‘Capo in b tanta special’ in Trieste

As the tourist guide says: “Trieste is no longer a place to pass through to somewhere else. It’s its own destination.” How true!

The city is not all memories of a rich mercantile century with its extravagant fin-de-siècle architecture. If one goes to the old Roman theatre and takes the road above it one enters a most attractive area reminiscent of a typical Italian hill town. This is the Colle di San Giusto area and if you carry on walking up the steep slope you eventually reach San Giusto cathedral. But there’s lots to see on the way.

For example there’s the baroque church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

There’s the sweet little Romanesque church of San Silvestro alongside it which is now owned by the Valdensian religious community, one of the oldest protestant sects in existence. (There’s also a Valdensian church in Lucca in Galli-Tassi Street. Our choir-master is a member of that church.).

The San Giusto steep winding streets are a delight and so free of traffic.

Round a corner one comes across the Arco di Riccardo – a real ancient Roman arch. There are different theories why it is called’ Riccardo’. Perhaps because it’s a corruption of the Latin word ‘Cardo’ for main street.

It’s in this area that one comes across the fascinating James Joyce and Italo Svevo museum. It’s so sad that Svevo’s family house in Trieste was bombed in the last year of the war, There are, however, four personal items remaining including the bits of his library that remained:

And his violin.

Svevo’s friend Joyce, who encouraged him to continue writing again, had a good tenor voice and almost considered becoming a singer in Trieste. He accompanied himself on the guitar. I often wonder whether the two ever played together. Guitar and violin is a very good combination and both Svevo and Joyce loved going to the music theatre. Indeed, one of Joyce’s poetry collections is called ‘chamber music.’

The museum is well documented and the curator was very helpful. We shared some photographs of Charlton Church lane where Svevo (or Ettore Schmitz as he was really called) lived when managing his father-in-law’s marine paint factory specially set up in London to supply the British navy.

It’s odd how James Joyce came to Trieste to escape from the constricting family life of Dublin and how Italo Svevo was so happy to come to London and get away from his claustrophobic in-laws in Trieste. As they say the grass is always greener….

Which reminds me that Trieste is also Europe’s coffee capital and ‘La Stella Polare is one caffé where the great litterateurs would meet up and chat over their cups of ‘gocciato’ (Triestine for coffee with a drop of milk in the centre) or perhaps they drank a ‘capo in b’ (an espresso served in a very small glass – B = bicchierino). Remember too that one doesn’t ask for a ‘cappuccino’ in Trieste, it’s ‘caffelatte’ instead (certainly not that ghastly London concoction called ‘latte’ in the UK). I go for a ‘capo in b tanta special’ which is an espresso served in a glass with hot milk and lots of foam and topped with some cocoa powder. Who knows what way Svevo and Joyce enjoyed best their caffé to be served to them? Understandably the young waiter didn’t know!

(Alexandra having her ‘capo in b tanta special’ at Joyce and Svevo’s favourite caffè ‘Stella Polare’).

 

 

 

Love of Literature in Mediaevalle

UFor lovers of literature and poetry there are two unmissable events today in our part of the world. The first is at 5 pm at Shelley House, Bagni di Lucca. It’s the presentation of Enrico Botta’s book, Mal-aria D’Africa, which has been produced by Luca and Rebecca’s publishing house Cinque Marzo.

(Enrico Botta)

Who is Enrico Botta? He’s a Viareggio director and known to the public for his musical ‘Snow White’ and ‘Aenigma’ with Antonio Casanova. Mal-aria D’Africa is Enrico’s first novel and the title clearly alludes to the disease, literally meaning ‘bad air’, a contagion which once proliferated over marshland areas like the Italian Maremma. The novel is about a young entertainer who travels to Africa and, in particular to the beautiful lands of Kenya. Here he becomes seriously ill. Meanwhile an actor thousands of miles away in Milan puts on a replica of the entertainer’s last show. The two events are thus bound together in a strange parallel universe: Italy and Africa.

