Italy in Shakespeare

Italy in Shakespeare – Anglo-Italian artistic and cultural interaction and the illustrative travel itineraries and literary accompaniments they inspired.

The Italian Renaissance of the 13th to 16th century established the cultural importance of Italy throughout Europe, and the impact of Italian fashions in art, literature and personal adornment was particularly pervasive. The Italian Renaissance in essence triggered similar artistic and cultural movements on the continent and in the British Isles. The fledgling ‘English Renaissance’ drew heavily on Italian stories, settings and artistic styles to form its own output. William Shakespeare was no exception; he was just one playwright and poet who utilised the considerable output of his Italian predecessors who were, in turn, heavily influenced by Graeco-Roman traditions.

“Romeo: Thou maw detestable, thou womb of death,

Gorg’d with the dearest morsel of the earth,

Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,

[breaking open the monument]

And, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food.”

 romeo and juliet Oxford 1770

The tomb of Juliet is the location for many of the final scenes in the tragic climax ofRomeo and Juliet. This setting appears to have been particularly attractive to the audience of this particular play and it was chosen for the frontispiece in the multi-volume collection of Shakespeare’s plays published in Oxford in 1770 (left) and was represented, although fictional, in collections of etchings depicting scenes of Italy and other states for example by I.E.A. Dolby in his Italy, Switzerland & Belgium: A series of original drawings on stone (right), published in London in 1836.

juliet's tomb dolby 1836  

This etching and the accompanying travel advice appears to depict a rather opportunistic tourist opportunity: ‘Within the court of a suppressed convent, situate [sic] about a mile from the town, is exhibited the sarcophagus of Juliet; it is composed of red marble, the edges of which have been broken away by numerous visitors, and borne off as trophies of romantic interest.’ The account is incredibly detailed and even recommends meeting with the gardener who can, presumably for a fee, show you the spot where the sarcophagus was disinterred and the nocturnal route that the unfortunate hero took; he can even describe in ‘melancholy detail […] the calamitous events attending the tragic end of the ill-fated lovers.’

petrarch's house ar arqua by prout 1833

Plays aside, Shakespeare is often known for his 154 sonnets. Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch) was a great influence on Renaissance European poetry, and although he was not the first ‘sonneteer’ he was certainly the most influential early exponent of this poetic form. The word sonnet derives from the Italian ‘sonneto’, little song. Petrarch apparently remained culturally relevant after his death and his house (which one can still visit today), was considered important enough to include in a book of engravings circa 450 years after his death (Figure 3). The book was aimed at a literary audience and was intended to be an accompaniment to the literary works that discussed Italy, in this context then it is not surprising to see represented, the house of an important Italian Renaissance scholar and poet.

frontispiece othello oxford 1770‌ 

Venice is well represented in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and plays such as Othello and The Merchant of Venice were just part of an artistic fascination with the city, a cultural melting pot and naval super power. Illustrations of Venice make up a large proportion of the ‘views’ presented in both the ‘travel guide/itinerary’ and the ‘literary accompaniment’ (Figure 5), and the former has this to say: ‘We entered Venice at mid-day, when the richly wrought faces of her marble palaces gleamed in the broad sun, and the brilliant reflection on her still-waters, was alone broken by the breathless course of the dreamy gondola gliding onward like […].’‌

ducal palace at venice by prout

 

Figure 1 – Frontispiece to Romeo and Juliet – The Works of William Shakespear [sic] Vol. 6. Oxford: 1770.

Figure 2 – Stone Etching of Juliet’s Tomb, Verona – Dolby, I.E.A. Italy, Switzerland & Belgium: A series of original drawings on stone. London: 1836.

Figure 3 – Petrarch’s House at Arqua - Prout, S. One Hundred and Four Views of Switzerland and Italy, Adapted to Illustrate Byron, Rogers, Eustace, and Other Works on Italy. London: 1833.

Figure 4 – Frontispiece to Othello – The Works of William Shakespear [sic] Vol. 6. Oxford: 1770.

Figure 5 – The Ducal Palace in Venice - Prout, S. One Hundred and Four Views of Switzerland and Italy, Adapted to Illustrate Byron, Rogers, Eustace, and Other Works on Italy. London: 1833.

[Tom Derrick]