Saturday, 9 March 2013

Did William Shakespeare visit Italy?

I've been reading parts of “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy” online. This book argues that some local knowledge in Shakespeare's Italian plays was only available to someone who actually saw Venice, Verona, Mantua, Padua and Milan.

For example, Shakespeare uses the local Venetian word for "canal boats" in The Merchant of Venice. There is knowledge of the lay-out of Padua and a medieval church in The Taming of the Shrew, which is actually Chiesa di San Luca (St Luke's). Its facade today is more modern, but it is a medieval building. It stands today, near a network of canals which enabled people to reach Milan by water and boat, from Padua. These canals are still traceable reaching right across the patchwork of fields of the Po Valley.  

I quote just one example, using a text in "The Taming of the Shrew". The speaker Lucentio, a suitor of Bianca, arrives in Padua from Pisa. What he says about his journey sounds like nonsense.  It is this kind of reference that convinced scholars that Shakespeare had never visited to Italy. 

Since for the desire I had
To see fair Padua, nursery of the arts, 
I am arriv’d for fruitful Lombardy, 
The pleasant garden of great Italy.

Padua is not in Lombardy. The real meaning, proposed in this book, is that there is a printing error and that “for” means “from”. The final text was not checked by the playwright before publication as there are other mistakes. If so, Lucentio has arrived from Lombardy. 

If we assume that Lucentio has taken the road from Pisa, on the west coast, to the River Po at Ostiglia, which stands at the southern most point of Lombardy, it makes more sense. Ostiglia was a major river port on the extensive canal system, which linked the major cities of northern Italy, including Milan, which Shakespeare says is navigable from the sea. 

Lucentio would have taken a canal boat from Ostiglia, using a canal cut through the fields to Legnago on the River Adige. Canals would then have carried him to the heart of Padua, arriving at a quay in the city near the Chiesa di San Luca on the modern Via XX Septembre.

The author, Richard Roe, believes that a section of this ancient canal system, used in the past for trading goods, is today only missing between Legnago and Ostiglia. However, I can clearly see a canal on "Google Earth" between these two towns. It is very narrow but it still cuts across the most densely patterned and cultivated fields around the Po. 

So why does Shakespeare say that Lombardy is "the pleasant garden of Italy" and very fertile?  This is not a commonly held concept in Italy today, except in relation to the plain of the River Po. Its robust fertility can be seen in the tightly-packed and intricate field system on Google Earth. Today, many parts of northern Lombardy are industrialised. Areas like Brianza, near Milan, famous in the time of St Augustine who holidayed there in the 3rd century AD for its fertility, are now famous for furniture not for their produce from the earth. 

But the Po Valley, in southern Lombardy, is widely recognised as being very fertile. So does Shakespeare's text make sense?  I think it does and that it entirely fits with his own eye and habitual interests. It also reflects how all his characters are "a part of himself".  They are, after all, fellow poets.

I now believe Shakespeare makes Lucentio say this:

“I have travelled to architecturally beautiful Padua, longing to see this city which nurtured, like a nurse, the originality of the poet, Petrarch, and the painter Giotto, who were highly prized here. I came by canal boat on an artificial canal network, cut through the intensive market gardens of southern Lombardy in the Po Valley. This area is wonderfully fertile and pleasant! Indeed, the region could be called the kitchen garden of great Italy".

It is the kind of thought Shakespeare might have put on a postcard home, if he had been to Italy. How would he know this, if they had not been there? 

These thoughts, too, reflect several of William Shakespeare's favourite themes and personal interests, such as: 

the patronage of the arts in architecturally lovely Italy; poets and poetry; natural beauty; fertility; plants useful to man in place of rank weeds; fruitful husbandry of the soil as opposed to barbarism and waste;  kitchen gardening; Northern Italian painters who enjoyed noble patronage.

As a result, I am ordering this book today from the library. 

More to come, in due course.....

“The Shakespeare Guide to Italy” by Richard Paul Roe

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