“There is no world without Verona walls!”
Verona is, of course, the setting for one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Romeo and Juliet. I studied it at school for O level (the exam you took when you were 16) so know it quite well. It is an astounding, universal play. A great love story, naturally, but besides this it’s also about human conflict, the clash between the generations and much more. No wonder it has been produced in any number of modern settings ranging from Northern Ireland to the Middle East. There is a “Romeo and Juliet” bridge in Sarajevo, where a couple were killed in 1993 trying to flee the besieged city so they could be together. (He was Serb, she was Muslim). I don’t know how many times I’ve watched news reports of the Middle East situation or various conflicts around the world and been reminded of Mercutio’s dying words: “A plague on both your houses. They’ve made mincemeat of me.”
If you don’t have a chance to see a production on stage before you go to Verona, it’s worth watching Franco Zeffirelli’s excellent 1968 film of the play, with its haunting music by Nino Roca (who also wrote the score for the Godfather). Watch the fight scene in the market place at the beginning, and notice the woman with the baby screaming and trying to get out of the way. That could be Syria in 2014. Zeffirelli uses the advantages of cinema to great effect. So we see Friar Lawrence’s messenger, an old monk on a donkey, plodding along on his way to Mantova to tell Romeo that Juliet isn’t really dead. Romeo has already heard the news of the supposed death of Juliet and is rushing back to Verona on his horse. We see him storm past the messenger without realising. My mother taught English literature and showed this film to her students, some of whom used to shout “stop!” at this point. It’s that dramatic.
Romeo and Juliet were fictional characters created by Shakespeare, though perhaps loosely based on local legend. The Montagues and Capulets may have existed and Verona has its Via Capello. One of the city’s main tourist attractions is the “Casa di Guilietta” (Juliet’s House) complete with balcony. The house was built in 1835, and as Francesco da Mosta puts it in his series Francesco’s Italy, we are “asked to imagine” that this was Juliet’s house, where the famous balcony scene took place. The place is packed with tourists and it is pretty well impossible actually to stand on the balcony as a single person because of all the couples who are having their picture taken. On the top floor of the house is an online archive of “letters to Juliet” which people have written, asking for help with romantic problems. You can also see the bed used in Zeffirelli’s film for their wedding night scene before Romeo has to go into exile.
In the south of the city you can also visit “Juliet’s Tomb” which is pure invention but again has lots of lovers’ graffiti on the walls in spite of notices telling you not to write anything. I was curious whether it looked anything like the tomb in the very powerful nightime scene in the Zeffirelli film- it doesn’t.
To complete the Romeo and Juliet circuit, don’t miss the little statue of Romeo at the entrance to Piazza Bra, with the lines: “There is no world without Verona walls” which he says after being banished from the city. Suitably, he’s actually on the inside of the city walls.