A map of Verona is open, the small strange city;

With its river running round and through, it is river-embraced,

And over this city for a whole long winter season,

Through streets on a map, my thoughts have hovered and paced.

I still wake up some nights, thinking about the streets of Verona and of Henry Reed’s “A Map of Verona,” the title poem of his first volume of verse.  I was lucky enough to acquire the volume many years before I had ever been to “the small strange city” or noted how the river’s embrace served as a natural moat for the city’s old castle.

Reed’s poem strikes a chord with me, perhaps because I have spent so much of my time preparing for travels in Italy, reading history and poetry, studying maps and timetables, taking notes on places to eat and streets to wander down.  Reed understood as well as anyone that maps can only tell so much:

And all was useless that I thought I learned:

Maps are of place, not time, nor can they say

The surprising height and colour of a building,

Nor where the groups of people bar the way.

And yet, not quite entirely useless.  Without some advance intelligence, the desiccated shapes on the map and the cut-and-dried bits and pieces of historical lore, a visitor to Verona might as well be in Brooklyn or Katmandu.

In Verona the traveler can hardly walk down any street without being confronted by some monument to the Scaliger dynasty founded by Mastino (“the mastiff”) della Scala in the 13th century.  Why Mastino came to power and how his great-nephew Can Grande (Big Dog) became one of the most powerful rulers in Europe—and the dedicatee of Dante’s Paradiso—is a subject worthy of close attention from Americans who observe the decay of their nation’s liberties and character with chagrin.  The simple answer is that class conflict and the emergence of democracy led to civil strife of which one or another tough guy will inevitably take advantage.  The pattern of development is as fate-driven as a Greek tragedy in which success is followed by arrogance which leads to ruinous folly.  Verona was as lucky as America is unlucky in the quality of its ruling class.

To learn the outline of the story, you can follow the poet’s example, by studying maps and reading books of history, starting with A.M. Allen’s A History of Verona.  Still, it is not easy to understand Verona without observing its location in the bend of the Adige or walking through the Castelvecchio or constantly running into the Roman arena, which medieval city fathers tried to protect by paying for repairs.  Like their Venetian rivals, the Veronesi were proud to consider themselves heirs to the old empire, but they were also intensely Christian and devoted much of their wealth to the churches that adorn the city like jewels in a crown: Sant’Anastasia, San Fermo, the cathedral, and most splendid of all the monastic church of San Zeno.  How to put all this into one head without suffering vertigo—that is the traveler’s dilemma.

Some travelers have the good fortune to stumble blindly into a new city in which they find their way like an explorer, but most try to prepare themselves.  The wrong sort of preparation, however, can create expectations—true or false—that falsify our experience; sometimes even accurate knowledge of what we are to expect can rob the rose of its bloom.  Walker Percy has a wonderful essay on how to see the Grand Canyon—no small feat, considering the expectations that have shaped, all our lives, our impressions of the Acropolis of Athens, Saint Peter’s in Rome, and the Grand Canyon.  Walker’s solution was either to canoe down the Colorado River and come upon the canyon by accident or to join a tour and study the reactions of your fellow tourists.

Although I have studied a fair amount of Roman history over the years, my first trips to Rome, once I had “done” the Forum, the Pantheon, and the major basilicas, were forays into the wilderness.  I had a Blue Guide, but I generally left it in my room.  With a map, I would prowl the streets all day, stumbling by accident into what I imagined to be obscure places—Santa Cecilia in Trastevere or San Giorgio in Velabro.  Returning to my room, I would read up on what I had seen, realizing without regret how much I had overlooked.  It was not as if I would never go back!  What a fool I must have sounded, as I waxed eloquent over these and so many other unknown treasures, but I still remember how much these rambles delighted and informed me.

One cannot play every tune or every trip by ear, and we all know—or think we know—something about most places we are going to visit, and the more famous it is, the more difficult it is to see a place with fresh eyes.  Earlier generations of travelers went to Verona to see Juliet’s tomb and the balcony from which she pondered the whys and wherefores of Romeo and his kinfolk.

