08 February 2008

A visit to Juliet in Verona on Saint Valentine’s Day

Juliet's Balcony in Verona ... a romantic or fictional invention to attract and entertain tourists?

Patrick Comerford

Rome or Paris? I suppose whichever city you choose indicates what sort of romantic you are at heart. But I doubt that in the run-up to Saint Valentine’s Day anyone would opt for Dublin as the world’s most romantic city – even if Saint Valentine is supposed to be buried in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriars’ Street, Dublin, which is packed with incurable romantics on 14 February every year.

But what about London? Or Verona?

Last month, while we were in London, we climbed to the very top of the dome on Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The view from the top was breath-taking, although few would describe it as romantic. But from the top, as we looked right across London, it was easy to pick out Fleet Street to the east and the multi-tiered steeple of Saint Bride’s.

During my days as a journalist, this was a natural part of London to end up in on a number of occasions. Most journalists are familiar with Saint Bride’s, the journalists’ church on Fleet Street.

For over 500 years, Saint Bride’s has been associated with printers, writers and journalists. It was well-known to Caxton, Shakespeare and Johnson, the diarist Samuel Pepys was baptised here, and it was here that vigils were held while John McCarthy was kept hostage in Lebanon.

Although the presses are long gone from Fleet Street, Saint Bride’s still has a place in the heart of journalist and printer. But few are familiar with two of the romantic connections that Saint Bride’s has had over the centuries.

Romance at Saint Bride’s

A church has stood on the site of Saint Bride’s in Fleet Street or over 1,500 years, and the original dedication is said to have been to Saint Bridget of Kildare. Many London churches were destroyed by the great fire of 1666, but Saint Bride’s was rebuilt between 1671 and 1678 by Christopher Wren, who also designed neighbouring Saint Paul’s.

The multi-tiered spire added to Wren’s church in 1701 made Saint Bride’s a landmark. It also became a fashionable church for London weddings. The word association between the name of Saint Bride’s and the wedding bride was obvious for the local confectioner, Thomas Rich, who was inspired in designing his three-tiered wedding cake by the steeple of Saint Bride’s, where his own wedding was about to take place.

And so a romantic tradition was born. But some say it’s more than a romantic tale and that Thomas Rich and his bride are buried side-by-side in Saint Bride’s churchyard.

At the end of the 19th century, the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906) was the Vicar of Saint Bride’s from 1883 to 1904. A former headmaster, Comerford Hawkins came from an Irish family that traced its roots to Cork and Wexford. As a writer, he must have found the invitation to move to Fleet Street was very attractive. His historical and theological books, including a history of Saint Bride’s, are much-forgotten today, but both his son and his nephew achieved literary fame: his nephew, Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932), was the author of The Wind in the Willows, while his son, Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (1863-1933) is better known as the writer Anthony Hope.

After Marlborough and Oxford, Anthony Hope Hawkins trained at the Middle Temple, close to Saint Bride’s. He was called to the bar in 1887 and practised from the same chambers as a future prime minister, H.H. Asquith, and had political ambitions as a Liberal. However, politics and law soon started to lose their appeal for Anthony. Late one evening in 1893, as he made his way home from the Middle Temple along Fleet Street to his father’s vicarage, he bumped into a man who looked like his double. He wondered what would have happen if they traded places, and then went on each other’s way, one staying in the city, the other leaving for the countryside. Would anyone notice? What if he ended up in a place that was a strange mixture of city (urbs) and countryside (rus) – a Ruritania?

The idea was inspiring. Within days, using the pen-name of Anthony Hope, he had written the first of his Ruritania novels, The Prisoner of Zenda, in his father’s vicarage. This novel and later books, including The Heart of Princess Osra and Rupert of Henzau, inspired many a swashbuckling romantic film in the last century.

Fair Juliet’s balcony

Shakespeare, who lived across the River Thames from Fleet Street in Southwark, knew both Saint Bride’s and Fleet Street. He too was not averse to relying on swashbuckling, romance or historical imagination when he was writing. And anyone who visits Verona in search of the true Romeo or Juliet will need to rely on these skills too.

