VERONA, Italy – Are we sitting where they sat?
“Why not?” says my friend, Aurelio, nothing if not a romantic. “Right here, I’ll bet . . . those two love-buggy kids, Juliet and Romeo.”
She pats the weathered-gray tier of Verona’s ancient Roman Colosseum-style stadium called the Arena, an imposing pen that has witnessed gladiatorial contests and innumerable other diversions during its 20 centuries. “I picture them holding hands. Nuzzling, and commiserating about their dorky parents.”
“Ah, those hometown stir-fried lovers of the 13th century, Signorina Capulet and Signor Montague,” I acknowlege her enthusiasm.
” ‘Star-crossed lovers,’ I believe Mr. Shakespeare called them,” Aurelio replies, frowning. “Long time ago, but they’re still the eternally hot couple.”
Indented by generations of bottoms, the stone pews remain in use today in an oval that holds 22,000 customers, usually for the summer opera season. Most likely both Gounod and Prokofiev’s operas, “Romeo and Juliet,” played here as well as Leonard Bernstein’s sing-off, “West Side Story.”
You enter one of the stadium’s numerous archways that face Piazza Bra at the center of town, climb a stairway that opens onto the field, and pick a spot in the sun among 44 rows. Every seat in this ampitheater of red brick and amber stone offers good, though hard-rock, viewing. Like Harvard’s stadium, it is for the firm of fanny.
Aurelio has her own theories. “Here’s what happened with those two: “Juliet and Romeo meet here at a horse race, in a line where they’re cashing winning tickets. She says, ‘This is my lucky day,’ and he says, ‘Mine, too.’ Introducing himself, he says, ‘Why don’t we meet again? Same place tomorrow, for the Verona Derby?’
“By then they’re sitting together, cuddling and cooing. Although they blow their school lunch money on a spavined long-shot called Love In Bloom – a hunch bet because of the name – it doesn’t matter. ‘It’s still our lucky day,’ says Juliet. ‘But we have to be careful. My family hates yours worse than cold pasta, and yours detests mine more than cheap wine. We’d better confine our trysts to after dark.’
“Romeo says, ‘My balcony or yours?’ But she laughs, ‘Your house doesn’t have a balcony, silly. Be there at midnight.’ ”
Aurelio says with a shrug, “Everybody knows the rest. The one-night balcony stand-up with her unforgettable line – ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ The secret wedding. The double play tragic ending. A winner for Shakespeare even if Love In Bloom, their horse, wasn’t.
“And this city is a winner, too. Doesn’t it warm you to stroll the streets and piazzas that the two of them prowled, looking for alcoves and passageways where they could snuggle and kiss? Too bad they didn’t have our nice small hotel, the Giulietta e Romeo. But, of course, it came later, named for them.”
Absolutely. Even without the legend of the local body-heating boy and girl, Verona would be potent in the romantic mood department. That is, the original quarter, within aged city walls. A thumb of real estate that the Romans colonized, it is wrapped around by the swiftly flowing, soothingly rippling river Adige. World War II bombing destroyed several prized landmarks, but they’ve been faithfully rebuilt. One of them, the fortified 14th-century Scaligero bridge, triple-arched in crimson brick and pink and gray stone, is a gem for pedestrians.
In a paradise for wanderers, the pace is languid, mellow. Still, some care should be taken in the hip-to-fender walking along pinched streets. However, the piazzas are quietly free of cars, rich in intricate medieval architecture – palaces, churches, fountains, stairways, statuary, winged Venetian lions – and tucked-in restaurants.
Piazza delle Erbe is a wonderful jumble of towers and two-and three-story stone houses packed together. Balconies everywhere, but this is a balcony-happy community. Structural colors are faded, tired but noble shades of mustard, pumpkin, lemon, russet, pink, sage. At the outdoor market are T-shirts bearing the faces of latter-day and present-day sex symbols: Juliet and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Presiding over the arcades and archways of Piazza dei Signori is a stern, bronze Dante, who, in his “Divine Comedy,” touched on the feud of the Capulets and Montagues (Capuleti and Montecchi to Italians). Divinity gets plenty of attention in any number of ancient, fascinating, lavishly decorated churches.
San Francesco al Corso contains a sarcophagus said to be Juliet’s grave, but Aurelio isn’t interested. “She’s alive forever in the hearts of lovers. I don’t need to see a tomb.”
Juliet’s house and The Balcony of balconies is a different matter. Not that it’s the only famous balcony in town. Revered is one of iron grillwork overlooking Piazza Bra from which the revolutionary general Garibaldi cried out to troops and citizenry in 1867: “Rome or death!” Rome (about 300 miles to the south) resisted, but he lived and united Italy anyway.
“As a young man in 1933 I saw Mussolini, the dictator, speak from the same balcony,” says clothier Alisandro Pedoni, a man of dignified bearing. “Fortunately for us, his vision didn’t last as long as Garibaldi’s.”
Visions of Juliet are rewarded in the ivied courtyard of the substantial, attractive brick Capulet home, 23 Via Cappello. Demure, slender, gowned simply, she stands just below the small storied balcony of carved stone. A beauty. Sculpted in bronze by Nereo Constantini 30 years ago, she has become the object of affection of countless passionate pilgrims, as much a goddess of love as Venus was for her ancestors.
Some place flowers in her right hand. Others have caressed Juliet’s right breast so fervently – for good luck in love – that it gleams, highly polished bronze, a distinct contrast to the rest of her on whom an olive patina has settled. Is this statue harassment? Not as unseemly as graffiti defacing the house, scribblings of the timeless X-loves-Y variety.
A few blocks away, 4 Via delle Arche Scaligeri, is the Montague homestead, brick and brooding with all the charm of a fortress. But not even a plaque salutes Romeo. No graffiti. No statue to honor the ‘hood’s hunk, one of the fabled Italian heroes of amore.
“Definitely an oversight,” says Aurelio, sighing. “O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”