Being of a certain age, and inclined to travel, my SO and I decided to travel to the beautiful but economically-unsound country of Italy, for a week of cultural enrichment, wine and food.
It was my first time in Italy, and my 3 weeks of Italian classes back in the UK had basically prepared me for getting from A to B, and ordering food and wine: perfect, and being a resident of Britain, that's all I honestly needed.. Our busy schedule took us from Rome to Florence, and from thence to Verona, where I eagerly anticipated seeing the Two Gentlemen that Shakespeare allegedly wrote about during the early stages of his career. Maybe (or should that be 'perchance'), we would also take in some of the monuments to the legendary star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, and my SO confirmed that indeed, the Capulet house was preserved in the centre of the city, along with the famous balcony. We therefore duly set off, map in hand, to visit the House of Juliet.
As we wandered through the streets of Verona, we marvelled at the width of some of the streets, wondering how on earth the residents could squeeze vehicles down them: they managed to though, and ne'er the sound of a scrape of paint against wall was heard. Thoughts of "The Italian Job" car chase scenes came to mind, and I decided that it could only happen in Italy. Other streets were wider of course, and we noticed that the usual Big Name Shops had moved in. For a moment I surmised that I could be in any major city in the world, surrounded by the latest Shrine to Mammon. You can get ripped off paying for fashionable, irrelevant tat anywhere in the world, right?
As if that wasn't bad enough, we passed by the pocket-sized Colosseum which, although in a good state of repair for its age, was sporting the largest billboard I'd ever seen attached to an ancient monument. Hang on.. I'd never seen a billboard on an ancient monument before - WTF?! Yes, dear reader it's true: those in charge of the ancient and venerable City of Verona had sold out and visually destroyed a part of the heritage in the process. And to add insult to injury, it was advertising the latest Mini car - I started to suspect that not was all it purported to be in Verona and was wondering what Juliet's House would be like. If we'd been in Denmark I could at least have said that "something was rotten in the State of Denmark" .. Actually, that reminds me, has anyone thought of "promoting" Denmark using the Little Mermaid?
Eventually though, we found the House which had been thoughtfully signposted by the local authorities, and unsurprisingly the entrance off the street was crawling with people: it was after all a major tourist attraction the world over, and in many respects it was gratifying to see so many young people waiting to get in. No doubt The Bard would have been impressed that so many people continued to read his works and make, if you like, a pilgrimage to where it all happened. So we joined the amorphous mass of the queue and were slowly swept into the short tunnel entrance to the surprisingly-small courtyard.
Again, I, We, we're shocked at what we saw: every single square inch of wall surface that could have written on, had been written on, mainly in indelible pen. Messages of "lurve" to countless girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, etc. There were audio-visual guide machines on the wall too, and these were also covered in scrawl, rendering them largely unusable. My SO and I looked at each other in disbelief and wondered what was yet to come. Even in the traditionally-tolerant UK, this would be deemed an act of vandalism, but not so, apparently in Italy. Actually, the whole scene resembled not so much a shrine to a young, ultimately doomed couple in love as a remake of an early National Lampoon movie starring John Belushi with a cast of extras who'd forgotten to take their Ritalin. But worse was yet to come.
As we fought to make our way through the Crowd of Braying Fools to the small statue of Juliette located near the Balcony, we noticed a young man hanging off the statue itself. He was standing on the base and had his arm around statue, cupping Juliet's breast in his other hand while more braying fools were photographing him. The statue incidentally was brass, and the much-fondled breast was shining brightly. In disbelief, we asked a bored-looking attendant what on earth was going on? "Simple" he said, "if you hold Juliet's breast and rub it, you will be lucky in love".
Again in disbelief we felt we had to question the relevance of this frankly disgusting act to the characters in Shakespeare's play, but in reality, that's the way it is and it draws the crowds. Ironically, it costs nothing to fondle a statue, but you have to pay to go and stand on the Balcony, and there were very few people up there..
Now don't get me wrong: I enjoy bawdiness as much as the next man (and woman), but was it really so necessary for Verona to stoop so low? I'm definitely not a prude, but is it acceptable in these days of alleged enlightenment to promote the molestation of a statue as a tourist must-do? Will Verona become even more famous for being a renowned centre for frottage? Would you think it acceptable if a resident of Verona came to visit the Concord Minute Man of 1775 Statue and rubbed himself up against the front of the statue as it was said to "bring luck"? No, of course not. Telling the judge that "it was okay to do it in Verona" is going to harm your defence, and quite rightly so.
I think what annoyed us most is that the play is centred on two people who embody the principles of love, honour, innocence, and faithfulness, and what should be a shrine - not a religious one, obviously - has been turned into a tawdry side show in which the heroine is the victim, and no-one can save her.
Of course, I'm also a realist, and I know that the Italian economy is in a very precarious state right now, so any opportunity to raise revenue without investment is going to be attractive. I can see that local government must have had to make a decision at some stage to sell out to the ephemeral Big Names and prostitute their city, or keep it as a respected tourist town which relies on well-maintained monuments and buildings, and wanting to attract the type of visitor who will come back repeatedly. Contrast Verona with, say, Florence which also has tourist hot-spots but has also managed to keep the plastic excitement firmly in its place.
I'm sad to say that I left Verona with a sigh of relief, with our next stop being Venice, home of the legendary Casanova. In my mind I was fervently hoping that if we visited Casanova's House, there would not be a statue, which, they say, would bestow luck in love on anyone that stroked his.. well, you get the picture.
Incidentally, if you want to appreciate the finest screen rendition of Romeo and Juliet, we'd recommend Zefirelli's version.
Finally, dear reader, if you feel inclined to write to Juliet and discuss her plight, you can do so at this URL: www.julietclub.com/index_en.asp - I'm sure the Juliet Club would be pleased to hear from you!