Save for an obsession with cups of tea and apologising, nothing defines English culture more than William Shakespeare. Yet truth be told, the Bard had split loyalties. While many of his 38 plays were set in ‘this sceptred isle’ of Britain, 13 of them were based or part-based in the sunnier climes of Italy.
From the lovelorn streets of Romeo and Juliet’s Verona and Julius Caesar’s murderous machinations in Rome, to the frothy mix of sex, money and intrigue in Othello’s Venice, Shakespeare’s fascination with Italy is a constant undercurrent of his work. His Italian settings are so crucial to his plots that they have become characters in their own right – and his influence can be felt in Italy today.
Who better to explore that continuing influence than Francesco da Mosto, a Venetian writer, architect and the presenter of new BBC series Shakespeare in Italy? Francesco believes that Shakespeare set some of his plays in the country so that he could tackle sensitive political topics without risking the displeasure of England’s rulers. ‘In Shakespeare’s time, Italy was a place where anything could happen’, he says. ‘It contained both warring city-states and sophisticated political entities like the Venetian Republic. By setting his plays in Italy, Shakespeare could deal with issues – including political assassinations such as the one in Julius Caesar – that would have landed him in trouble if he’d set them in England.’
Shakespeare wasn’t averse to pinching a few ideas from Italian writers, either – some people have made claims that he might have been Italian himself. ‘Many of Shakespeare’s ideas came from Italian stories called ‘novellas’,’ explains Francesco. ‘The Merchant of Venice was based on an Italian story about a money lender, while the names Romeo and Juliet may have been taken from poet Luigi Da Porto. But Shakespeare was much more than a copycat. His genius lay in the way he re-elaborated other stories.’
So, without further ado about nothing, here is a guide to some of William Shakespeare’s favourite Italian cities – the grand northeastern trio of Verona, Padua and Venice.
‘In fair Verona, where we lay our scene’ - Romeo and Juliet
Verona – a wonderful city surrounded by hills arranged like banks of theatre seats – is the city in which Shakespeare’s legacy is felt strongest. There is a saying in Italy that ‘Venetians are great lords, Paduans are great doctors, people from Vicenza eat cats [during wartime, allegedly] and people from Verona are all crazy’. People from Verona are full of life, very funny and welcoming, a curious breed who love to meet visitors and appreciate new influences.
Verona was not thought of as a city of romance before Romeo and Juliet – in fact, not many people would have heard of it as it was very much in the shadow of Venice at that time. It is now regarded as one of the most romantic places in the world, and thousands of lovers visit the city each year.
We don’t know whether Romeo and Juliet existed, although Italian poet Dante did mention two feuding families, called the Montecchi and the Cappelletti. But it’s irrelevant – in every one of us there is a Romeo or a Juliet. When we fall head over heels in love, nothing matters more.
The city is full of sites associated with Romeo and Juliet. The famous balcony where Romeo is said to have declared his love to Juliet is close to Verona’s main promenade – although since the balcony was apparently added to a suitably old house in 1936, it’s doubtful it is the original! There is a statue of Juliet outside and her bedroom has been recreated inside (Via Cappello 23, 00 39 045 803 43 03). The stone architecture of the building’s courtyard, entered through a little arched passageway, has kept the otherworldly atmosphere of ancient times.
My favourite site in Verona is Juliet’s tomb (Via del Pontiere 9, 00 39 045 800 03 61). It’s in a 13th-century Franciscan convent, where Juliet died in the play – the only one outside the city walls at the time when the events were supposed to have taken place. People go there to pay tribute to Juliet and Shakespeare – even Dickens visited. It really does have a very special atmosphere. It feels like one of the saddest places in the world.’
Piazza delle Erbe The finest square in the city, ringed with cafés and full of locals catching up on the gossip. The Piazza is also home to some of Verona’s finest architecture, including the Baroque Palazzo Maffei, and the frescoes of Casa Mazzanti.
Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore Said to contain the crypt where Romeo and Juliet were married, this is an archetypal example of Romanesque architecture, with a ‘wheel of fortune’ rose window and 12thcentury bronze doors on its façade (admission £2; Piazza San Zeno; 00 39 045 800 61 20).
Al Pompiere means ‘the firefighter’, and this tavern still has the original owner’s fire helmet on the wall. It’s famous for its salami platters and Italian favourites such as braised beef ravioli (mains from £7).
