“Is this just a story?’ was a question once posed in a History lesson I was observing. The teacher was flummoxed. The child persisted. “Did any of what you told us actually happen?” He wasn’t being facetious. He just found it hard to determine what the past really was and how to engage with it. I was reminded of this student when I wandered around Verona today ahead of my tour group’s arrival tomorrow. If ever a country owed a lot of its tourism trade to Shakespeare it is Italy and if ever a city did, there can be no more worthy a contender than Verona. All over the town are signs to ‘Juliet’s tomb’ and ‘Juliet’s House’. Upon visiting ‘Juliet’s House’ you can touch her statue (supposedly grabbing her right breast will bring good luck, an idea no doubt put about by an Italian male although I can’t help but think that Shakespeare would have approved). Alternatively you can stand on ‘her balcony’ although the Romeos below mainly comprise American tour groups of girls who saw the film ‘Letters to Juliet’. Going one further is ‘Juliet’s Tomb’ and I was amused to read the top review on Tripadvisor, entitled ‘Empty’ where the reviewer ‘Travellingcuriosity’ wrote ‘I did not like this. All there is is an empty tomb’. Well yes ‘Travellingcuriosity’, this can’t have come as much of a surprise. They continued ‘I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this’. I think short of Romeo lying strewn across the coffin, this reviewer, who really does have the most apt name, being in my eyes, a real ‘curiosity’, was destined to be disappointed.
For those in search of yet more Greek and Roman myths, in Verona there is the symbol to be found all over Italy of the two boys, Romulus and Remus, being suckled by the she-wolf. The very beginning of Rome lies in legend from which facts can be extrapolated, such as the fact that there was believed to have been a Romulus, but he was King of one of the tribes on the Palatine.
For the piece de resistance, in Piazza Erbe there is the famous Winged Lion, to be found all across the Veneto region, a Machiavellian masterpiece in rebranding by the Venetians. Having felt that their previous Saint, the lowly Theodore, general reaction to whose name elicits the universal ‘who?’, didn’t quite cut it for an up and coming world power, the wily Venetians created a whole myth based around Saint Mark. The book the Lion holds is inscribed with the words ‘Pax tibi Marce Evangelista Meus’, supposedly the words said by an Angel to San Marco upon his arrival in the Lagoon of Venice. Super-Sainting Venetian style.
Herodotus, the Father of History, was simply a story teller; literally he told ‘his story’. This intertwining of myth and history is best summed up by the fact that in Italy there is no distinction between the word ‘story’ and ‘history’ as they are both summed up in one word: ‘storia’. Indeed, there is an expression in Italian which says ‘anche se non e’ vero, e’ ben trovato’ which roughly translates as ‘even if it’s not true, it’s a good story to tell’. For instance, visiting the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona in Rome, one of the tritons has his hand up, as if in horror at the church of Sant’Agnese located opposite the fountain. The popular story was that Bernini who built the fountain was a rival of Borromini who designed the Church and therefore Bernini’s triton is offended by his rival’s work. This can’t be true because the church was built after the fountain. However, it is a nice story to tell and those not caught up in that little story can always console themselves by searching for the dead priest courtesy of the Dan Brown ‘Angels and Demons’ book.
Groups of tourists flock to the Forum looking for where Caesar was stabbed. They may be looking for some time as the Senate was actually meeting at Pompey’s theatre that day and that is where he was stabbed, however, in Shakespeare’s (yes, him again) version, Caesar was stabbed in the forum.
Expanding this theory further it is clear to see that one man’s religion is another man’s myth and much as we may find amusing the Greek and Roman ‘God for every occasion’, who is to say that future generations might not do the same about current theories and dogmas. Figures from the past have been much eulogized and mythologized in any case and as such are seen through the veneer of the present day. Past Popes could hardly be seen in the same saintly fashion as Pope Francis is today.
This could render what we teach and take for granted as ‘fact’ as no more worthy than a story. Even the supposed basis for the story of the Capulets, the Capello family is not true, as the precursor to Shakespeare was a man called Luigi da Porto who hails from nearby Vicenza. He wrote a book, published in 1530 which was the premise for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He set the story in Verona, but was inspired by two castles in Montecchio Maggiore.
A wander of Rome’s streets will evoke memories of Roman Holiday or Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the epitome of dream and reality blending seamlessly and one so strongly in evidence in Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Grande Bellezza’. Even Hitler was manipulated by the Italians. When Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome, Mussolini lined the road into Rome with painted cardboard facades of elegant villas to deceive Hitler into thinking Italy was richer than it really was!
But sometimes we just want stories. I will never forget being asked by one client on a trip to just provide any answer to the question as it didn’t matter and they would believe it in any case. So perhaps we should stop worrying about this ceaseless quest for truth and fact which are themselves things which can only ever be subjective. After all, to be lost in a book is the most wonderful escapism of the mind. Travelling to other countries is literally the most wonderful escapism. It therefore makes sense that whether we are told stories or facts or the two intertwined, that we should perhaps just enjoy the ride.