of darkness seem to have come to an end, as I start to enjoy my home in hours of daylight, and gradually strip off multiple layers of scarfs and other winter accoutrements. While the onset of Summer means that an exciting array of travels are due, I have been exercising something of the fashionable “Staycation” of late, starting with two of England’s most attractive and famous cities… Oxford and Cambridge.

Renowned of course for hosting two of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, the cities of Oxford and Cambridge (collectively labelled with the epithet “Oxbridge”) tend to engender a staunch form of loyalty for one city over the other. Whether it be because of a family connection, their own studies, a historical reason or a traditional choice in the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race, partiality for either of the cities can lead to strong emotions and the kind of alacrity held by football fans for their club. I must admit that I have tended to waver in my favouritism. While my Sister has connections with Oxford, I have found myself almost subconsciously  drawn to the light blues of Cambridge. So with the weather at its Spring time best as Winter faded away from these Isles, I took the opportunity to explore both cities afresh, to settle my preference once and for all.

Oxford Gargoyles

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Both stays have enabled me to conclude one thing for definite: that Oxford and Cambridge, so rich in historical significance and architectural splendour, are true beauties to behold. With their predominantly yellow stone and wealth of architectural styles dominating their respective cities with barely a modern intervention to spoil them, the university buildings of both cities are stunning. Seen against blue skies, they create a vision of very English magnificence, but also import a range of styles from Italian baroque to Palladian Neo-classicim.

Cambridge Gothic

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In the first of a series of posts in which I aim to share my photographs of Oxbridge, I am starting with a look at some of the Medieval and Gothic features which characterise both cities. These photos in turn concentrate on some of the lovable creatures which are most dominant in Oxford especially – the gargoyles, features which the recent tragic fire at Paris’ Notre Dame remind us are treasures of a bygone age, which should be admired and never missed, despite their characteristic timidity, hidden among the eaves, the roofs and the windows of buildings which easily overshadow them.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Two Gentlemen in Verona, Part V: Lakeside in Garda

It’s something of a contradiction in terms, that two Gentlemen in Verona were not in Verona at all, but should have ventured swiftly onwards to Italy’s great Lake Garda. However, the location of this mountain-locked beauty is comfortably close to Verona, and a mere 30 minute’s train ride transmitted us in a frictionless trajectory to the still waters of Garda, and to the idyllic town of Sirmione, the Lake’s most popular destination.

I’m no lover of tourist hot-spots, but it’s easy to see why Sirmione is visited by millions and the beloved of many. With it’s fairy-tale like Scaligero Castle marking the town’s entrance, and a quaint little historical centre all set upon a slender little peninsular jutting out into the lake, Sirmione is veritable honeypot of Italian charm, and the perfect location for gelato, lemon-flavoured treats and an aperol spritz aplenty.

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I first wanted to see Garda when we saw the utterly mesmerising scenes of young love being played out on its shores in Call Me By Your Name (2017), which I have long proclaimed to be the best film ever made. The protagonists, Oliver and Elio, are not there for long. Accompanying Elio’s father to unearth the discovery of an ancient sculpture found on the bed of the lake, there is a beautiful scene when all three go for a swim amongst the grasses and reeds which give this wide expanse of water the nature of a lake rather than the sea which it otherwise resembles. As we arrived near Sirmione we saw those same lush reeds and grasses, and the presence of ducks and swans marked this out as a freshwater paradise, with a tranquility most unlike the sea.

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A second signposting to Garda was the ravishing book, The Land Where Lemons Grow, in which author Helena Attlee expertly guides the reader through Italy’s most historically and currently significant citrus growing spots. The atmosphere she conjured with her descriptions of lemon growth on the shores of Lake Garda had me dreaming of the lake long before I went there. Once alongside Garda, I reveled in a panoply of lemon-infused products to mark our arrival in this wonderful place, a lemon-cream filled cannolo being chief among these guilty pleasures.

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Our trip to Lake Garda lived up to both film, and book. We left knowing that this one visit was a mere lemon-filled taster, and that one day we will return. For now, as we ventured back to Verona, these Two Gentlemen felt fully at home, as the city of love and style and Italian chic welcomed us back for one evening more… to drink Valpolicella amongst the people of the Piazza della Erbe, and to stroll in the marble-paved streets of the Romans that went before us.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Folio // Verona – The View from the Top

There’s nothing quite like the experience of viewing a city from above. In a single sweeping 360 degree motion, you can admire an entire landscape sweeping out before you, appreciating its scale and geography, but all seen from above. From the perspective reserved for those with wings, it’s possible to feel almost superhuman (and as those with vertigo will tell you, a little sick too) as you gaze down upon a city’s every day life unfolding while you, from on high, are like deity gazing down upon your subjects.