A spectacular wine list is reason enough to stop off here, not to mention a menu of Venetian liver and suckling pig. Some wines have been bottled exclusively for the Bottega del Vino (from £16).
Situated close to the arena, the Anfitheatro B&B attracts a thespian and operatic clientele with high-ceilinged rooms and antique furniture (from £85).
Cool hoops of colour ring the modern rooms of Casa Coloniale like a billiard ball – it’s a great location, too, just off the Piazza delle Erbe (from £65).
‘I come to wive it wealthily in Padua’- The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare’s early comedy The Taming of the Shrew, written around 1590, was one of his first plays set in Italy. He owed part of this story, about a man who attempts to ‘train’ his new wife into a submissive spouse, to a comedic play called I Suppositi by the poet Ludovico Ariosto. Shakespeare chose to set his play in Padua, a city that lies between Verona and Venice.
The University of Padua was one of the first in the world, and in Shakespeare’s time, the city was very well known as a centre of learning throughout Europe – Galileo [of telescope fame] and Casanova [of sexual conquest fame] are both alumni (Via 8 Febbraio No2, 00 39 049 827 8511).
He wanted to turn this city of learning and science into a city of love and political incorrectness. He used its reputation, rather than actual locations, as a backdrop – apart from the University, he rarely mentions specific sites. The best way to experience Shakespeare’s Padua is by having a stroll around the university. There is a marvellous wooden anatomical amphitheatre in the Medical School that was built in the 16th century, where they dissected humans and animals for the students. It is still a leading medical university today.
The life of the university runs thorough the city. It’s lovely to walk through the portico walkways that run under the houses, and into the Prato della Valle, one of the main city squares. It is laid out like a formal Italian garden, ringed by a canal. It feels like a little world to itself, detached from the rest of the city (Via Michele Sanmicheli 49, 00 39 049 875 7367).
Giotto’s frescoes in Cappella Degli Scrovegni revolutionised the role of art in religious venues by giving biblical figures more humanistic features and characteristics, inspiring none other than Leonardo da Vinci (admission from £10).
The reason why Shakespeare used Padua as a location, the University lies in the Palazzo del Bò – take a tour of Galileo’s lecture hall and see the world’s first anatomy theatre (guided tours £4).
A warm welcome, a cosy atmosphere and good Italian cuisine, such as Venetian stew or homemade lasagne, is on offer at Enoteca dei Tadi – plus an excellent wine list (mains from £7; closed Mon).
Osteria Dal Capo is a tiny trattoria often packed with locals tucking into traditional Veneto dishes like liver and onions with grilled polenta. Deservedly popular, be sure to book ahead (mains from £24; closed Sun; Via degli Obizzi 2; 00 39 049 66 31 05).
At the flash but friendly boutique hotel Belludi37, most of the generously sized and neatly furnished rooms afford great views of the Basilica of St Anthony of Padua (from £90).
The newly refurbished Albergo Verdi has a great location, a short walk from the University – rooms are smartly turned out in reds and yellows, some with balconies (from £85).
‘What news on the Rialto?’ - The Merchant of Venice
There is much debate about whether Shakespeare ever visited Italy. Some of his Italian plays display a lot of local knowledge, which it would be hard to come by without going there. In Julius Caesar he describes an African-style summer thunderstorm in Rome – the type of storm which comes and goes very quickly and is just not found in England. And he seems to capture the Italian habit of talking a lot – as we say, ‘talking like a river’!
Some argue that he could have found out about life in Italy by talking to merchants who arrived at the River Thames. There were no political relations between Venice and England during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, so that’s doubtful. And interestingly, between 1585 and 1592 nobody knows where Shakespeare was. I think there is every chance that he came to Italy.
He set The Merchant of Venice and Othello in the city, and mentions the Rialto Market area several times in The Merchant of Venice. He even talks about gondolas and ‘the tranect’ – which could refer to the ‘traghetto’ ferry, which transported people from Venice to the mainland. It still exists at several points along the Grand Canal.
