Of Romeo and Juliet

image. (Photo by TK)

How Romeo and Juliet came to be associated with Verona, Italy

Though the city has plenty else to recommend it as a sightseeing capital of the Veneto, the local tourism economy is underpinned by hordes of bus groups, Shakespearian pilgrims, and hopeless romantics. They come to wander the streets where Capulets and Montagues once fought, Romeo pined, and Juliet sighed from her (completely false) balcony.

I'm sorry to break the news, but every single famous, tourist-packed sight associated with Romeo and Juliet in Verona is a fake.

I mean, the places are real; they just had nothing to do with the actual, historical figures of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet.

That is because the most famous star-crossed lovers of all time never actually existed.

Art thou, truly, Romeo?

Wealthy Veronese families called Capuleti and Monterchi did exist.

Did they feud? Probably. That often was the way with local clans vying for city power in the Middle Ages.

But did their two houses, so alike in dignity, ever harbor secret, star-crossed lovers?

Did Romeo and Juliet really exist?

Er, no.

Despite the "Casa di Romeo Monterchi" (which became "Montague," in Shakespearian) with its excellent restaurant (one caution; the Veronesi love horse meat, so you might want to avoid anything that says "cavallo")...

Despite "Juliet's Tomb" under the graceful medieval cloisters of a Capuchin monastery in the southern part of town...

And despite this oh-so-romantic courtyard bang in the center of town where the tourist office slapped on a balcony in 1928 to help finish off the "Juliet' House" look, there is no proof that a Capuleti (Capulet) family ever lived here (or if they did, that a young girl called Juliet ever existed), and it wasn’t until 1905 that the city bought what was an abandoned, overgrown garden and decided its future.

Rumor is, this was once actually a whorehouse.    

So wherefore art they called Romeo and Juliet, and why Verona?

The Greek myth of Pyramis and Thisbee found its way, whisper-down-the-lane style, to Italy as a Sienese legend, first put into novella form in 1476.

The story was subsequently retold in 1524 by Veneto-born Luigi da Porto. He chose Verona in the years 1302 to 1304, during the reign of the Scaligeri, and renamed the young couple Romeo and Giulietta. (Actually, in Italian versions, it is called "Giulietta e Romeo"—the lady always comes first.)

This popular storia d'amore was later translated into English, and that is what became the source of, and inspiration for, Shakespeare's monumentally famous version of the tale.

(Hey, no one ever said it was original—Shakespeare had, indeed, already used the Pyramis and Thisbee story within A Midsummer Night's Dream, after all. So long as we're giving creedence to spurious theories, I'd prefer to believe Tom Stoppard's lovely conjecture in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, and that the courtship portion of the play was based on the Bard's own love affair.)

With the genius of Shakespeare's pen, the story turned into theatrical gold. Translated into dozens of languages and performed endlessly around the world (check out the number of Asian and Eastern European tourists who flock to Juliet's House), this universal and timeless tale of pure love has forever since been set in the tempestuous days of this medieval city—that version with Leo DiCaprio aside.

(That said, Zefferelli chose to film his classic 1968 interpretation in the tiny Tuscan town of Pienza, south of Siena. And, of course, the story emigrated to the New World and took up in the mean streets of New York as West Side Story.)

None of this, of course, stops countless thousands from leaving behind layer upon layer of graffiti along the lines of “Laura, ti amo!,” or who pose with the of the 20th-century bronze statue of a forever nubile Juliet—or who engage in the peculiar tradition (whose origin no one can seem to explain) of rubbing the heroine's right breast, which is now buffed to a bright gold.

My advice: stop by just before closing time, when the courtyard is relatively empty of tourists and it is easiest to imagine Romeo uttering, “But Soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”

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