Regrettably I won’t be able to attend this presentation since a friend and member of that heavenly vocal group Stereotipi who have done so much, through their school and performances, to raise musical standards in our part of the world, Lia Salotti, is, at the same time, arranging a presentation of a book of poems written by her mother Ivana Domenici.

The appointment with poetry is also this Saturday at 5.00 pm in the hall of the former Convent of the Oblate in Borgo a Mozzano. Present will be the poet Ivana Domenici who teaches history at Borgo a Mozzano’s school Borgo a Mozzano.

The book is published by Ama Ducci and enriched with illustrations by Mirco Martinelli. It brings together some forty poems that retrace the author’s life: feelings and emotions and moments. The event will be presented by Gabriele Matraia and Maria Teresa Malerbi, while actors Valentina Gianni and Federico Barsanti will read selections from the book. There’s also going to be a musical accompaniment with Martino Biondi, guitar, Lia Salotti, violin, and Serena Salotti, voice.

I’m so glad that literature, especially, is alive and kicking in the Lucchesia – which reminds me that my  own humble effort will soon see the light of the world after the success of my volume ‘Septet’, publshed last year (See https://books.google.it/books/about/Septet.html?id=4vHRjwEACAAJ&redir_esc=y )

 

 

 

 

Yielding Mothers

A new series of book presentations and literary encounters has started at Bagni di Lucca’s Shelley House run by Luca and Rebecca. ‘Madri a rendere’ (‘Yielding mothers’) is Beatrice Tauro’s first novel and publication with Cinquemarzo, Luca and Rebecca’s publishing house. The novel tells the story of four women who were friends at university but subsequently lost sight of each other. They find themselves again after ten years and spend a weekend together. During this time memories and regrets are brought up and the four women compare and contrast each other’s’ lives. What is common to the quartet is that each one has made profound decisions which challenge contemporary social stereotypes.

It would be labelling to call ‘Madri a Rendere’ a feminist novel since the term itself is passé and relates to a previous phase in the evolution of female identity but it certainly focuses on essential women’s topics. The chapter headings: ‘Anna, psychology and solitude’, ‘Cecilia, chaos and maternity’, ’Francesca wealth and unhappiness’, Helen Ego and instinct’, give some indication of the topics discussed in the hundred pages of this brief but equally condensed work.

Beatrice Tauro was born in the heart of Abruzzo but, aged nineteen, moved to Rome. She loves travel and cross-cultural encounters. What’s particularly interesting for me is that Beatrice keeps a blog called ‘con altre parole’ (in other words’) where she talks about the Arab and Islamic world through the words of western writers. You can find out more on this aspect of the author’s interest by visiting http://arabpress.eu/author/beatrice-tauro/. There’s also a facebook page on the book at https://www.facebook.com/madriarendere/

(Beatrice Tauro (left) in conversation with Rebecca Palagi at Shelley House, Bagni di Lucca) 

There are further valuable literary encounters planned at Shelley House. Here is the programme for this year so far:

 

 

 

 

Svizzero’s Greatest Guest

One of Bagni di Lucca’s Hotel Svizzero’s greatest guests (both in mind and in girth) was Alexandre Dumas Senior – he of the ‘Three Musketeers’ and so many other swashbuckling romances. Rumour has it that the hotel’s front entrance had to be enlarged to admit the author’s  waistline into the entrance lobby. I wonder if his bed had to be strengthened as well…

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Further distinguished guests have stayed at the hotel including a dear Irish friend. Regrettably, the hotel suffered decadence and has been for some time excluded from the tourist industry.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this garish sign the other day in front of it. The gates were equally painted with a brash turn of violet. The hotel, however, remained its usual neglected self. Just at that moment a very-well preserved veteran of hotel ownership in Bagni di Lucca turned up and I asked him what was going to happen to the Svizzero. He, too, seemed in the blue (or violet) about it.

Let’s hope that something positive happens to this building which has hosted such celebrities in that past and occupies such a central position in the road surrounding the town’s public gardens.

