It’s time for a history lesson. Last October, I was fortunate enough to be able to go on a walking tour of Verona, Italy- Home to Romeo and Juliet. The city was absolutely fascinating. There is so much history to the city that has nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet; ancient Rome’s influence can still be seen through arches and city walls that are still standing, and a colosseum that is in better condition than the one in Rome. But while on the tour, I had a couple of questions about the history my tour guide couldn’t answer. This is my attempt to answer those questions for myself and prevent anyone else from having the same questions.
Romeo and Juliet Throughout the Ages
A variation of a story told many times throughout history, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is by far the best known. Centered on the theme of star-crossed lovers and evoking poets from classical Greece, Romeo and Juliet’s tragic tale has been told centuries prior to Shakespeare’s version.
The story, already popular in the 14th century, had at least three versions written by Italian authors. Shakespeare’s version was part of a trend among English writers and playwrights of the time to publish works based on Italian novellas. In England, Italian tales were very popular among theater patrons. Shakespeare took advantage of the popularity, as seen in his writing of All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure (both adapted from Italian tales), and of course, Romeo and Juliet.
Giulietta e Romeo in Italy
Luigi da Porta, a 16th-century Italian author, wrote a version of the tragic love story of Romeo Montechhi and Giulietta Capuleti. Da Porto’s version gave the story much of its modern form, including the names of the lovers, the rival families of Montecchi and Capuleti, and the location in Verona. Da Porto is also the source of the tradition that Romeo and Juliet is based on a true story. Shakespeare’s version is an adaptation of the Italian Giulietta e Romeo, by Matteo Bandello. He is the Italian author who is most directly credited as having influenced Shakespeare.
Bandello introduces many of the specific themes that make Shakespeare’s play so well known today. Bandello’s version provide the well-known last names of Montague and Capulet to the two titular characters. Bandello added the element of the costume ball, at which Romeo and Juliet meet. He also provided the climatic moment in which Juliet viciously kills herself with her lover’s dagger so that she may join Romeo in the afterlife. In the previous versions, Juliet wasted away. Bandello’s tale is widely believed to have been closely followed by the French author Pierre Boaistuau, whose version was then translated into English by Arthur Brooke as The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet in 1562. This English translation was the actual text that made it to Shakespeare’s desk.
The Real Romeo and Juliet
Although we cannot know if the two lovers really existed, it is certain that their families did. The Montecchi and the Capuleti had been two important aristocratic families from Verona, and Dante himself mentions them in his Divine Comedy (Purgatorio, Canto VI, v. 106). Nowadays, the city still considers itself the hometown of Romeo and Juliet, and there are several places you can relive the lovers’ story.
In Verona, the most visited spot is Juliet’s House. The building dates back to the 13th century. Under the Capuleti’s emblem on the external façade of the house, a gate opens onto a covered space where lovers from all around the world leave their messages. In the past visitors used to write directly on the walls. Now they are covered with panels for writings and cards. Once in the courtyard, a bronze statue of Juliet stands at its center, always surrounded by tourists taking pictures with their hand on Juliet’s breast. The legend says that this will bring good luck in love (I did it and I’m still waiting.)
Juliet’s Wall in Verona
As you look around the court, you will notice it is dominated by the famous balcony attributed to Juliet’s bedroom. In order to better represent the Shakespearean version, the balcony was added during a restoration project around the 1930s. This also helped it recreate a medieval appearance, similar to the original. In fact, the ancient building has had many different uses throughout the centuries. Its purchase by the municipality saved it from ruin. The house is now a museum with fascinating frescoes and artwork. Juliet’s bedroom is furnished with the bed used in Franco Zeffirelli’s film Romeo e Giulietta, from 1968. The romantic atmosphere of this place makes it one of the major attractions of the city.
As for Romeo, the Montecchi’s house is a majestic medieval building with a wide courtyard and colonnade, protected by a castellated brick wall. Unfortunately, it is under private ownership and not open to the public.
Romeo and Juliet FOREVER
Every year, thousands of letters addressed to Juliet Capulet arrive in Verona. Volunteers of Juliet’s Club read them all and write an answer each one of them in Juliet’s name. The powerful love between Romeo and Juliet continues to inspire and fascinate lovers all around the world. Ultimately, I predict that centuries from now, students will still be required to read Romeo and Juliet in high school.
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”
― William Shakespeare,
Delahoyde, Michael. “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Washington State University . February 9, 2015. Accessed Nov 27, 2016 .http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/shakespeare/romeus.html
“Luigi da Porto” from The Italian Novelists. trans. Thomas Roscoe (Frederick Warne and Co.: London, 1900.) http://elfinspell.com/RoscoeLuigiDaPorto.html
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