Shakespeare's Italy: Cities that inspired the world's most famous plays

"What news on the Rialto?" Shylock asks in The Merchant of Venice. And instantly we're transported to a world of intrigue, gossip, suspicion, prejudice and passion.

How "The Bard" loved Italy! 

To any budding playwright in Elizabethan England, Italy was box-office gold. Even the most illiterate drunkard in the Globe Theatre knew a play set in Italy would be salacious and sexy, featuring murder and mayhem.

So as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, let's remember that a third of all his 37 plays are set, at least in part, in Italia – even if in Elizabethan times, of course, it wasn't a united country but a colourful mosaic of city states.

There's no evidence Shakespeare ever set foot outside Britain – something often cited by conspiracy theorists who claim he was too poorly educated and too poorly travelled to have written such masterpieces. 

Yet all he needed was access to a good library, which we know he had (he hadn't been to Denmark either, but still managed to write Hamlet).

All of this came to mind recently when I found myself on a luxury tour of Italy that included Rome, Verona and Venice on the itinerary. By adding an extra day in Padua, I could visit four of Shakespeare's favourite Italian cities in a single trip in his anniversary year.

So what is there left for the modern Shakespeare enthusiast to see?

ROME

"Not that I loved Caesar less, but I loved Rome more" – Brutus explains to the Roman crowd his reason for killing Julius Caesar.

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Shakespeare set four plays partly in Ancient Rome – Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus, using Plutarch as his principal source. 

So obviously head for the Colosseum, Circus Maximus and the other spectacular remains of the imperial city.

If you're looking for the best free view of Ancient Rome, climb the majestic Cordonata stairs to Michelangelo's masterly Piazza del Campidoglio at the summit of the Capitoline Hill. If anything, the sight is even more breathtaking at night when the temples, colonnades, triumphal arches and forum are brilliantly illuminated.

In Shakespeare's version, Julius Caesar was murdered on the steps of the Roman Senate by conspirators including his friend Brutus, prompting his famous last words, "Et tu, Brute?"

Now we know differently. In 2012 archaeologists announced they had confidently identified  the real site of Caesar's death. It's in a square in the modern city, Largo di Torre Argentina, which also houses Pompey's Theatre and the remains of four Roman temples.

If you have time, it's also worth taking the A Metro line to spend an hour or two at Cinecitta, Rome's equivalent of Hollywood. Many films set in Ancient Rome were made here – including Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The couple also shot Franco Zefferilli's version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew at Cinecitta, and the costumes they wore in the 1967 movie are on display in the studio's permanent exhibition hall.

Cinecitta was also where the highly-regarded BBC/HBO TV series Rome was shot. Pay extra to take the backlot guided tour and you can visit the impressive set. What is particularly interesting is how colourful Ancient Rome was: the Romans really did paint their marble temples red and blue.

VERONA

"Two households, both alike in dignity/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene/From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." – Prologue to Romeo and Juliet.

Verona appears in two Shakespeare plays. Valentine and Proteus are The Two Gentlemen of Verona, believed to be his first attempt at drama. The action begins with Valentine leaving for Milan, and Proteus soon following him. So despite the play's title, there is little of Verona in it.

However, Romeo and Juliet changed the world's perception of the Veronese. The feud between the Montagues and the Capulets is Shakespeare's most popular work – and is estimated to draw about 6 million tourists to the city each year.

The story is based on a real blood feud. Dante first mentioned it in The Divine Comedy, published in 1320. And though Shakespeare's primary source was a poem by Arthur Brooke written in 1562, he could also have read translations of the three Italian versions of the story – by Masuccio Salernitano (1476), Luigi Da Porto (1530) and Matteo Bandello (1554).

Before Shakespeare, Verona was certainly not associated with romance. Yet there have been at least 43 film or TV adaptions of the play since the first movie version in 1908. Today Verona markets itself as "The City of Romeo and Juliet", and there are guided tours of  "Shakespeare's Verona" – including visits to Juliet's House, Romeo's House and Juliet's Tomb. 

Sadly, none of them is authentic. "Juliet's Balcony", for example, is a 1936 addition to a genuine 13th century home which – though marketed as Casa di Giulietta – has no connection to the Capulet family. That doesn't stop real people getting married on the balcony – or generations of lovers leaving heartfelt notes in the casa's courtyard, something captured in Letters to Juliet, the 2010 rom com.

PADUA

"For the great desire I had/To see fair Padua, nursery of arts, I am arrived for fruitful Lombardy/The pleasant garden of great Italy" – Lucentio, in The Taming of the Shrew.