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As a matter of tittle-tattle Alexandre Dumas was the son of a white Frenchman and an African slave woman from Haiti. Napoleon appointed him as a general and Dumas’ latest book, ‘The Last Cavalier’, was only rediscovered and published in 2005. As with all his other productions it became an instant best seller.

Dumas wrote voluminously. A regrettably deceased friend of mine Robin Buss, had the task of translating ‘The three musketeers’ – he almost had to move out of his home since his translation proofs seemed to occupy half of his floor space! Last but not least, Dumas had over forty mistresses (though not all at the same time I hasten to add). His personal life was, therefore, as energetic as the plots of the wonderfully adventurous books he wrote.

Most important of all, Alexandre Dumas played an essential part in the Italian Risorgimento founding a patriotic paper called ‘Indipendente’ there. At the very least, the comune of Bagni di Lucca should erect a plaque on the hotel where Dumas relaxed during his summer holidays (and probably had a few more liaisons amoureuses with some of the local ladies).

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Incidentally, Dumas was only interred in the Pantheon, that hallowed temple of French greats, as recently as 2002. It was a victory for all those who abhor racism in this world – Dumas was a literary Obama of his time.

As then president Chirac said when the great author’s ashes met their final resting place: “With you, we were D’Artagnan, Monte Cristo, or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles–with you, we dream.”

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PS One of Alexandre’s illegitimate sons was the author of that wonderful novella ‘La Dame Aux Camélias’ which inspired Verdi’s opera ’La Traviata.’

 

A Sua Immagine

How many of you like the name you were given by your parents? How many of you would like to change it? I know at least one person, now no longer resident here, whose name was identical to that of a famous violet-eyed actress until she changed it to an American Indian one.

I am quite happy with my name except when it’s spelt incorrectly. Francis is me; Frances is my hypothetical sister. It’s so much easier in Italian with ‘Francesco’ and ‘Francesca’. Having said this, I was known at work as ‘Frank’ – a useful distinction separating my private social life from my public work persona.

I’m also happy with the person who first bore my name. He started off as a dissolute happy-go-lucky ladies’ man with an ample store of sometimes naughty troubadour songs which he sang in perfect southern French romance tongue. Everything seemed to go well for him: wine, women, song and plenty of money –if he joined his dad’s merchant business.

Unfortunately, however, for his family (and certainly for his women) he had a lightning revelation which contrasted the pampered life he was leading with the life he felt truly called to follow. Literally stripping himself naked before his father, he finished up poorer than anyone could remember. Emaciated by mortification and suffering, filthy with sores and embracing those with leprotic pustules, considered ripe for the madhouse by one half, yet considered ripe for sainthood by the other half, unwilling or unable to take control of the new movement he had inspired and still today the subject of debate both scholarly and street-wise. A family acquaintance, Zeffirelli himself, confessed to us that he felt near to complete disgust at his hero’s total lack of self-regard when making that iconic film on him: ‘Frate Sole, Sorella Luna.’

I do not need to tell you the name of the Poverello except to state that his name etymologically means ‘from France’ – in particular, southern France, that ’Provence’ redolent of post-classical romance and spirituality. Indeed, Francis used chivalric images of courtly love to woo his Lady Poverty and his Sister Chastity. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways with a language taken from such sources as Guillaume de Lorris’ so-very influential Roman de la Rose. Francis was truly spirituality’s greatest troubadour.

At the same time Francis overturned the conventions of courtly love – turned perfumed roses into gardens of thorns, kissed puss-filled cheeks rather than white-powdered ones, found joy (Letizia – what a wonderful chapter that is in his fioretti) in howling storm-ridden wastelands rather than cossetted inns, sang the delights of plain water to that of rich wines (something more of us should do) and, above all (and not at all self-consciously), modelled his life on that of Christ itself.

Italy is filled with the great Franciscan churches with their very particular architecture. No aisles for these monumental buildings but, rather, huge barn-like structures like that of San Francesco so excellently restored in Lucca (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/magisterial-monastery/ on the reopening of this extraordinary building): barnlike because the emphasis was on congregation, togetherness, simplicity and, above all, preaching.