We were in Verona for Verdi’s Aida one evening during the Opera season last summer. We had arrived early, and decided to seek out the city’s other great tourist attraction – Juliet’s House.

Verona will be crowded once again on Saint Valentine’s Day this year, with crowds of teenagers will be hanging about Juliet’s House, sticking love notes into every crack of the wall, and gazing up at the famous balcony as if longing for their own dreamed-of Juliet or Romeo to appear. The house was built in the 13th century around a courtyard, using local rose-tinted stone, with a marble balcony hanging over the courtyard. The walls and the large wooden door are covered in graffiti, with layer upon layer of love messages.

Letters addressed to Juliet arrive in their thousands each year at Juliet’s House on Via Cappello. The Club di Giulietta, a Verona-based organisation that answers the 5,000 or more letters sent each year to Shakespeare’s romantic heroine, awards the “Cara Giulietta” (“Dear Juliet”) prize on Saint Valentine’s Day to the most compelling letters received during the previous year.

Romantic fantasies

But it’s all fantasy. Shakespeare had never been to Verona, and the original story of the unhappy lovers was not his. Luigi Da Porto was the first writer to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet. A captain in the army of the Venetian Republic, he claimed that one of his bowmen, Pellegrino da Verona, told him the true story of two unfortunate young lovers who had lived at the beginning of the 14th century and who belonged to two rival families, the Capulets and the Montagues. Da Prota’s novella, written in 1531, was plagiarised by many other European writers. Arthur Brooke wrote the Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet in 1562, and eventually the story was retold by Shakespeare in 1596 in Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, no-one should be disappointed that Shakespeare borrowed other people’s tales, for Romeo and Juliet are merely the stuff of romantic fiction. Verona was ruled by the Della Scala or Scaligeri family, and at a time of savage family feuding the Capulets and Monatgues – or, more correctly, the Montecchi – were only minor players in the city’s political intrigues. The location of Juliet’s House, and her fictional tomb to the east of the Arena in Via del Pontiere, were selected in the last century not in an effort to recover a sense of the romantic but to boost Verona’s tourism.

But Juliet is still a figure of pride for all honourable and romantic men in Verona. When Verona’s football supporters behaved badly and used racist taunts against a visiting player, their opponents responded at the return match by unfolding a banner along the length of the stadium proclaiming: “Giulietta was a Slapper.” Whether she is a figure of fact or fiction, the Gentlemen of Verona are romantic enough to be slighted when Juliet’s honour is questioned.

Romance and the Romans

However, Verona’s churches and its Roman remains rather than its romantic associations are the city’s real heritage. As with so many Italian cities, Verona’s churches are laden with important works by great artists, including Bellini, Pisanello, Veronese, Tintoretto, and the Tiepolos.

By the 1st century BC, Verona was an important Roman settlement, over time it became a major cultural centre, and it was as piccolo Roma or Little Rome for its importance in imperial days.

The Roman Arena is where Christians, criminals, and gladiators died in their thousands, all in the name of entertainment. It has survived tremors and earthquakes, and today is the third largest surviving Roman amphitheatre. The Arena seats up to 20,000 people on its marble steps, and during the summer it is lit by hundreds of hand-held candles as it fills night after night for lavish opera productions.

Verona’s largest square, the Piazza Bra, beside the Arena, is filled with tables and overflows with diners before and after each production. To the north and close to Juliet’s House on Via Cappello, on the site of the Roman Forum or market place, the busy Piazza delle Erbe is the real heart of the city. The 14th century Casa Mazzanti on the Piazza delle Erbe is a more attractive building Juliet’s supposed house. Despite its name, it is not one house but half a block of townhouses that are decorated with 16th century frescoes, bright and fresh and powerful in their representation of the allegories of Ignorance, Greed, Moderation and Love.

When it comes to love and romance, would I prefer Verona or London? I think I might prefer to choose between Paris and Rome.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in February 2008.

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