If he did visit, Shakespeare would have spent his time wandering the streets, eavesdropping on people’s conversations and observing the goings-on in shops and the market. A walk to the Rialto is certainly evocative of that time (Campo San Giacomo, 00 39 041 296 0658). The Palazzo Ducale (Sestiere San Marco, 00 39 041 4273 0892), with its magnificent Gothic façades and huge council hall, is probably what he had in mind as the setting for the final courtroom scene in The Merchant of Venice, while the two bronze figures on top of the Torre dell’Orologio clock tower in St Mark’s Square are known as ‘i mori’, or ‘the Moors’, which is a key reference in Othello (Piazzo San Marco, 00 39 049 932 49 76).
In Shakespeare’s time, the ‘Venetian Ghetto’ was one of the only places in Europe where Jews were allowed to live and trade. The word ‘ghetto’ actually comes from an Italian word, ‘gheto’, which means ‘slag’ – as in the waste product from melting iron, which was the main industry of that area in those days. Nowadays, ghettos have negative connotations, but back then this was a place of salvation. It was the first ghetto in the world, and was the reason why Shakespeare had his character Shylock live in Venice. A Jewish community remains – there are five synagogues and it is a fascinating place to explore, with a relaxed, peaceful atmosphere that still feels a little removed from the rest of Venice.
This essential Venetian museum offers an exhaustive look at the city’s influence on the art world. Highlights of the Gallerie dell’Accademia include Tintoretto’s Creation of the Animals and one of Titian’s final works (£9).
It might not be as romantic as a gondola ride, but a traghetto is the true local’s way to get around. These commuter gondolas are often standing room only, so get your sea legs ready (fares £1; 9am-6pm; several crossing locations).
The ancient art of Venetian bookbinding is exhibited at Legatoria Polliero, where you can pick up beautiful leather-bound volumes and stationery (Campo dei Frari; San Polo; 00 39 041 528 51 30).
Eat and drink
At Trattoria Alla Madonna, white-jacketed waiters serve up local favourites such as grilled fish, razor clams in white wine, or cuttlefish eggs in this long-standing Venetian favourite (mains from £20).
The cosy, wood-panelled Ristoteca Oniga does some of the best seafood in town, including giant tortelloni (above) with shrimp and chanterelle mushrooms (mains from £15).
Everything served at Vecio Fritolin is bought fresh each day from Rialto Market, before being turned into inventive concoctions that take traditional Venetian dishes to new heights. The langoustine and courgette spaghetti has attained legendary status among locals (mains from £12).
A favourite with Rialto Market traders and customers since 1462, Cantina Do Mori has a great selection of wines along with plates of cicchetti bar snacks (glasses of wine from £1.50; Sotoportego dei Do Mori; 00 39 041 522 54 01).
Named after the off-duty postmen who used to visit, Ai Postali is a food and wine bar where impromptu jazz and late-night chat are order of the day (glasses of ombra wine £1.80; Fondamenta Rio Marin 821; no telephone).
Obillok is one of Venice’s grandest bars, with Baroque floral flourishes, aristocratic red chairs, and beer served in tilted glasses. The macchiatone (short coffees) are among the best in town (coffee from £1.20; Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo; no telephone).
A former convent in the heart of Rialto Market, Pensione Guerrato is a peaceful haven. Some rooms feature original wall and ceiling frescoes, with views over the markets and Grand Canal (from £80).
With lavish, Venice Carnival-themed rooms, welcoming staff and fantastic views of passing gondoliers, Locanda Orseolo, near St Mark’s Square, is a great place to stay (from £105).
Elegant rooms decorated in the style of 18th-century Venice and marble bathrooms make Hotel Ca’ Dogaressa a sophisticated choice. It’s situated near both the Venice Ghetto and Venezia Santa Lucia railway station (from £125).
Venice can be reached from a number of UK airports, including Gatwick, Heathrow, East Midlands, Manchester, Glasgow and Leeds Bradford, with carriers including BMI (from £75), easyJet (from £85) and BA (from £100). Flights to Verona leave from East Midlands, Gatwick, Stansted and Southampton airports with BMI, Flybe, Ryanair and easyJet (from £80). With no commercial airport, there are no direct flights from the UK to Padua, but Venice and Verona are both within easy reach of the city by train.
Train services from Venice Mestre railway station to Verona take an hour to two hours (from £17). Trains from Venice to Padua’s Padova railway station take from 25 to 45 minutes (from £12).
The article 'Shakespeare's Italy' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.