One thing we can pick up from the play is the clash of kindreds that turned so many Italian cities into cockpits in which the only real winners were the despots who in the end were able to impose order.  Some of these signori and their families were reckless spendthrifts like Lorenzo de’ Medici or cynical paranoids like Filippo Maria Visconti, while others—the D’Este family in Ferrara and the Scaligeri of Verona—served the interests of the city as much as they served themselves.

Italian cities were beset by conflict and competition at every level, between the merchants and guilds of different cities, between landed aristocracy and urban merchants and tradesmen, and between powerful families that lined up on one side or the other of the struggle between emperor and pope.  Not too much ideological spin should be put on the famous feuding between Guelfs and Ghibellines, since the power, wealth, and glory of the clan were always the main objects.  In Verona, there was a great feud between the family of the counts of San Bonifacio and a rival family, probably not from the city at all, the Montecchi.  Shakespeare’s fictional Montagues and Capulets are an echo of this struggle.

It was these factional struggles that permitted the rise to power of Ezzelino da Romano in the early 13th century.  The record of Ezzelino’s crimes and violence read like 19th-century melodrama and have made his name synonymous with cruelty and villainy.  He is said to have caused the deaths of 50,000 people and mutilated many more.  At the height of his power, Ezzelino ruled over much of the region, but his significance for Verona is that he was able to take advantage of the multiple conflicts in order to make himself master of the city.

As commander of the city’s militia, Ezzelino was in a good position to exploit an outbreak of lower-class violence against the middle and upper classes.  Pretending to champion the rights of the lower classes, he did nothing to alleviate their condition or increase their power.  When a new popular faction (the Communanza) arose and functioned as a state within a state—making laws and forming an army—Ezzelino pretended to join the new movement.

Tyrants almost always come to power by claiming to liberate the oppressed lower orders, who support the leader in his campaign to exterminate powerful rivals.  That is the game played by the Democratic Party since 1932, but the Republicans, with their slogans of “equal opportunity” and “middle-class tax cuts,” have not been slow to join the game.  Ezzelino, being as single-minded in the pursuit of power as any presidential candidate, converted the populist energies of the Communanza to his own purposes until it faded away.

With the violent death of Ezzelino in 1259, the citizen class of Verona was at a crossroads.  They could either return to the developing republican traditions of the previous generation, or they could put their hope in a more democratic system like the Communanza, or they could simply resign themselves to instituting the rule of one powerful man for his lifetime—the system of the Venetian dogeship and the Roman papacy—or his family.  Inevitably, they decided to accept a ruler, a signore, who would see to it that his heirs inherited his power.  This last system was just beginning to take over Northern and Central Italy in the 13th century.

These signorie or lordships had many drawbacks—disastrous wars, ruinous expenditures on luxuries, both of which necessitated high taxes.  On the other hand, a single signore with a strong backing was much better able to defend his city and expand its territory than either an unstable mob or a republican oligarchy constantly divided against itself by feuding Montagues and Capulets.  This is a key point in the constructing of states at all periods of history.  When one city or territory learns the secret of how to tax the people, organize armies, and annex neighboring territories, other communities that do not wish to be subjugated must follow suit.

Factional fighting and class warfare over the very scarce commodities of power and wealth present perennial opportunities for aspiring tyrants, but such factionalism is in the very nature of democracy, which rests on a mistaken conception of equality.  It is one thing to say that in a republic the citizens should have equal protection under the law, but quite another to claim that everyone, regardless of intelligence or virtue or the contributions made to the community, deserves equal access to power.

Why did the Veronesi acquiesce in the destruction of their political liberties?  For one thing, they were, for the most part, well governed by rulers who fulfilled the first duty of a government of an Italian city-state: They successfully defended Verona from the ambitious rulers of other cities.  They may not have had what we call freedom, but they did enjoy what they valued more highly: libertà, or independence.  The Scaligeri did not rule by caprice but gave justice according to written legal code with prescribed penalties.

Unfortunately the principle of Get Big or Get Out leads ineluctably to wars and debts.  Caught between the ambitions of Milan and Venice, Verona slipped into servitude, becoming a mere showplace—a river bend, an arena, a castle, and a dozen churches—a place for poets to dream about.

What will Americans leave behind after the Bushes and Clintons have finished with them?

Their only monument the asphalt

And a thousand lost golf balls.