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TRAVEL: The truth about Juliet’s balcony in Verona – and why it’s still worth a visit

Whether you want to see Italy's biggest sights or explore off the beaten path, writer Richard Hough in Verona explains why his city's most famous tourist attraction is well worth a visit.

TRAVEL: The truth about Juliet's balcony in Verona - and why it's still worth a visit
Is it worth visiting Juliet's balcony? Photo: Unsplash/Alessandro Visentin

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
 
– Act II, Scene II, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
 
Act II, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a strong contender for the most well-known scene in literary history. The pivotal balcony scene, in which Romeo eavesdrops on Juliet’s inner thoughts before clambering up to exchange vows of love, contains some of the most frequently-quoted lines penned by Shakespeare.
 
Less well known, though, is the story of the balcony itself.  A story not of romance, love and passion, but of misconception, fallacy and deceit.
 
 
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was inspired by a poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, which was originally published in 1562.
 
Brooke himself drew on older works by Italian writers, including Luigi de Porto and Matteo Bandello, which told the story of “Romeo and Giuletta” and the deadly feud between the Montecchi and Capelletti families.
 
 
These families also featured in the second part of Dante Alighieri’s epic narrative poem, Purgatorio, which was published in the early 14th century.
 
In fact, the Montecchi (or Monticoli) was one of the principal Veronese families from the medieval period, while the Cappelletti originated from a historic order of Venetian cavalrymen, so called because of their distinctive headdresses (the word cappello in Italian means ‘hat’). Symbols of these ancient noble families are still visible in Verona today.
 
In a courtyard off via Cappello in the centre of Verona stands a 13th-century house once occupied by the Cappello family. Largely unnoticed by the throngs of tourists who flock here, there is a distinctive hat carved in stone in a brick archway above the courtyard, a heraldic symbol of the Veronese family who once lived here.
 
If you happen to visit the courtyard on a quiet day, you might appreciate the romantic ambience of the place (if you can put the graffiti and chewing gum remnants to one side). But more often than not, the courtyard is overflowing with visitors.
 
 
Photo. Richard Hough
 
The courtyard houses a small museum with Renaissance-era costumes and the bed used in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 landmark adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play. In the courtyard itself stands a bronze statue of Juliet, her right breast worn by thousands of hands touching it for luck. 
 
But the focal point of the courtyard is, of course, the balcony.
 
Juliet’s balcony is the most recognised symbol of any Shakespeare play. It represents that indeterminate space on both sides of a threshold, neither internal nor external, hidden nor exposed. From here, the young Juliet expresses herself from the security of her father’s house, but is also tantalisingly exposed to Romeo and the outside world. It is the most iconic, most recognisable scene in the play.
 
It may come as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that Shakespeare’s original writing contained no reference to a balcony – an architectural feature that didn’t exist in Tudor England. Instead, Shakespeare wrote that Juliet “appears in a window above”.

It was only centuries later, following various re-interpretations, that the ‘balcony scene’ as we now know it – romantic, sexually charged, and an indelible part of our culture – began to take shape.

 
So much for the words. What about the provenance of the balcony itself?
 
In 1935, production began on Hollywood’s first interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. Directed by George Cukor and starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the title roles, the film’s scenographers were dispatched to Verona in search of inspiration for the set design.
 
Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and minister for press and propaganda, invited Antonio Avena, an Italian historian and director of Verona’s civic museum, to collaborate with the distinguished visitors from MGM studios.
 
The two Hollywood scenographers were amazed when they found no trace of the house nor the tomb depicted in Shakespeare’s tragic play, and persuaded Avena to recreate the famous scenes in the heart of the ancient city.
 
 
A visitor reads the 'letters to Juliet' pinned to a wall at the Casa di Giulietta in Verona. Photo: Unspash/Marcel Heil
 
In 1937, “Juliet’s Tomb” was completed, followed three years later by the “Casa di Giulietta”. It was here, in a crumbling old house in via Cappello, recently used as stables, that Avena recreated the famous balcony scene, attaching a sarcophagus to the exterior of the building.
 
So, Shakespeare’s original play made no reference to a balcony and millions of tourists now flock to a site that is little more than a cynical 20th century fabrication.
 
Still worth paying a visit?
 
Yes.
 
Despite its flaws, Juliet’s balcony in Verona is still a magical place to reflect, if just for a moment, on the wonder of young love on the cusp of oblivion.
 

 
 
Richard Hough has lived in Verona since September 2011 and writes about the region’s history, football, wine and culture. His first book, Notes from Verona, a short collection of diary entries from inside locked down Italy, is available here. He is currently researching his next book about wartime Verona.
 
This article was originally published on Medium.
 

Member comments

  1. The idea is you’re supposed to rub Juliette’s breast for good luck, if you have to do it at all, instead men constantly grope her for photos. Then there is the chewing gum and all the locks. People had started to graffiti on the brickwork rather than the designated area. The whole thing is just tacky, which is a shame because it is a lovely courtyard.

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CHRISTMAS

Seven of Italy’s most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

Here are some of the most magical Christmas markets taking place in Italy this year.

