RESTORING A SHRINE TO LOVE
THE BROADER PICTURE
Sunday 14 July 1996
ROMEO: By love, who first did prompt me to enquire;
He lent me counsel and I lent him eyes.
I am no pilot; yet wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,
I would adventure for such merchandise.
Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii
It sounds an irresistible idea for the romantically inclined: to follow in the footsteps of Shakespeare's lovers and carouse beneath the moon in the Capulets' orchard in Verona, there to make wild and poetic protestations of undying love - unobstructed, one hopes, by the family feuds that undid Romeo and Juliet. Of course, these days there are unlikely to be too many adventures to the vast shores of farthest seas; more likely a cheapie package tour of the Veneto by way of Gatwick and Venice airports. But let's not allow the mundane realities of modern travel to get in the way of a beautiful dream. Wander through the pink Renaissance streets of Verona, take a little detour off the Piazza delle Erbe down the Via Cappello, and there - half-hidden by graffitied hoardings pending the completion of restoration work next week - is the real-life Casa di Giulietta. It is a fine Renaissance building, complete with romantically carved windows and a handsome balcony overlooking its central courtyard. "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" The words trip almost involuntarily off the tongue.
Too bad that the whole thing is a glorious fake. Oh, the local tourist authorities will do their best to convince you otherwise, and tell you that the Dal Cappello family who lived in this building were the model for the Capulets. But the truth is that the house was picked for the job of attracting the world's tourists sometime in the 1920s, when Verona's agrarian economy was down on its luck and the city fathers were on the hunt for some extra cash. The dilapidated house and courtyard were prettified accordingly, and the balcony - scene of Juliet's famous tryst with Romeo - was built from scratch as a pure historical folly.
Real Shakespeare buffs would see through the trick immediately. Go back to the text of the play and there, at the moment of the crucial encounter, is the simple stage direction, "Enter Juliet aloft". No mention of a balcony. And throughout the "balcony" scene, one of the best-known in the whole canon of English drama, the word balcony is never used. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent the Veronese love story, which he found in a number of Italian sources. But the balcony has been very much associated with his play, especially since the 18th century, when many productions had Juliet leaning over Palladian stonework in a nod to the English architectural fashion of the time.
Palladio was actually from Vicenza, the next city on the road to Venice, and historians now believe that the Capulets and the Montagues, insofar as they existed at all, came from there too. The house in Verona posing as Juliet's birthplace is believed to have been a tavern of ill-repute during the Renaissance. The historical associations claimed for the house on Via delle Arche Scaligere, as the Montague family's palazzo, are equally doubtful. As for the alleged lovers' alleged tomb - another of Verona's literary tourist sites - it was once compared, by Charles Dickens, to a horse's drinking trough.
The 20th-century pilgrims to the shrine of love in Via Cappello have not let a few historical facts get in the way of their obeisance. The right breast of a bronze statue of the pubescent Juliet shines from the countless caresses of visitors (although who'd want to be blessed with her luck in love?), and the house is undergoing its umpteenth restoration. The work includes a complete scrub of the archway leading to the courtyard - with its 20 years' worth of love-graffiti (now scrawled on the hoardings outside as well) - and the renovation of the balcony itself, which was carved from brittle tufaceous rock and has a habit of crumbling into dust.
Such is the devotion inspired by the place that some visitors quite lose their reason. Letters arrive at the Casa di Giulietta from every corner of the world addressed to the star-cross'd lover, asking for advice on romantic problems. A retired local businessman has taken on the task of responding. The house reopens to gullible romantics, and everyone else, next week. !
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