6 – FLORENCE & ROME
To Italy then Sir William would go,
To Rome and to High Germany,
To view the countries all around,
And see what pleasures in them might be,
In Rome and High Germany,
He staid three years before he went
(The Garland of William Stanley)
We are now entering one of the Shakesperian heartlands, for more than a quarter of the plays were set in Italy, including such seminal classics as Romeo & Juliet & Othello. Our party has arrived there from southern France, & we last left them in the beautiful city of Florence. The view of the city from the Piazzo Michelangelo hasn’t changed much, I guess, in 500 years, a sea of orange rooves pierced by the bone-white island of the Domo. In 1549, the English traveler & scholar, William Thomas, in his History of Italy, described Florence as;
An excellent fair city, standeth at the foot of the Apennine Hills in a little valley, named Arno, of the river Arno that runneth through it. Coming to it (excepted by the riverside), the descending is such that a man may easily behold every part of the city, without the which, down along both sides of the valley, are so many fair palaces and sumptuous houses that for the space of eight or ten miles it seemeth in manner but one town. The city itself is esteemed to be seven miles in compass, walled with square stone in manner as hard as flint and of a great height, with a number of goodly towers after the ancient building, strong enough to defend but nothing apt for artillery to offend after the manner of these days, for they were builded before the invention of guns. Over the river within the city are four very fair bridges of square stone; on the furthest down the river hath been a little marble image of Mars, which was set there by an astronomer about the first building of the city in such a conjunction of the celestial bodies that it promised prosperity to the city as long as that image should stand, threatening the decay of the same as soon as it were gone.
Shakespeare had definite & quite accurate local knowledge of Florence & the Florentines. In the Taming of the Shrew, we have, ‘I have bills for money by exchange. From Florence, and must here deliver them,’ showing knowledge of the Florentine hegemony over Papal business affairs. Other connections were discerned by the amiable Californian Richard Paul Roe, who sadly departed this world in 2010. The last twenty-five years of his life were spent wandering about Italy with a well-thumbed copy of Shakespeare, digging for clues as to whether the bard visited the place or not – & boy did the boy do good. For the Florentine links he tells us;
(i) In Alls Well that Ends Well (3-5), we hear, ‘If They do approach the City, We shall lose all the sight.’ The ‘City’ in question is an area to north of the Arno, where stood the walled Roman colony of Florentia.
(ii) In the same play, we hear, ‘At the Saint Francis here, beside the port,‘ the latter of which was the ancient name of Piazza Ognissanti, where the the Chiesa di Ognissanti (Church of All Saints), belonged to the Franciscans since 1561.
Elsewhere, another Shakespeare-in-Italy enthusiast, the Italian Ernesto Grillo, writes that Shakespeare, ‘knew that the Florentines were notable merchants and mathematicians, making frequent use in their commerce of letters of credit and counting their money by ducats; and he was also aware that they were constantly in conflict with the Sienese. And here the poet uses a phrase which is pure Italian–The Florentines and the Sienese are by the ear (si pigliano per gli orecchi.‘ Grillo was an Italian-born scholar who found himself teaching in Glasgow, his bi-national fibre really helping bring the Italian Shakespeare to life.
Leaving Tuscany, our party went to Rome, the capital of Catholicism & a place of pilgrimage for Stanley & Donne, & most likely Shakespeare, whose father at least, we know, was a closet papist, for a ‘Catholic Testament’ in his name was found hidden in the rafters of his roof. In an ultra-protestant England, Shakespeare left no clues as to his own Catholicism, but his connections to the recusant families of Lancashire pretty much nails him as one. He was just being careful, as we writers of the post Salmon Rushdie world avoid insulting Islam in fear of getting a fatwah on our ass.
The Rome Shakespeare visited was a far cry from the epic city of the Ceasars, but would have still held charm & fascination as it does to this day. William Thomas writes, ‘Of the ground contained within the walls scarcely the third part is now inhabited, and that not where the beauty of Rome hath been but for the most part on the plain to the waterside and in the Vatican, because that since the Bishops began to reign every man hath coveted to build as near the court as might be. Nevertheless, those streets and buildings that are there at this time are so fair that I think no city doth excel it.’
Shakespeare’s connection to Rome comes through his four ‘Roman Plays’ – Julius Ceasar, Anthony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus & Titus Andronicus. If Shakespeare did visit Rome, then perhaps a walk among the ruins of the Forum & the Colosseum, already 15 centuries old, may have fired his imagination for such themes of grand antiquity. It is also interesting that one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Titus Andronicus, seems to be named after Livius Andronicus, an Roman poet & dramatist (third century BC), also known as Titus. Livy tells us;
Livius was the first, some years later, to abandon saturae and compose a play with a plot. Like everyone else in those days, he acted his own pieces; and the story goes that when his voice, owing to the frequent demands made upon it, had lost its freshness, he asked and obtained the indulgence to let a boy stand before the flautist to sing the monody, while he acted it himself, with a vivacity of gesture that gained considerably from his not having to use his voice. From that time on actors began to use singers to accompany their gesticulation, reserving only the dialogue parts for their own delivery.
Another nod to Titus Livius Andronicus comes with a bright schoolboy in the play known as, of course, Livius. His theatrical spirit of seems to be echoed in Shakespeare, another dramatic pioneer who acted in his own plays. That the play is a nod by Shakespeare to his ancient predecessor can be seen in the character of Lavinia, who after having her tongue cut off becomes a mute figure on the stage, just as Titus Livius Andronicus lost his own voice. The play must have been written before 1594, when Phillip Henslowe records a performance by the Sussex’s Men of ‘Titus & ondronicus.’ In addition, when Ben Jonson, in the preface to his Bartholomew Fair (1614) writes, ‘He that will swear, Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays, yet shall pass unexcepted at, here, as a man whose judgement shows it is constant, and hath stood still these five and twenty, or thirty years,’ we gain a period between of between 1584-89 for the composition of Titus Andronicus. The earliness of this play, its much-maligned status as Shakespeare’s worst, & the influence of Rome, including the revenge tragedies of Seneca, certainly suggests it may been composed by Shakespeare upon the Grand Tour itself. Perhaps like Shelly, two centuries later, he sat in the misty mood-soothing early Roman morning, composing his Titus Andronicus in the Baths of Caracalla.
Indeed, most scholarship agrees that the play was only co-authored by Shakespeare… & we know that William Stanley also ‘penned plays for the common players.’ Was Titus, then, the product of a collaboration between our erstwhile travelers?