Borgo a Mozzano has its own gem-like example of a Franciscan convent complete with aisleless church and cloisters (from claustrum, meaning an enclosed space apart from the turmoil of the world) connecting the spiritual centre to its practical subsidiaries such as the refectory, the chapter house, the dormitory and the workshops and cellars.

 

The Borgo convent was built in 1523 by a member of the order of Frati Minori (friars minor), the new order founded by Saint Francis, on a hill overlooking Borgo a Mozzano. The original Observants sold it to the Reformed friars of the same order around 1597. (Sadly even petty schism are prevalent in these orders – witness Friar Leo…).The monastery has a beautiful view of the town below, a large vegetable garden with a pergola bedecked with kiwi fruits and is surrounded by a deep forest of oaks. Entering the sweet loggia, which has a chapel on its right, one finds an old cloister, with spacious arches, and twenty nine lunettes painted by Domenico Manfredi of Camaiore illustrating scenes of Saint Francis’ life in chronological, clockwise order. The centre of the cloisters has a well built by Raphael of Controni in 1551.  The cloister area is particularly picturesque at Christmas time when a life-size crib is set up.

The history of the lunettes was that of gradual deterioration due to the elements. When the friars sold the convent in 1983 to the voluntary Misericordia association, which caters for the sick and dying by offering medical assistance and ambulance services (in addition to running a very well appointed rest-home) the priority was to adapt the buildings for their new use as a place for the old and sick. Artistic niceties were relegated to second place. That is, until 2011 when generous assistance from such corporations as the Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca sponsored the restoration of the lunettes, all of which apart from five are now restored to their full splendour.

Here is an example of a lunette before restoration.

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And here is another, reinstated as close to its original colours as possible according to the now prevalent rules of conservative restoration.

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The twenty nine lunettes have occupied the mind of eminent classicist and hagiographist Christopher Stace for some time ever since he showed them to a Franciscan friar friend of his. Eventually, this interest resulted in a book which Stace modestly calls a guide book but which, in its details and profound research, become rather more than that. In a sense Christopher has invented a new literary genre which could be termed ‘the educated guidebook’.

The presentation of the book, ‘A Sua Immagine’, ‘In His Image’ (yes it’s written in both English and Italian and alludes indirectly to that fine RAI religious programme in addition, of course, to underlining the fact that Saint Francis’ life became increasingly interpreted as a mirror image of that of Christ himself) was the occasion of an extremely pleasant and learned (yes, the two can go together in the right hands!) afternoon at the Convent of Saint Francis. Published by the prestigious Lucchese publishing house of Maria Pacini Fazzi Editore, it is a snip at just twenty euros for over two hundred pages of fine writing and beautiful illustrations. The good thing, too, is that proceeds will go to the Fraternità di Misericordia of Borgo a Mozzano. (I still have with delight the book on the Misericordia by Leonilda Marchesini Rondina, mother of the noted architect and of the musician, with her sweet dedication to me and Sandra.)

The presentation was well organised with interventions by Fr William Short, ofm (order of the friars minor) and professor of Spirituality at the Franciscan college of San Luis Rey in California, who inspired the author to write the book, Fr Fortunato Lozzelli ofm, the energetic new mayor of Borgo a Mozzano, Patrizio Andreuccetti, the ‘Governatore della Misericordia’ Gabriele Brunini and, of course, the author himself. I wish more time had been given to the restoration techniques used in the lunettes under the direction of Lorenzo Lanciani but the book will amply describe that essential aspect of the revaluation of the lunettes.

The main corpus of the guidebook deals with a description and explanation of each of the lunettes. What is particularly significant here is the part that the book De Conformitate Vitae Beati Francesci et Vitam Domini Jesu (how the life of Saint Francis conforms to the life of Christ) by as yet untranslated author Bartolomeo da Pisa (although we are promised a translation by the prof.) influenced the depictions of the frescoes which, it must be remembered, served an especially important purpose at a time when even many potentates were illiterate. (Charlemagne for example, confessed that he couldn’t ‘get the hang of’ reading and writing!)

