Italian’s Most Famous Lovers

Italian's Most Famous Lovers

Romeo e Giulietta
Romeo & Juliet

The legendary lovers Romeo and Juliet may have actually lived in Verona and died there in 1303. The oldest known written version of their fate dates back to 1476, when Masuccio Salernitano (named for his home town of Salerno) recounted the story of two star-crossed lovers named Mario and Gianozza of Siena in Il Novellino. The author swore “heaven to witness, that the whole of them (his novelle or stories) are a faithful narrative of events occurring during his own times.”

A more stylistically sophisticated writer, Luigi da Porto (1485-1529), renamed the lovers Romeus (later Romeo) and Giulietta in his Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (Newly found History of Two Noble Lovers), published about 1530. He relocated the tale to Verona and created the characters of the garrulous nurse, Mercutio, Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Paris.

Da Porto insisted that he had heard the story as a soldier in Friuli from one of his archers as they marched along a desolate road. Da Porto ends his account with a dramatic twist: Romeo, discovering Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body, drinks a vial of poison and wraps his arms around her-just as her sleeping potion wears off.

Juliet, realizing that it is too late to counter the poison he swallowed, beats her breast, tears her hair, throws herself upon Romeo, all but drowns him in tears, and imprints desperate kisses on his lips. “Must I live a moment after you?” she cries.

Romeo, already dead in Shakespeare’s script, begs her to live, as does Friar Laurence. Then in a made-for-the-spotlights moment, Juliet, “feeling the full weight of her irreparable loss in the death of her noble husband, resolute to die, draws in her breath and retaining it for some time, suddenly utters a loud shriek and falls dead by her lover’s side.”

The British writer Arthur Brooke translated the Italian tales into English verse in 1562; William Painter retold the story in prose in 1582. Shakespeare plucked his plot from these translations when he wrote his play in 1595-96.

In all versions, the hatred that had torn the couple’s families apart dissolves in the mingled blood of their dead children. Shakespeare’s final lines seemed the last word on the tearful tale: “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” But last year the city fathers of Juliet’s home town added a whole new twist.

As part of a “Sposami a Verona” (Marry Me in Verona) campaign, the fabled balcony in the casa di Giuletta (Juliet’s home) is now available for the exchange or renewal of wedding vows. Another thoroughly modern option is the promessa d’amore (promise of love), a symbolic ceremony for “le coppie non sposate che desiderano semplicemente dichiararsi il proprio sentimento sul balcone più famoso al mondo” (unmarried couples who simply want to declare their true feelings on the most famous balcony in the world).

What would Shakespeare say?

Adapted from La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language.

Words and Expressions

amore vietato — forbidden love
amare una donna alla follia — to love a woman to distraction (to be madly in love with a woman)
un amore appassionato — a passionate/fervent love
“Oh Romeo, Romeo? perché sei tu Romeo?” — “Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
“Il pericolo è più nei tuoi occhi che non in venti delle loro spade: se mi guardi con dolcezza, sarò forte contro il loro odio.” — “Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords! Look thou but sweet, and I am proof against their enmity.”

Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enduring Language. A widely published, award-winning freelance journalist, Dianne has served as a con ...read more

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