Is Verona the most romantic city in the world? The romantic appeal of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has always seemed a bit dubious. Young lovers and doomed love; destroyed by fate or unlucky chance. Why would you want to model a relationship on that?
Or is it Juliet’s challenge to Verona’s deeply patriarchal society that is the key theme of the tragedy? She resists the marriage her father plans to a man she does not love; instead embracing her sexuality.
There’s no doubt the Italian city of Verona milks the whole thing like crazy and it has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site but fortunately the city manages the hordes of tourists well, maintaining a genuine charm and liveliness. The shopping streets are glamorous, only slightly marred by Italian builders calling down cheeky comments from their scaffolding.
An Italian folk tale set in Verona was the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet. It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare ever visited but he did use Verona’s longstanding romantic reputation to excellent effect in both this and his earlier work The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In the heart of the Middle Ages two factions struggled for power in northern and central Italy. The Guelphs supported the Pope while the Ghibellines were the party for imperial control. Families allied themselves fiercely to one or the other side. Added to the political mix was Verona’s reputation for hot summer weather; likely to ignite violence and passion: “the mad blood stirring”.
The 13th-century ‘Casa di Giulietta’ did once belonged to the dell Capello family but the echo in the name is probably all that connects this place to Juliet Capulet. What the tour guides now call ‘Romeo’s house’ was the medieval home of the Montecchi family. The swallow-tail battlements on its high walls were symbols of alliance with the emperor’s faction.
The spuriousness of the history does not deter hundreds of thousands of tourists lining up each year to peer over the ‘Juliet’s balcony’, even though it was added in the 1930s. Milling crowds rub the right breast of the statue of Juliet for good luck or add graffiti and post-it notes to the walls.
A slightly more plausible historical connection to the legend can be found at the ruined monastery of the Capucins in Via del Pontiere, near the river. A stone sarcophagus said to be Juliet’s tomb lies in the dimly-lit crypt.
Then there is the basilica of San Zeno, a very fine example of Romanesque architecture. Its harmonious architectural lines and sober, graceful decoration honour the patron saint of Verona, a black bishop who died in 380.
But all this pales into unimportance because the crypt is the supposed venue for the marriage of the star-crossed lovers. It seems you can even get married in the Juliet house, or by Juliet’s grave, with wedding couples posing for photos under the monastery arches.
If all this leaves you cold, leave the concentration of tourists behind and wander the maze of winding alleyways to the church of San Anastasia. The interior of red Veronese marble contrasts with the horizontal stripes of tufa stone and brick on the austere facade. The church smells of cut olive branches. Painted flowers and leaves in red and green twine across the vaulted ceiling.
In Pisanello’s delicate and detailed fresco of St George and the Princess, the hero is on his horse farewelling the princess before going off to kill the dragon that was set to devour her. Her sumptuous clothes are trimmed with fur and the artist has paid great attention to how her mass of fair hair has been elaborately dressed.
Back in the centre of the old town, chic lovers pose on Vespas rather than balconies. Perhaps they are aware that the balcony so associated with the love story is never actually mentioned by Shakespeare. Juliet’s window is merely “above”. But you will soon find any cynicism melting away.
While away an hour or three in the Giardino Giusti, once the garden of a Renaissance family, full of tall cypresses and creeping roses. The panoramic view from the top of the hill is of a sea of terracotta-tiled roofs, Venetian walls and ancient church spires. Tranquil and serene, this is truly a place for romantic trysts and daydreams.
The riverside promenade offers views of Verona rising and curving along the river. Suddenly from one moment to the next the villas are caught in the light of the sinking sun and glow pink and bright and warm. And then it’s gone, the light dulls and the smoke of a rubbish fire drifts across.
The bells peal like a symphony and in the old streets the construction is everything from pre-Roman onwards. Old men with flat cloth caps are hunched over their market stalls in the Piazza delle Erbe.
On every street your eyes will find a feature in carved stone, a mysterious archway, a wooden doorway on which peeling paint is as full of beauty and romance as you could wish. You’ll find yourself seduced by Verona.