At the same time, the lunettes are not a cartoon exposition of the life of the ‘little poor one’. If we are looking for assured news facts this is not the place to find them. Indeed, for several of the incidents the sources are dubious to say the least. The point is that the scenes depicted in the lunettes have a symbolic, moral and eschatological significance which overrides any merely factual event. I like to compare this technique with that used by, for example, painters like David particularly in flamboyantly showing Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps.  The Italians are particularly good at this melodramatic, metaphorical way of displaying events. Indeed, when anything came to resemble real life too closely the painter would be chastised. The example of Caravaggio comes to mind when he had to paint two versions of the crucifixion of St Peter because in the first version Peter looked too much like a peasant (which, as a fisherman he clearly had an affinity with).

Nevertheless, there are charming domestic features of the lunettes as in number thirteen depicting Francis’s version of the multiplying of the loaves.  The four Gospels here refer to five loaves and two fish. I can’t see any fish here – perhaps the rather well-fed cat, suckling in turn its own young, in the centre of the refectory has already eaten them! I would suggest that was a good reward for an animal without whose help rather less bread would have been able to be baked due to the scourge of mice so common in mediaeval granaries. Incidentally, although Francis loved animals (and famously preached to the birds) I don’t think he had a particular penchant for cats. One of ours has just brought me the present of a gold-finch which I had to save from its ferocious claws and allow it to fly once more into the blue ethereal sky.

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There was no shortage of comestibles after the book’s presentation. The Arcadian gardens of the monastery were completed by tables replete with both savoury and honeyed goodies with plenty of liquids to wash them down. No event in Italy is complete without a rinfresco. Indeed, the rinfresco is a sort of bribe for all good adult children to pay attention to the speeches in order to obtain their foody rewards! I’m sure the attention of the audience was high enough to guarantee them a well-deserved reward. But then the subject was so interesting and the company I was with so worthwhile to be with.

I was truly in my element with my brilliant artist, restorer and archaeologist friends and with the subject so eloquently and, at the same time, so entertainingly written about by prof. Stace.

PS I seem to have written rather a lot on the convent of San Francesco a Borgo a Mozzano, especially on its music, its altars and its restorations. Here are a few of my posts if you still want to know more:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/good-news-at-borgo-a-mozzano/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/duo-debut-deraco/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/brothers-and-sisters-of-mercy/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/how-to-get-rid-of-nuisance-demons/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/wholly-santinis/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/just-a-perfect-day/

Etc. etc.

Shelley at the House Plus an Australian

Shelley House’s programme of week-end events continues apace. Thanks to the efforts of its proprietors Luca and Rebecca and the support of the comune, together with the assembly of writers that live in its vicinity, Bagni di Lucca will, no doubt, soon be crowned with the title town of poets.

Here is the current programme for May and the summer is filled with more literary events which I will post later.

Bagni di Lucca has already been summer home to many previous poets and authors from all corners of Europe. Just to take a few examples: there’s Heine from Germany, Montaigne from France, Pascoli and D’Annunzio from its own homeland and Shelley, Byron and the Brownings from England.

Shelley and Byron became friends on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 where Shelley’s second wife, nineteen year old Mary, wrote that spine-chilling novel Frankenstein (with a little help from her husband, it should be stated). They met again in Italy and both stayed at Bagni di Lucca (though not at the same time).

Robert Browning fully recognized Shelley’s stature as a supreme lyric poet and celebrated him in his early collection of poems Pauline, published in 1833.

Is there any other connection between the triad of poets consisting of Byron, Shelley and Browning apart from Browning’s Pauline and a posthumous respect?

Fascinatingly there is and one has to go to Australia to find it. In 1815 Byron published his Hebrew melodies to considerable acclaim. The melodies include one beautiful poem which has become particularly well-known:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes.

The Hebrew melodies were published in two editions: one with the lyrics but without the music, the other with both lyrics and music – an edition that has become something of a rarity.

