“We’re going to see the real fake Juliet’s balcony,” said Silvana the Guide as our bus rolled toward Verona. And so we did.
When the 16th century building that’s now known as “Juliet’s house” went up for sale in 1905, someone noticed that a family crest on the building said Capello. That was close enough to Capulet for municipal minds to start churning. The city of Verona bought the house, stuck a 17th century sarcophagus on its side, and dubbed it “Juliet’s House” with “Juliet’s Balcony.” And a tourist site was born. The house is a museum, furnished with renaissance pieces and costumes from various productions of Romeo and Juliet. I’ve read that the museum is a good one, but the crushing crowds were such that there was no way I was going to try to get in.
At “Juliet’s House” in Verona, people — actually, I’ll go out on a limb here and say women — write for advice about love from Juliet and stick their notes on a wall in the courtyard. Why someone would go, for advice, to a 13-year-old (fictional being beside the point) who had a brief, overheated romance ending in suicide is beyond me. In the same courtyard is a bronze statue of Juliet and it’s said that if you rub her right breast, it will help you find your true love. I don’t believe for a second that any of the guys pushing forward to grope Juliet had any interest in finding love, true or not. And I wish Juliet, bronze though she may be, a more dignified existence than this.
If Juliet’s real fake balcony on Juliet’s real fake house isn’t enough for you, there’s even Juliet’s real fake tomb, at what was once a Franciscan monastery, just outside of the city’s walls. The 1230 monastery of San Francisco al Corso is now the G.B. Cavalcaselle Fresco Museum (after Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, considered the father of modern art in Italy), which features an empty sarcophagus said to be Juliet’s tomb. Who knows why.
Verona may be best known for being the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but it has got an important nonfiction life as well. Its placement on the main road to Rome from Gaul, to the northeast, made it a major military, political, business and cultural center from its earliest days, and everyone wanted a piece of it. It became a Roman colony in the 1st century BCE, then belonged to the Ostrogoths (a kingdom that ran from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, through what’s now eastern Europe), the Lombards and the French before becoming, in the 12th century, an independent territory. That lasted until the 15th century, when it fell to Venice, then Napoleon for a bit, then the Austrians, before becoming part of unified Italy.
Today it’s a town larger and more cosmopolitan than I’d expected — not another quaint hill town but a lovely metropolis with wide streets and upscale shops. Still, it’s a — need I say it — UNESCO World Heritage site as “an outstanding example of a town that has developed progressively and uninterruptedly over 2,000 years, incorporating artistic elements of the highest quality from each succeeding period.”
We started our walk through Verona at a 30 CE Roman amphitheater, that hosts an annual opera festival. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t care for opera. But even I would be willing to sit through one, under the stars, in a 1st century Roman amphitheater. Silvana the Guide said that they used to do performances of Aida there, with live elephants. While I adamantly disapprove of using wild animals in performances, I can imagine that was quite the sight. They still do Aida — it’s on this year’s schedule — but without the elephants.
We walked from the amphitheater to the Piazza Erbe, once a forum, during the Roman Empire, then just a few buildings down to Juliet’s house. There, we were freed to do our thing. As many questions as I had about Mr. History Tourist’s often baffling ways, I decided that asking the protagonist of an Italian novella — Shakespeare’s source material is most often cited as the stories of Matteo Bandello — would only add to my confusion. So we were off to explore Verona instead.