Seven of Italy's most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

After two years of pandemic cancellations and restrictions, Italy’s Christmas markets will be back in full swing this festive season.

While the energy crisis means some towns are cutting back on lighting and limiting the hours of operation, there’s still plenty of magic to be found.

Whether your focus is on sipping mulled wine surrounded by snow-topped mountains, riding a ferris wheel, sampling German sausages or marvelling at light displays, Italy has something for everyone.

Without further ado, here are some of the country’s best Christmas markets in 2022.

Bolzano

One of Italy’s longest-running Christmas markets, the festive extravaganza in Bolzano’s Piazza Walther is also said to be the country’s largest, with around 80 stalls selling a variety of traditional handicrafts and local treats.

Resting at the foot of the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano’s pre-WWI history and proximity to the Austrian border means the city is steeped in Germanic influences, with a number of citizens speaking German as their first language.

This gives Bolzano’s Christmas market a German twist; expect to be offered candied fruit, apple strudel, cinnamon-spiced mulled wine and other alpine delights as you browse its chalet huts.

When? Until January 6th

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano's Christmas market.

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano’s Christmas market. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Trento

While it hasn’t been running for quite as long as neighbouring Bolzano’s, Trento’s Christmas market has become almost as popular, with new stalls added every year.

Just like Bolzano, Trento is surrounded by maintains, which means you can take in views of stunning white peaks as you wander the old town’s cobbled streets warming your hands on a cup of vin brulè.

As usual, the market will be spread across Piazza Battisti and Piazza Fiera; the Trento city council has also published a calendar of key events happening every day as part of the city’s festive offering.

This year Trento’s Christmas market will have a ‘green’ focus – the use of clean energy, edible bread plates and recycled paper are all part of the concerted effort to limit the event’s environmental impact.

When? Until January 8th

Trento's Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years.

Trento’s Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.

Milan

Throughout the month of December and into January, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo plays host to the city’s Christmas market, with almost 80 wooden huts popping up all over the main square.

Those who want to see Milan at its most Christmassy, however, will want to wait for the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (“How beautiful! How beautiful!” in local dialect) festive fair held in the area surrounding the city’s castle, Castello Sforzesco.

This sprawling, centuries-old market is held to coincide with the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, and is expected to take place as usual from December 7th-10th.

As a result of the energy crisis, Milan will turn on its Christmas lights two weeks later than usual this year, on December 7th – so you might want to time your visit accordingly if you want to witness the city’s illumination.

When? December 1st until January 6th (Piazza del Duomo market)

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021.

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Cernobbio, Como

Lake Como’s roving ‘Città dei balocchi‘ or ‘Toytown’ Christmas fair this year moves to Cernobbio, where visitors can expect to find the town’s Villa Erba park transformed into a winter wonderland.

Fairytale characters, singing trees and a talking tower will greet adults and children who enter the park, with admission free to all.

Festivities are due to kick off at 5pm on December 7th with the opening of Magic Light festival, a mesmerising light display with projections of moving images.

On December 8th – Italy’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which for many in Italy signals the start of the festive period – light displays on Cernobbio’s tree and in the old town will be switched on, heralding the arrival of Christmas.

When? December 7th until January 8th

Florence

Florence has a range of Christmas markets, but the largest and best-known is the one on Piazza Santa Croce in front of the beautiful Santa Croce Basilica.

It’s run by the organisers of the Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany, which means you can expect authentic bratwurst, stollen, Glühwein, lebkuchen biscuits and German beer, as well as Austrian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, French and Italian treats.

This one closes a full week before Christmas, so if you’re planning an Italy Christmas markets tour you might want to make Florence your first stop.

When? Until December 18th

Florence's Christmas market is German-themed.

Florence’s Christmas market is German-themed. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Verona

Like Florence, Verona’s Christmas market is a collaboration with that of a German city; in this case, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt.

At the main market on Piazza dei Signori you can expect to find sauerkraut, potatoes and German sausage, as well as fried donuts made with ricotta and coated in chocolate.

In addition to those on main square, the market stalls – which this year number some 100 huts – will fill Cortile del Mercato Vecchio and stretch intro surrounding squares and streets.

This year’s festive offering includes a Santa Claus house, a children’s train, two skating rinks, and a range of musical events.

Be sure to look out for the city’s famous 70m-high, 82m-long illuminated shooting star sculpture in Piazza Bra – installed in November and dismantled in January every year since 1984, the sight has become central to the Veronese Christmas experience.

When? Until December 26th

Salerno

Ensuring that Italy’s northern and central regions don’t get all of the glory, the Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) display in Salerno draws visitors from all over the world to this small city just east of the Amalfi coast.

This illuminated open-air exhibition runs the length of the main shopping street, up to the Christmas tree on Piazza Portanova, through the medieval city centre and up to the Villa Comunale public gardens.

Salerno’s Christmas market stalls occupy a stretch of the seafront, and this year will run from December 3rd-25th.

Accompanying the event will be a 55m-high ferris wheel, two jazz concerts, and a Santa Claus house (from December 10th to January 7th).

When? December 2nd until January 31st; Christmas market stalls December 3rd-25th.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
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