Who wrote the music? The father of Australian music himself, Isaac Nathan. Born in Canterbury, UK in 1790 Nathan was a music teacher, music publisher and opera composer. In 1815 he collaborated with Byron in his first major success, the Hebrew Melodies which adapted ancient Jewish chants to Byron’s lyrics.

Nathan wrote several books on music including the Essay on the History and Theory of Music and On the Qualities, Capabilities and Management of the Human Voice. This last so captivated Robert Browning that he chose Nathan as his music teacher and declared that he’d never had such a good vocal mentor in his life. It would have been most interesting to have had a recording of Browning singing. Evidently, he had a very good voice.

In 1841 Isaac Nathan hit financial difficulties forcing him to emigrate to Australia. There he became choirmaster of St Mary’s cathedral, Sydney and composed many songs including Australia wide and free in 1842. Nathan also composed Australia’s first opera ‘Merry freaks in troublous times’ in 1843.

Isaac Nathan was also a pioneering ethnomusicologist and transcribed the first collection of aboriginal music including Koorinda Braia.

Max Bruch now enters into the connection. The German composer, famous for his lovely first violin concerto (whose popularity he came to loathe), also composed the elegiac Kol Nidrei based on two Jewish chants, the second of which was composed by Isaac Nathan for Byron’s Hebrew Melodies.

‘Only Connect’, as E. M. Forster famously wrote in his preface to Howard’s End. It’s a little astonishing that one has to go down under to find a person that connects the three great English poets who resided in Bagni di Lucca, Shelley, Byron and Browning plus the German composer who became chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra. But that’s yet another story….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s to Will!

Today is the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

shakespeare

The great poet and playwright is part of the life-blood of any person brought up in an English-speaking culture.

It’s not just the amazing variety in Shakespeare’s plays that continually captures us. Our greatest writer enriched the English language with over one thousand seven hundred new words he invented and that we now commonly use. Here’s just a few from A to H. What would we do without them!

  • accommodation
  • aerial
  • amazement
  • apostrophe
  • assassination
  • auspicious
  • baseless
  • bloody
  • bump
  • castigate
  • changeful
  • clangour
  • control (as noun)
  • countless
  • courtship
  • critic
  • critical
  • dexterously
  • dishearten
  • dislocate
  • dwindle
  • eventful
  • exposure
  • fitful
  • frugal
  • generous
  • gloomy
  • gnarled
  • hurry

I was, fortunately, brought up enjoying (rather than enduring) Shakespeare thanks to two of my Secondary school teachers. We queued up all night at the National Theatre (then at the Old Vic) to get tickets for ourselves and our English master for a performance of Larry Olivier as ‘Othello’. I don’t know whether we got better marks in our next essay but it just shows the devotion our teacher instilled in us for Shakespeare that, while he was sleeping comfortably in his bed, we were freezing on ‘The Cut’s’ pavements.

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‘Othello, the Moor of Venice’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ….. Shakespeare isn’t just about the finest writer of the English language. He’s also about Italy. No less than fourteen of his plays have scenes set in Italian cities and some plays are completely set in Italy.

I went through my complete Shakespeare and came up with the following Italian places:

ANZIO AND CORIOLI

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Coriolanus. Locations: Rome, Corioli and Antium.

 

FLORENCE

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All’s Well that Ends Well. Locations: Rousillon, Paris, Florence, and Marseilles.

 

MESSINA AND SICILY

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Much Ado about Nothing. Locations: Messina

The Winter’s Tale. Locations: Sicily and Bohemia.

 

MILAN

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Locations: Verona, Milan and Mantua.

 

PADUA

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The Taming of the Shrew. Locations: In Padua and in Petruchio’s villa in the country.

 

ROME

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Antony and Cleopatra. Locations: Parts of the Roman Empire including Rome.

Cymbeline. Locations: Britain, Italy.

Julius Caesar. Locations: Rome, Sardis and near Philippi.

Titus Andronicus Locations: Rome.

