Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo & Juliet sees the Montagues & Capulets play out their tragic feud in two Italian cities, Verona & Mantua, while another play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is situated, well, in Verona. We have a number of clues that Shakespeare visited these two cities, while other curious but unstainable local details pop up in reference to Milan.
These cities are all situated in what Shakespeare accurately describes as ‘fruitful Lombardy, the pleasant garden of great Italy,’ while politically he knew, as Grillo tells us, ‘that Padua with all its learning was under the protection of Venice and that Mantua was not.’ Shakespeare’s visit to Mantua is hinted at in The Winter’s Tale, where he describes Queen Hermione’s statue as; ‘A piece many years in doing and now newly perform’d by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly is he her ape. (5-2).This is perhaps the sweetest of all Shakespeare’s Italian morning pastries, for Julio Romano was famous for being a painter, & not a sculptor. However, in Vasari’s Lives of Seventy of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, we are given two now-lost Latin epitaphs of Romano which were inscribed on his tombstone in Mantua which confirm his status as both painter and sculptor!
When Hamlet says, ‘He poisons him i’ th’ garden for ’s estate. His name’s Gonzago. The story is extant, and writ in choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife,‘ we see further Shakespeare’s knowledge of Mantua, ruled by the House of Gonzaga. That the story was ‘writ in choice Italian,’ suggests Shakespeare could understand Italian, which is confirmed by the Taming of the Shrew, in which he writes;
PETRUCHIO – Signior Hortensio, come you to part the fray?
Con tutto il cuore, ben trovato, may I say.
HORTENSIO - Alla nostra casa ben venuto, molto honorato signor mio
To Verona was drawn our Schliemannesque American Shakespeare-hunter, Dick Roe, who writes; ‘In the first act, in the very first scene, of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the trees are described; and no one has ever thought that the English genius who wrote the play could have been telling the truth: that there were such trees, growing exactly where he said in Verona. In that first scene, Romeo’s mother, Lady Montague, encounters her nephew on the street – Benvolio … Romeo’s best friend. She asks Benvolio where her son Romeo might be. Benvolio replies:
Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the East,
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad,
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city’s side,
So early walking did I see your son.
Also in Verona, as Roe points out, the Chiesa di San Pietro Incarnario is mentioned by Juliet (3-5), when she says, ‘Now, by Saint Peter`s church, and Peter too. He shall not make me there a joyful bride.’ Shakespeare also knew about a minor place very much off the normal radar called Villafranca, 10 miles from Verona on the banks of the Tartaro River. Villafranca translates as ‘Freetown,’ based on its tax-free status, & in 1-1 of Romeo & Juliet we hear, ‘You Capulet, shall go along with me; And Montague, come you this afternoon, To know our father pleasure in this case, To old Freetown [Villafranca], our common judgment place’. Elsewhere, Roe found in the Verona’s State Archives a map dated 1713, which shows how the Adige, Tartaro, and Po rivers were connected by a system of canals, which connects to the journey to Milan by water undertaken by Valentine in the Two Gentlemen. Grillo adds, ‘In The Two gentlemen of Verona we find, ‘Sound as a fish,’ sano come un pesce’ being an expression still in common use in certain parts of Italy.’
The legacy of Romeo & Juliet being placed in Verona has had a profound effect on the place, with many a set of star-crossed lovers coming to the city to soak in its sheer romance. Close to the imagined site of Julets Balcony (it was added to a building in the early 2oth century) graffiti & notes cover the walls, leading to the rather irate & rather staid Veronese authorites instigating 500 euro fines to those who stick notes up with chewing gum!
This region of Italy was also the fertile bedsoil for the rise of a new kind of improvised comical theatre called Commeddia Dell Arte. The full name of the form is commedia dell’arte all’improvviso, or “comedy of the very creative ability of improvisatio,’ & were rather like the romantic comedies of today, & were typically acted out by masked ‘archetypes’ trained to give out improvised performances. These stock characters included foolish old men, mischievous servants, brash military officers, & miserly merchants. ‘ In Act II Scene II of Hamlet, Hamlet seems to be describing a performance as he speaks to an actor;
I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted; or, if it was, not above once; for the play, I remember, pleased not the million; ’twas caviare to the general: but it was–as I received it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine–an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember, one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation; but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine.
Most of the early plays – The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night & Much Ado About Nothing – are inspired by CDELA. Of Love’s Labours Lost, where Geoffrey Bullough writes, ‘there may have been an earlier play, continental in origin & affected by the commedia dell’arte tradition,‘ in that play we find the loud braggart (Armado), the ostentatious pedant (Holofernes), the retarded rustic (Costard), the wacky fool (Moth), the parasite (Nathaniel), and the loreless magistrate (Dull). In Twelfth Night, Maria, Olivia’s maid, would be the CDELA’s Columbina, while Malvolio would be the Arlecchino. The play also utilises many of the CDELA’s lazzi, i.e. a stock comic element, such as when the ‘Pantalone’ is tricked by other characters into doing crazy things they have convinced him will impress the woman he admires. In the same play, Maria also leaves a letter to be found by Malvolio, which states that Olivia would desire a man who wore a yellow kilt and knee-high yellow socks, which of course Malvolio later does!
That Shakespeare witnessed a performance seems likely, for both Mantua & Verona were both on the circuit of traveling CDELA troupes. Grillo writes that English theatre ‘borrowed from Italian drama much of its technique–chorus, echo, play within a play, dumb show, ghosts of great men, mechanical stage apparatus and all the physical horrors which aroused in the audience feelings of awe and terror,‘ & with Shakespeare’s trip to the Continent beinf in all essence an academic pursuit, it seems that the study of Italian theater was on the curriculum. In particular, the Merchant of Venice has many dramaturgical links to material in Italian plays & scenarios.
Also in Lombardy stood its capital, Milan, where between 1585-1600, a famous painting by Correggio known as Jupiter and Io, was exhibited in the palace of the sculptor, Leoni. When hakespeare writes, We’ll show thee Io as she was a maid / And how she was beguiled and surpris’d / As lively painted as the deed was done,‘ we should assume he saw the painting in person. Grillo adds, ‘despite being 100 miles from the coast, the city of Bergamo, near Milan, produced sails. In the Taming of the Shrew, Vincentio says to Tranio, ‘Thy father! O villain! he is a sailmaker in Bergamo.’ Each one of these clues represents a mimesis-like snapshot stored in the vasty memory banks of our bard, bubbling up to the surface of his consciousness. Shakespeare also knew o a certain St Gregory’s Well in Milan, which was actually a burial pit for plague victims!
But out own Grand Tour is gonna skip the Milanese – despite the fact even the supermarket check-out girls are at worst an 8 out of ten. Instead, we shall travel to that world-famous city on the water, before setting sail for more sultrier climes.