Geography wasn't Shakespeare's strong point. Even in Elizabethan times Padua was never in Lombardy. But clearly the locals haven't taken offence because there's a plaque quoting those lines in Via dell'Accademia in Padua. The plot revolves around Baptista Minola, a Paduan father with two daughters. Younger Bianca can't be married before older Katherina, but what man could possibly tame such a shrew? Enter Petruchio - a brash young man from Verona who doesn't mind who he marries as long as she is rich. 

Shakespeare certainly describes Padua well. Lucentio, who eventually marries Bianca, is newly arrived to study at Padua's famous university. Founded in 1222, the University of Padua is the sixth-oldest in the world. It's most famous academic, Galileo Galilei, began as Padua's Professor of Mathematics in 1592 – around the same time the Englishman was writing "The Shrew". 

Certainly Padua is a "nursery of arts", renowned even in Elizabethan times for its wonderful frescoes by Giotto that decorate the Scrovegni Chapel. As for being "a pleasant garden", the city boasts the oldest Botanic Gardens in the world, now extended with the addition of Biodiversity Garden. The best-known film version is the one starring Burton and Taylor. Padua doesn't star in the film because it was shot at Cinecitta studios. 

VENICE

"Signor Antonio, many a time and oft/In the Rialto you have rate me/About my moneys and my usances/Still have I borne it with a patient shrug/For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe."  Shylock, addressing Antonio, The Merchant of Venice.

Two of The Bard's greatest plays are set in Venice – and both deal with racial prejudice. The Merchant of Venice was written first, probably between 1596-98. Of all the cities where Shakespeare set his plays, Venice is probably the least changed. Even in Elizabethan times it was known for its canals, its gondolas, its churches and its Jewish ghetto. 

Much of the action takes place around the Rialto, still the main gathering place of the city.  Then the bridge was made of wood rather than the familiar stone arch we know today, but as it was the only bridge over the Grand Canal in Shakespeare's day, the Rialto was even more the commercial focus of the city than it is in the 21st century.

By the time the play was written, Venice had become the first city in the world to force its Jewish citizens to live in a ghetto. Indeed the very term is Venetian. "Geto" was the word for foundry, and was therefore the name given to the industrial area of Venice (near today's railway station) where cannons were made and the celebrated glass industry was based.

When it was decided that the fire risk to the larger city was too great to allow the furnaces to carry on belching so close to what (even in Renaissance times) was expensive real estate, Geto became the enclave where all Venetian Jews were forced to live from 1516.

So this is where Shylock and his beautiful daughter Jessica live in the play, despite Shylock's obvious wealth. 

The Jews rebuilt their houses and their synagogues, their bakeries and their sewing businesses inside the ghetto. Yet each sunset the Jews were locked up behind the heavy gates manned by Christian guards (paid for by the Jewish inhabitants) before being allowed out again at sunrise.

But as the population of the Venetian ghetto grew – about 5000 by the time The Merchant of Venice was written – the ghetto stretched skywards. In some cases, the houses are seven storeys high: laying claim to be the world's first skyscrapers.

Today there are only 2000 Jews in Venice, and of course they can dwell anywhere they choose. Still, many live in what is now called Venice's "Jewish District".

It's a lovely part of Venice to visit. Relatively quiet and spacious, gathered around two "squares" – and with its own museum, the Museo Communita Ebraica.

But what of Othello? The infamous "Moor" who killed his faithful wife Desdemona, having had his jealousy fuelled by the villainous Iago? The Rialto figures in that play, too.

"The true Othello", according to Venetian mythology, was the former Doge, Cristoforo Moro, who lies with his wife in a tomb at the church of San Giobbe. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.italia.it/en/home.html

GETTING THERE

Emirates/Qantas operate daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Rome and Venice via Dubai. See www.emirates.com or www.qantas.com  .

TRAVELLING THERE

Rome, Verona and Venice are included on a 12-day Ultimate Italy trip by Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations from $7325 a person. It includes 11 nights in outstanding accommodation, six evening meals including a Michelin-starred dinner on the Isle of Capri, a Tuscan cooking demonstration, an exclusive behind-the-scenes visit to the Uffizi Gallery's private Vasari Corridor in Florence, and access to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel before it opens to the general public. Also included are VIP airport transfers, special sightseeing opportunities and the services of a travelling concierge. See www.insightvacations.com/luxurygold or phone 1800 001 771.

Padua is easily reached from Venice by train. The journey takes 40 minutes, and costs from $14.

Steve Meacham travelled as guest of Insight Vacations.

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