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It was no surprise to us that Verona, a city so magnificent from up close, would be equally as beautiful from the top of the Torre dei Lamberti. And as the city’s tallest tower at some 272 feet high, you are guaranteed a truly commanding view if you make it to the top. From there, the city’s grey marble streets and yellow and auburn palazzos became dominated by a sea of terracotta roofs, all apart from the striking semi-circular form of the ancient arena, and the sweeping green like snake of the river, twisting its way around the peninsular of the city’s ancient heart. Best of all were the proximate views the tower afforded of the nearby Piazza delle Erbe and the stunning statuary atop the Palazzo Maffei. Who would have known, from the Piazza down below, what incredible detail lies hidden within the folds and undulations of those wonderful depictions of ancient deity.

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Seen from above, Verona shared a new perspective of its indisputable beauty, reasserting why it remains the favourite city of literature lovers and true romantics everywhere, whatever the angle of their admirable glances.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Two Gentlemen in Verona, Part IV: Four Churches which Enchanted Us

“There are four main churches in Verona”, our hostess told us, “and you must visit them all.” Not two Gentlemen to take advice lightly, we decided we had better do just that. And so in their turn we visited the four principal churches of the city – Sant’Anastasia, San Fermo, the Duomo and San Zeno (although when viewed from the hilly city surroundings, we could see that Verona, peppered with spires, is host to more than four).

A combined visitors ticket made access to the spiritual quartet an easy endeavour, and once we had been inside the first – Sant’Anastasia – we were hungry to see them all. With its soaring vaulting ceilings frescoed in delicate bouquets of floral motifs, and harbouring the famous fresco of Saint George by Pisanello (which you’ll have to strain your neck to see), Sant’Anastasia made for an impressive beginning. The church had a tangible luminosity which bounced off its high ceilings and the walls adorned with devotional masterpieces. However it was the small details which enchanted the most, chief among them the holy water fonts, or hunchbacks, whose faces contorted with pain are said to represent the fact that the people of Verona were brought almost to their knees by the massive undertaking of constructing this church. Looking at the scale of the place, I can quite imagine why.

Sant’Anastasia

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A short stroll away saw us arriving at the second, and I suppose you should say the most important church of the lot – the Duomo. After Sant’Anastasia, the interior, while beautiful, did not impress us as much. That was the preserve of the exterior, whose delightful striped facade made for a truly beautiful sight when offset against the Veronese blue sky, while the huge mythological griffins which hold up enormous columns either side of the main entrance portico lent a true grandiosity to the building. A further highlight deserving of a mention is the Baptistery’s stunning octagonal font. Rendered from a single block of Veronese marble, it is aptly considered to be a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture and with good reason. Its scenes of expressive high-relief figures were joyous to behold, bursting to life in their narrative of the birth and baptism of Jesus and the many hurdles along the way.

The Duomo of Santa Maria Assunta

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After lunch and a stroll through the Giardino Giusti, we took in our third church on the way back to our apartment. San Fermo is all about the ceiling. Ancient though it may be, the extraordinary multi-arched wooden construction is punctuated by an even more impressive collection of some 416 portraits of saints. It was time again to strain the neck to appreciate them, although the scale of work meant this short-term discomfort was well worth it, just to pay homage to the unknown artist whose ingenuity created them. 

San Fermo

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Our fourth and final visit came the following day, when Saturday meant that our visit coincided with a big fat fluffy wedding. While this meant for a rather glamorous spectacle as the church of San Zeno was given over to a vision of bridal beauty and the admiration of all, it did mean that we were unable to get close and personal with all of the ancient masterpieces contained within the church. We did however manage to sneak in a moment or two with San Zeno’s greatest spectacle: its doors.

Comprising 48 bronze panels, dating from 1030 and 1137 respectively depending on which of the two doors you are looking at, the panels depict in delightfully naive fashion the life and times of San Zeno. More than the images, I loved seeing the parts which had been rubbed smooth by centuries of visitors, the dark bronze polished to a sparkling lustre by the touch of the faithful. I can well imagine how churches such as these inspired visitors over the years to reach out and touch… just to be sure that these miracles of art and faith actually existed, and weren’t just a wonderful mirage. That same sense of awe-inspiring disbelief continues to this day, as Verona’s four main churches continue to inspire.

San Zeno

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.