 

VENICE

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The Merchant of Venice. Locations: Partly in Venice, and partly at Belmont, the seat of Portia on the Continent.

Othello. Locations: Venice and a sea-port in Cyprus

Twelfth Night. Locations: A city in Illyria, and the nearby sea-coast. (The sea-coast of Illyria was then part of the Venetian Republic).

 

VERONA AND MANTUA

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Romeo and Juliet. (of course!)

Shakespeare set, either in part or exclusively in Italy, almost thirty eight percent, or well over a third, of his plays. No wonder so many Brits have grown up loving Italy. For the Italian settings of the plays cover some of the most beautiful cities in the peninsula.(I’m glad to say I’ve seen all of them except for Anzio and Corioli ).

Furthermore, if one takes away Shakespeare’s ten history plays which, by default, have to be set in English territory (once including northern France) then, out of the comedies, tragedies and romances, over half of Shakespeare’s plays have scenes in Italy: fourteen out of twenty-seven!

Why does Italy feature so prominently in Shakespeare’s plays?  I’m not a specialist but would imagine that the main reasons are that:

  1. The best stories came out of Italy. If Boccaccio inspired Chaucer then Shakespeare got most of his plot ideas from Italian writers who were particularly popular at the time.
  2. Placing settings in Italy got Shakespeare out of censorship trouble. He couldn’t be accused of making fun of certain powerful English lords, for example.
  3. Italians were considered an exotic, curious, devious, cunning, creative and passionate people. (They still are, I believe, in some quarters). There was plenty of opportunity to develop these characteristics in love and war – comedy and tragedy.
  4. Italy was considered to lead the world in fashion and art. (I still imagine it does to a great extent.) For example, in ‘Richard II’ the Duke of York condemns the King’s disregard of the nation’s crisis in favour of “reports of fashions in proud Italy whose manners still our tardy-apish nation limps after in base imitation”.

Now why doesn’t Bagni di Lucca feature in Shakespeare’s play settings? Surely it would have been famous as the town described by Michel de Montaigne in his travel book? (Shakespeare used Montaigne in ‘The Tempest’).  Slightly indirectly it does.

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In the film Shakespeare in Love, a young boy is feeding a live mouse to a cat. He is the young John Webster. Shakespeare asks Webster’s opinion on ‘Titus Andronicus’ (a really gory play with hands and tongues cut off). The boy replies “I like it when they cut the heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives… Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing.”

The real John Webster certainly developed a very macabre type of tragedy. One of his bloodiest products is “The Duchess of Malfi” (short for Amalfi near Naples) in which Cariola, the Duchess of Malfi’s maid, suggest to her when planning an escape (using the polite Italian third person form),” In my opinion, She were better progress to the baths at Lucca”. Later in the play, Daniele De Bosola, described as the ‘Gentleman of the Horse to the Duchess’, says sneeringly to old Castruccio and his old lady: “you two couple, and get you to the wells at Lucca to recover your aches.”

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I would give anyone a health warning if they haven’t seen or read the play. At least they could recover at Bagni di Lucca’s Terme if they live locally.

Our new bookshop and art gallery “Shelley House” celebrates the fact that Shelley lived in Bagni di Lucca when he first arrived in Italy in 1818. He was a passionate lover of Shakespeare and his play, ‘The Cenci’, set in Rome, is written in a neo-Shakespearian style.

Looking wider towards the Garfagnana and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana there is a direct connection between that area’s one-time governor, Ludovico Ariosto, and William Shakespeare. The story of Ariodante and Ginevra from Ariosto’s great epic poem Orlando Furioso forms a considerable part of the plot of Much Ado About Nothing.

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(Ludovico Ariosto 1474 -1533)

So whether you are lucky enough to live near the river Avon or just a few steps away from the river Lima or the river Serchio I hope you will raise a glass to the Bard (yes, I finally used that awful word) who loved and drew so much inspiration from la bella Italia and, some say, actually visited it. (Some Italians even believe that Shakespeare was Italian but I remain rather more patriotic.)