In fair Verona, where we lay our scene: Part I

After letting our GPS direct us into the city center (DON'T DO IT) we found parking away from the narrow Italian streets and enjoyed a walk to our hotel.
After letting our GPS direct us into the city center (DON’T DO IT) we found parking away from the narrow Italian streets and enjoyed a walk to our B&B across Adige enjoying Castelvecchio in the distance. Castelvecchio was built in the 14th century as both the ruler’s residence and a military fortress.

It is impossible to talk about modern Verona without include the city’s most famous couple, the eternally young Romeo and Juliet.  The story of the Montagues and the Capulets has almost universal appeal, because of the enduring story of young love, generational disconnect and political strife.  When Shakespeare chose to bring Romeo and Giulietta to English audiences, he chose to place the star crossed lovers in Verona a century in the past, at a time when the two political factions of Guelps and Ghibellines were divided between support for the papal party and the Holy Roman emperors.  One theory is that “Montecchi” and “Cappelletti” are actually an appellation of these two factions’ names.

The City of Verona however claims that the story refers to the Monticoli and del Capello families, who are to have been on opposite sides of the Guelps/Ghibellines divide. Verona has embraced the star crossed lovers with open arms.  One can visit the home of Juliet, now a museum, and stop outside Romeo’s house (a private residence) and many stop to leave flowers at Juliet’s tomb.  What I found fascinating was how the couple was handled in the text of Verona’s official tourism website.  I have to admit that the inglese translation may not do the original italiano nuances justice, but the couple is alluded to as if they may, in fact, have been real.  When describing where to find Romeo’s burial site, near the communal wall of the city, the website read “This location would represent the correct conciliation between reality and legend, between those who believe the burial site of Romeo to lie outside the city walls as he was a murderer, and those who cannot imagine him buried far from his beloved Juliet.”

Piazza Erbe in the late afternoon.  Our B&B was right off the piazza, with a small balcony PERFECT for thesis writing!
Piazza Erbe in the late afternoon. Our B&B was right off the piazza, with a small balcony PERFECT for thesis writing!

Most people that I know, thanks to high school English classes, have seen at least portions of the 1968 film.  The idealized Verona created by Zeffirelli is as compelling as it is false.  To put it in perspective, the movie was filmed in at least six Italian locations, none of which are in Verona at all.  I found one great blog about a sort of Zeffirelli pilgrimage, complete with pictures of the locations.  For those movie buffs out there, I have included a quick run down:

Street scenes: Pienza

Fight scenes: Gubbio

Juliet’s balcony: Palazzo Borghese, Artena

The church: St. Pietro, Tuscania

Capulet palace: Palazzo Piccolomini, Pienza

Juliet’s tomb: Tuscania

What I wasn’t aware of is that the 1936 film, which many people today have not seen, may have had the greatest legacy.  The movie was the legendary Irving Thalberg’s last project.  Thalberg, who cast his wife Norma Shearer as Juliet, fought to get the movie made at a time when studios (and audiences) thought the silver screen was unfit for the Bard.  Thalberg “went to great lengths to establish authenticity and the film’s intellectual credentials: researchers were sent to Verona to take photographs for the designers; the paintings of Botticelli, Bellini, Carpaccio and Gozzoli were studied to provide visual inspiration.”  Sets and costumes were overseen by the prestigious British designer Oliver Messel, and Agnes de Mille flown in from New York to choreograph the ball scene.  Interestingly, Cornell University English Professor William Strunk (author of the famous writing guide The Elements of Style) and John Tucker Murray of Harvard were brought in a literary advisors and told, “Your job is to protect Shakespeare from us!”

Romeo, oh Romeo...
Romeo, oh Romeo…

When the movie was released in 1936, it seriously boosted interest in Verona abroad.  Tourists became far more interested in sites related to the story, especially Juliet’s home and tomb.  As a result, the city’s museum director Antonio Avena was tasked with overseeing the restoration of the sites.  Historical accuracy was not priority.  Juliet’s house was completely refashioned to match a medieval ideal purpotrated by the movies. The main hall on the first floor was in fact is a near faithful reproduction of the scene in the famous painting “The Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet” by Francesco Hayez.  Perhaps the most imaginative, if disturbing, addition is the balcony.  No house for Juliet would be complete without a balcony on which to be wooed by her Romeo, but the house had none.  And so Avena plucked a medieval sarcophagus from the Castelvecchio museum and installed it on the wall of the courtyard.  Nothing says romance like a really fancy stone coffin.

As a preservationist, I found all of this both compelling and a bit unnerving.  But it did make me curious.  How did the citizens of Verona feel about the alteration of their city’s urban fabric?  After a bit of research I came across an essay by Maria D’Anniballe entitled “Form Follows Fiction: Redefining Urban Identity in Fascist Verona through the Lens of Hollywood’s Romeo and Juliet.”  You can read portions of the essay here.   D’Anniballe says “Studies have shown that in many medieval towns across Italy, Fascism often favored simplified narratives about the past, recreations in a neo-medieval style rather than faithful restitutions of the building’s multiple historical layers.  The celebration of an idealized medieval heritage, devoid of complicating factors such as successive additions, had several goals including those of celebrating a historical era of military strength and political independence, promoting a feeling of shared national identity, and asserting Fascism as the legitimate heir of that tradition.”

I really did enjoy Verona, but this changed the way I looked at the picturesque city when we visited.  And the Casa di Giulietta presents some serious concerns about how tourists treat heritage sites… to be continued.