Two households, both alike in dignity (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene), From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. 5From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
So begins William Shakespeare’s tragedy dedicated to the tragic love between young people, Romeo and Juliet . A text that refers to the most solid passion, such that it leads to the death of the protagonists.
Yet this fictional work has foundations in the historical Italian reality of Verona. There still exists today, near Verona, an ancient village called Montecchio, after one of the two opposing families in the tragic Shakespearean story.
Yet, centuries later, we all might have wondered: Did Romeo and Juliet really exist? What’s true about their story? Did William Shakespeare ever visit Verona? For all these questions, the answer is no, but as with all respectable legends, there’s always an element of truth. In fact, it’s likely that a Juliet Capulet and a Romeo Montague who were lovers in Verona never actually existed. However, we can assume that their story might have been inspired by that of Mariotto and Ganozza. The story tells of two lovers who had an impossible love, not in Verona, but in Siena.
Historical home in Montecchio
From Luigi da Porto to William Shakespeare
Let’s start by unraveling the first urban legend. The work of William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” wouldn’t be entirely the creation of the famous English playwright. The story of the two lovers from Verona would be a combination of various stories circulating in Italy already in the 1300s and 1400s. The most well-known of these was written by Luigi da Porto, a noble knight of the Republic of San Marco who was paralyzed during the wars of Cambrai.
Da Porto then decided to spend the last years of his life in Montorso Vicentino. During this period, he wrote a collection of novellas, including “Istoria novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti.” In this story, Da Porto recounted having met Peregrino, an archer from Verona. To alleviate Da Porto’s suffering, Peregrino told him the story of Romeo and Juliet.
However, this is just one piece of the puzzle. To identify the two rival families, Shakespeare would have been inspired by a much more well-known figure than Da Porto. We’re referring, of course, to Dante Alighieri, who mentioned the two families as “Montecchi and Cappelletti” in one of the canticles of “The Divine Comedy.” As you might guess, these historical rival families lived in the city of Verona, where Dante sought refuge during the most significant years of his life.
Verona Roman Arena
Romeo and Juliet or Mariotto and Ganozza?
Now let’s move from Vicenza to Salerno, where a writer named Masuccio Salernitano wrote a tale included in the collection “Novellino.” The story narrates the tale of two lovers, whose plot, unsurprisingly, is similar to that of the famous Veronese lovers. However, this story is set in Siena, where two young lovers, Mariotto and Ganozza, overwhelmed by their impossible love, were forced to marry in secret. Mariotto, however, was compelled to flee to Egypt in Alexandria after being condemned to death for a murder he committed.
Ganozza decided to join him. Pretending to be dead, the young woman traveled to Egypt under a false identity. From there, a race against time ensued because, upon learning of his beloved’s death, Mariotto returned to Italy, only to be executed this time. Devastated by grief, Ganozza retreated to a convent, where she also died a few days later. Reading this story, it’s not difficult to notice the similarities. Masuccio Salernitano was a well-known author at the time, especially in Naples, where he interacted with the most important figures of humanistic culture of the era. Could he have drawn from this story? All the clues point in this direction.
“Juliet Balcony”, a balcony of a Medieval house in Verona
Did William Shakespeare Really visit in Verona?
Now we return to a question that many have pondered. Did William Shakespeare ever visit Verona during his lifetime? For those who thought the famous English playwright had seen the city of Verona, disappointment might follow. Shakespeare likely came to know Verona through the writings of the aforementioned authors. Furthermore, it’s known that Shakespeare had already mentioned the city of Verona in his other work, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” not to mention works such as “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Merchant of Venice,” or even “Othello,” which are set in the beautiful city of Venice.
Verona in the Renaissance was a well-known city, aprte of a Republic of Venice that was a commercial and military power in the Mediterranean. So Shakespeare may have known the city from the many chronicles that circulated in an England that was culturally very close to Italy
This does not detract from the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet.
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Tickets left by lovers at Juliet’s House, Verona
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