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?
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.