09 April 2012

Verona, Which Shakespeare Never Visited

I’m writing now from the porch of a bar on the Piazza Erbe (Vegetable Plaza) in Verona. I descended—with the rest of the family—from the high country of Alto Adige (South Tyrol) into Veneuto. At last I left behind the bilingual world of German-Italian and into a purely Italic world. With extra German tourists, but still purely Italian.
The Roman Arena of Verona
Verona is sometimes called “Little Rome” because of its Imperial importance. The city became part of the Roman Republic in 49 BCE. It has the third largest amphitheater, the Arena, and my hotel is only a block away from it, on the Piazza Bra. The Arena was built in the first century CE, but an earthquake devastated the outer wall in 1117 (damaging many other monuments in the city), and only a small portion on the outer circuit survives. Some joker thought it would be amusing to hang a bloody car commercial billboard off this only surviving piece of the magnificent outer wall. Stulti!*

The rest of the Arena is in a remarkable state of preservation, enough so that it holds a full season of opera and musical events. Although I appreciate that the Arena is still used for public entertainment, as it once was, the modern seats, stage, and flooring on the inside distract from the achievements of the ancients. I prefer the current state of the Coliseum in Rome, which has its lower chambers exposed and few modern adornments on the inside.
I condemn a gladiator from the seats of the Arena
This is my first experience seeing actual Roman remains; although ancient Rome fascinated since I was eleven, and their language is my second language, it has taken this long for me to move into the old sphere of influence. I laid my hand on stones piled up nineteen hundred years ago for gladiatorial games, and walked across the seats where the plebians enjoyed the ludi. I shouted a few words in Latin to hear their echo, and what admiration I felt for the people who built such marvelous acoustics!

The Arena granted me a view to even earlier Veronese history, I noticed on one of the tiers of seats an unusual spiral imprint. I looked at it carefully to tell if it was a Roman insignia or a mark made later. I couldn’t make sense of it--until I saw an image of it in a guidebook I purchased from a store in the Piazza dei Signore. It turns out it’s a fossil of a nautiloid. The Romans rip up a piece of Permian stone to place in their gladiatorial arena. I wonder what they thought it was.
Inside the Arena
Verona for the English-speaking world means “Shakespeare.” Specifically, Romeo and Juliet, although The Two Gentlemen of Verona also takes place here. (I hope that would be obvious.) The city trades off of the Romeo and Juliet connection with tourist shops, people dressed in Elizabethan clothing who’ll charge you for a photo with them, and locations associated with the play.

Reality check: Shakespeare never got anywhere near Verona in his life, and the play shows no indication of any familiarity with the city. Like all Italian cities in Shakespeare’s plays, it is entirely a “generic” Meditterranean city. Anti-Stratfordians, who argue that because Shakespeare was not well-traveled he couldn’t have written his plays, obviously have never paid attention to how little specific detail he provides. (What, Anti-Stratfordians ignorant of basic scholarship? Shock!) All Shakespeare needed to know about Verona for writing Romeo and Juliet was what he got from his source, a novella by Matteo Bandello, whose collections of romantic stories were popular in sixteenth-century England. The Elizabethan English stereotypically thought of Italy as an exotic land of hot passions and bloody vengeance, and I can’t say attitudes in Hollywood today are much different.
“Juliet’s” Balcony
There is some historical precedent for the story of Romeo and Juliet in Verona, since the city had two feuding families, the Montecchi (i.e the Montagues) whom Dante mentioned briefly in the Divine Commedy), and the Capuleti (Capulets). The Casa Giuletta is the center of Shakespeare-worship in Verona, since it was a villa of the Capuleti family dating back to the twelfth century and has a balcony overlooking the courtyard: perfect “Juliet on Her Balcony,” although Shakespeare would have no idea this was here. The courtyard had gathered a number of traditions: graffiti of lovers covers the tunnels and outside walls, and a statue of Juliet in the courtyard will supposedly bring you luck in love if you rub its breast (and the statue doesn’t slap you in return). The courtyard was the setting for a perfectly horrible 2010 movie called Letters to Juliet, which I watched in Munich a few days ago just to get a look at Verona. The movie fulfills all the stereotypes Hollywood has about Italy, which nicely ties into the Romantic stereotypes about Romeo and Juliet. Knowledge of the play for most people seems to be “that Shakespeare romance thing with a balcony.” Oh, and they killed themselves. I’d just like to add that to the idealization people have about this story of civil unrest and its consequences on teenage love.

I’m glad to report that Verona is a much more vibrant and varied city than the boring sunny sheen of postcard ennui that the movie gave it. But I will admit as a Shakespeare lover, thinking about this city as the setting for Romeo and Juliet has great appeal. I imagine the Act I, Scene I brawl taking place in the Piazza dei Signore, the center of the Medieval city which lies between the Montecchi and Capuleti residences. There’s also a statue of Dante there, placed in 1865. Dante was a guest of the Scaligere, the most powerful family in the city during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Scaligere were wool merchants who briefly made Verona an independent city-state in the thirteenth century, allied with the German Emperor. In 1405, the burgeoning Venetian Republic took control of Verona

A famous poet who actually lived here: Catullus, author of some of the best dirty poems in history! I spent a semester at college studying his poetry in the original Latin.

Casa Giuletta was crowded today, as was most of the city. It’s Easter Sunday, which means even the locals are out to enjoy a meal in a nice restaurant and a stop at the tourist locations. A sudden downpour, with brief hail, sent everyone in the city running for the cafés

I’ll close with wine: The popular grapes in this region are Lugana (a dry white) and Valporicello (a red similar to Chianti). I’ve had plenty of both today, particularly from the Otella vineyard.

*Fools!