The True Story of Romeo and Juliet

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"Two households, both alike in dignity/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene." Few among us would fail to recognize the opening lines to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The tragedy is the first thing we think of when we hear "Verona". And yet...this story actually begins just to the east of Verona, in an old stone villa near Vicenza. Joining us today to share with you the REAL story of Romeo and Juliet, is our guide Ruben.

I am going to tell you the story of Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, once again. Only this time it is the story, the true story, the real story, with real people and real places.

And this time it is not the Shakespearean play, it is not the romantic dream of eternal love that everyone wishes and desires, it is not Verona and its Hollywood invention.

It is the truth. And, furthermore, it is even more tragic.

It is 1517; the setting is Villa Porto in Montorso Vicentino, from where you can see the castles known today as the Castles of Romeo and Juliet. Luigi da Porto – the real Romeo – has spent the last six years as a paraplegic due to a war wound received in 1511. During this time, he has dedicated his life to his health and his beloved Lucina – the real Juliet. However, upon seeing him return from war crippled, Lucina leaves Luigi and marries another relative with whom she eventually has two children.

Luigi, suffering as much from a broken heart as from the wounds of war, only finds solace in writing. From his family villa, with a view of the medieval castles and his memories of love for Lucina, Luigi writes A Novel of Two Lovers and their Death in Verona During the Time of Bartolomeo dalla Scala. Luigi da Porto creates the novel based on his own love for Lucina. The story of Luigi and Lucina is, thus, transformed into the story of Romeo and Juliet.

The story takes place in Friuli at the beginning of the 16th century where the battles and skirmishes between the soldiers of the Serenissima and the Empire are occurring. There, where Luigi da Porto is destined to be a captain of the cavalry and where he meets Lucina. Their encounter took place exactly on the 26th of February, 1511, the Thursday of Carnival - just as he wrote in his Story of Romeo and Juliet and exactly as Shakespeare adapted it seventy-five years later - it is the night in which Luigi and Lucina fall in love, but also the night when the two noble families of the area, the Savorgnan del Monte – Montecchi in the novel – and the Savorgnan de la Torre – Cappelletti in the novel – take advantage of a peasant uprising to fight each other to gain power.

Interesting is the choice of names of the two families. The more obvious name is perhaps that of the Montecchi – one must remember that Luigi da Porto writes the novel from his villa in Montorso Vicentino which lies in front of the two castles of Montecchio Maggiore, from which the name Montecchio – Montecchi.

Less apparent is that of the Cappelletti, which da Porto chose perhaps to recall the strange hats (cappelli in Italian) that the mercenary soldiers of Dalmatia, his cavalry regiment, wore.

And then there’s the choice of the two lovers’ names. Luigi da Porto was destined for the land of Friuli, and journeyed there from Venice. The vía Romea, which all the pilgrims from Rome took going north, was the same that young Luigi took to arrive at his destiny as a soldier and lover. Thus, the name Romeo: the pilgrim of the vía Romea road, the foreigner from a faraway land who finds love.

The name Juliet is more straightforward. Juliet was Lucina’s younger sister, who in reality was called Giulietta, which means little Julia.

Here are, therefore, the first and last names that Luigi da Porto chose and the reasons why. So, what does Verona have to do with all this? Until now the real story has taken place in Vicenza and Friuli, and never in Verona. Why is this so?

Well, it is Luigi da Porto himself who decides to place the story in Verona, because, as he writes, this story had been told to him by a friend from Verona, who knew of a story of lovers that took place in his city. This is, therefore, how Luigi da Porto begins his novel:

"To Madonna Lucina Savorgnana

Inasmuch as I promised, in speaking to you many days ago,
that I would write for you a most piteous story which
I have heard and which happened in Verona:
to write of this now appears to me my duty
and to unfold the tale to you upon these few pages,
hoping my words addressed to you may not appear in vain;
and it is fitting, being myself unfortunate in love,
to relate the woes of these ill – fated lovers
whose story so aptly belongs to me.

Then I want to dedicate it to your valor,
so that you may the more clearly see to what risks,
to what deceitful steps, to what cruel and tragic ends
poor wretches in love are too often led by love itself."

It is ingenious how Luigi da Porto uses an ancient legend told to him, to express his own misfortune in love with Lucina, reproaching her for her prompt decision to abandon him (a wounded hero) for another man - who to make matters worse was their relative and his enemy - and not to suffer for Luigi’s love, until death if necessary, like da Porto’s Juliet.
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