Most of Romeo and Juliet is fiction. But not all. Since I set the story very firmly in 1499 I was able to introduce a few touches of real history too, fragments of Italy which resonate with the story and are still with us today. Here are a few examples. The rest I’ll leave to others to discover. And to find what it means in the story itself go to Audible here.
The mythical, magical Ursula
When we first meet Juliet she’s newly-returned from Venice, a difficult trip with her parents. Her father wanted to do business. Her mother took her to see a set of nine paintings by the artist Carpaccio commissioned for a scuola — yes, pronounced ‘squalour’ — a lay religious institution in Castello. Her parents have a specific reason: the legend of Saint Ursula concerns a young girl who allows herself to be talked into an arranged marriage for the benefit of her father, much the fate that Capulet wishes to force upon her. On the way to her marriage her party is attacked by pagan warriors outside Cologne. Ursula is offered the chance to become the wife of their leader but refuses and dies as a result.
The story may be apocryphal but Carpaccio’s telling of it is quite breathtaking, like a panoramic movie from the late fifteenth century which vividly depicts the main players in the drama and the world at the time. The scuola in Castello is long gone but happily the entire set of the Ursula Cycle now live in a room of their own in Venice’s Accademia Gallery. They are as breathtaking today as they must have been five centuries ago, a theatrical narrative of splendour and the ultimate sacrifice, peopled by characters so real you feel you might see the same faces on the vaporetto. If you visit — and it should be a must-see in Venice — you’ll find the whole stunning story in Room Twenty One, which is all too easily missed.
Botticelli, the sad painter of Florence
In this adaptation Count Paris comes from Florence, a city just emerged from a tumultuous revolution following the temporary fall of the Medici family and the brief rule of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola.
One player in these tumultuous times was the painter Sandro Botticelli whose most famous works, The Birth of Venus and Primavera, now attract hordes of visitors to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Botticelli won the patronage of the Medici while they ruled, and soon became obsessed with a married noblewoman, Simonetta Vespucci, using her as a model in some of his best-known canvases. She never returned his affection and died at the age of twenty two, among them the beautiful Venus rising naked from a scallop shell. When his paymasters fled however, Botticelli came very much under the spell of Savonarola and lost most of his commissions, falling into poverty for much of the rest of his life. Paris, in this fictional encounter, meets him when he’s taking on any work for money — and Botticelli did paint many male portraits. Though he died a pauper Florence had sufficient respect to grant his most fervent wish — to be buried at the feet of his muse, Simonetta. If you visit her tomb in the church of Ognissanti there today you’ll still see flowers laid at her feet where Botticelli rests, for him, not the woman who was once deemed to be the most beautiful in Italy.
Adam and Eve: the start of the Renaissance?
Across the river in Florence are two paintings that Juliet has heard about and desperately wants to see — perhaps because that would take her away from any marriage plans being concocted by her parents. They form an important element in what we now call the Renaissance, and can still be found on the walls for which they were painted, the ornate Brancacci Chapel, sometimes called a Sistine in miniature, in Oltrarno. Two Florentine artists, Masaccio and Masolino, were responsible for most of the frescoes.
The images that fascinate Juliet sit either side of the chapel entrance: on the right The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Masolino and on the left Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Masolino’s depiction shows the couple in a conventional form, serene, statuesque, happy with their innocent nakedness. Masaccio’s could scarcely be more different. Eve is howling with pain, Adam covering is eyes in shame, and a vengeful armed angel hovers overhead driving them out of Paradise into the world of sin and death. There’s nothing formal or laboured about them. Their agony is visible in their postures, their expressions and the framing of the painting.
This realistic approach was so new at the time that students flocked to the Brancacci to admire the frescoes there and copy them for practice. Among them was Michelangelo who was greatly influenced by the work. It marked him for life in more ways than one. A fellow student, the sculptor Torrigiano, broke his nose in the chapel itself during an argument. Torrigiano told another student, Benvenuto Cellini who went on to create of the terrifying Perseus with the Head of Medusa now seen in the Loggia of the Signoria, ‘This [Michelangelo] Buonarroti and I used, when we were boys, to go into the Church of the Carmine, to learn drawing from the chapel of Masaccio. It was Buonarroti’s habit to banter all who were drawing there; and one day, among others, when he was annoying me, I got more angry than usual, and clenching my fist, gave him such a blow on the nose, that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles; and this mark of mine he will carry with him to the grave.’
Judging by portraits of Michelangelo his assailant was right on that last point — that battered nose stayed with him for life.
Friar Laurence and Otranto
In the play and earlier versions of the story, no mention is made of the background of Friar Laurence, the priest who risks his reputation and his neck to help Romeo and Juliet in their plan. Why would a man of the church go so far as to dabble with poison, secret marriages and fake a death? On paper because he hoped they would heal the rift between Montague and Capulets. I thought he needed rather more reason here, and so I reached for a real-life tragedy that shapes the lives of both Laurence and his counterpart apothecary in Mantua, in this version, though not the play, Laurence’s brother.
The massacre of the martyrs of Otranto occurred on August 14, 1480 in the first stage of an attempt by Muslim forces to conquer the southern half of Italy. The coastal city was besieged for fifteen days, refusing to surrender to the last. When it finally fell, the remaining eight-hundred Christian men were ordered to convert to Islam or be slaughtered. They refused and were beheaded one by one while women and children and all youths aged fifteen or under were sold into slavery. In 2013 Pope Francis canonised the 813 victims of the Ottoman slaughter in the southern Italian city. Many of their skulls still make a grisly public memorial behind the altar of the town’s cathedral. In this adaptation Laurence survives thanks to his younger brother’s cunning and the two of them are shipped off to a kindly physician in Constantinople where they learn about the work of an apothecary and the ways of the world.
Mantua and Isabelle d’Este
Mantua features in the early versions of the Romeo and Juliet myth as the place Romeo briefly flees when he’s ejected from Verona. In 1499 it was still, just, a small independent state while Verona was part of the much larger and more powerful Venetian republic. The beautiful church known as the Rotonda di San Lorenzo, where Nico, Laurence’s brother works, was used for commerce at the time but is now a church once more, a charming and tiny one. The circular design is based upon the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem.
Romeo’s potential employer at the behest of Nico is one of the most remarkable women of the time, Isabella d’Este, the Marchesa of the city. I’ve taken quite a few liberties with Isabelle’s portrait here (this is fiction after all). In real life she was an intellectual, friend to artists, musicians, architects and philosophers, and somewhat eccentric.
She was very fond of having her portrait painted, and there are some who argue that Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is actually Isabelle, not Lisa del Gioconda as most art historians believe. She was fond of surrounding herself with African servants, ‘as black possible’ she once demanded. The odd pet in her study is, however, my invention entirely.