Skip to main content

The Italian Job

'Almost no Oxfordian argument has wasted more bandwidth than Will's knowledge of Italy. The arguments have a unique brand of silliness all their own. We revisited this subject here.

It was inevitable that we would need to look at the work of Richard Paul Roe at some time. After losing a game of 'who knows the most famous Icelanders' it has fallen to me.


Like Diana Price, Roe disingenuously decided to 'withhold' any personal preference for actual candidates in the authorship question, preferring to concentrate on the accuracy of the geography of the Italian plays.  It does, however, neatly absolve him from the need to explain some big inconsistencies such as the presence of inland waterways which might plausibly allow Shakespeare's characters to sail between inland destinations which have totally implausible tides which they are hurrying to catch. Not only do canals not have tides, there are no tides anywhere in the Mediterranean area, something visitors tend to observe.

Roe decides not to engage in Oxfordian argument and limit his contribution to proving that Shakespeare went to Italy. There could, of course, be creditable motives for this. Tying actual places named in the plays to real Italian locations, could almost certainly (favourite Oxfordian phrase) prove (another) that the author had visited Italy. 


Possible location of the wrong tree, up which Oxfordians like to bark

There are, however, three problems inherent in his argument, especially if it is intended to support De Vere (and since destinations not included in De Vere's trip of 1574/5 do not appear to feature, assumptions beg to be assumed).  

Firstly, no one is saying Shakespeare did not go to Italy. Unlike famous Belted Earls, the day to day activities of playwrights of the time were not documented well enough for categoric statements about where they were at any one time unless specific markers were dropped. 

Secondly, certainty about an Italian trip, while it brings more of Will's hinterland into sharp focus, does not contribute anything conclusive. With a wealth of accurate source material to choose from and a widely travelled circle of friends, the act of proving that some Italian details in the plays are correct doesn't actually prove anything helpful about the authorship. 

Thirdly, all of Will's work is imaginative fiction. When Shylock is talking of the Rialto, it may seem likely that he is in an authentic version of 16c Italy. A line or two later, when the same character is talking about publicans, he is clearly back in Bankside. When Oberon says 'I know a bank where the wild thyme grows' Will might be inviting us to think of Tuscany or Piedmont but the flora and fauna are those of the Vale of Evesham, which is also the most likely location of the bank in Will's mind's eye.


We could look in detail at all the source material for the Italian plays and dismiss everything that Will took straight from it. This would also have shortened Roe's task rather considerably. We could also dismiss any wonders of modern engineering, rule out impossible journeys and have a look at Roe's facts.

That would be the fair way to do it. That's undoubtedly what Professors Kathman or Wells would do.


This, however, is Oxfraud. We want to be fair too, but we won't spend time on the fact that there are more errors in Italian geography than there are provable accuracies. Nor will we draw attention to the fact that, in the cause of cultural tourism, Verona's planning department has actually tweaked the environment here and there to make it fit more accurately with Will's Verona. 

Let's start by looking for the modern sycamore grove in Verona that Roe claims to have found in a Eureka moment, proving (there's that word again) that Romeo and Juliet was written by someone who had seen the city walls for themselves. 

Well, there isn't one. 

... mind drove me to walk abroad; Where, underneath the grove of sycamore That westward rooteth from the city's side, So early walking did I ...

There are lots of groves, outside the walls. They can be seen on the famous engraving of 1590, more or less exactly where they are now on the southern side of town. Roe describes a taxi ride on the perimeter road, the Viale Colonnello Galliano, which is technically the southern side of the old city, not the western side. If you walk the length of this road you will find about half dozen sycamores, self-seeded and widely dispersed. You won't find a grove. You can check this for yourself on Google Street View.


Sycamores have a broad spread and boughs which grow close to the ground. Good for hiding illicit lovers, which explains what Romeo was doing in a sycamore grove.  However, then, like now, civic planters knew that sycamores were not good news. Each tree produces tens of thousands of aerially dispersed seeds which germinate like wildfire and then put down deep tap roots almost immediately. Each tree also produces lots of leaf, seed and bark litter and consumes 480 litres of water a day through its root system—bad for masonry. Verona's groves contain poplars, cypresses, fantastic cedars, birch, robinia, limes, planes, lots of assorted conifers and as we can see, even the odd sycamore. But a grove of sycamores?  Not one I can find. And if you look closely at what he writes, Roe didn't have any more success. He attributes the sparse and scattered presence of a few sycamores to the groves being cut to accommodate the building of new roads. Yet while the trees have clearly changed in 400 years, the apron in front of the walls and fortifications has not. Earthwork defenses were designed to provide shaped and concentrated fields of fire for the city's defenders. Trees would have provided cover for the attackers. Roe's Oxfordian goggles have allowed him to adjust reality to his prejudice.

Near the eastern gate, on the Corsa Castelvecchio, there is one sycamore that 'rooteth from the walls'. Not that unusual, in fact. You can see the same thing in other walled towns. Lucca or Canterbury, for example. This tree, like most sycamores, is probably self-seeded and due for removal before it does serious damage. The seedlings that root further away from the walls get cut by the lawnmowers. One lonely, self-seeded tree on the wrong side of town does not make a correctly-located Shakespearean grove. Especially since it's less than 150 years old. So although the City of Verona answers the thousands of forlorn letters addressed each year to "Juliet, Verona" and manages her balcony (added to the Capella house after Will wrote the play, now the third most popular tourist destination in Italy), the authorities don't seem to have thought about adding a sycamore grove in the right place. Yet.

A playwright keen for an accurate picture of Verona would hardly have given it a Duke (which Will does twice) when it was actually a Venetian dependency. An author trying to trace accuracy in Will's Italian backdrops might have pointed out that it did have a Duke for a short time, when Bocaccio was writing his source material but hadn't for more than 150 years by the time Oxford visited. However, since this particular Italian detail points in the wrong direction, it doesn't make the cut.

Many of Roe's contentions are like the sycamore grove. They are presented with a flourish of discovery and seldom balanced with anything inconvenient or contradictory.

Portia has twenty miles to travel so Belmont must be twenty miles from Venice. 


contarini foscari

If Magri and Roe had gone a bit further up the Brenta, they'd have found the Villa Contarini. Much more like Belmont, when it comes to size, though still no hill. And all those measurements would be wrong. There's a famous Tiepolo showing Henri III and the Doge meeting here…

…but not here at the Villa Foscari. Nice enough. But big enough? I live in a house called Mount Pleasant - the English equivalent of 'Belmonte'. Like almost every other Belmonte and Mount Pleasant (outside modern suburbia), it is on a hill. The landscape here is flat as a pancake as far as the eye can see.

Twenty is Portia's favourite number. Moments earlier she says "And twenty of these puny lies I'll tell,". In the previous scene, we have "You shall have gold / To pay the petty debt twenty times over:"  Jessica and Salerio both use the number twenty in the same scene. One scene earlier, she says "for you I would be trebled twenty times myself;". But none of that can have anything to do with anything because, guess what? There IS a house twenty miles from Venice. It's known as the Villa Foscari or the Villa Malacontenta (which can't be said to be all that promising when Belmont, 'beautiful hill', is what you're looking for). It's also a bit small for a house that 16c princes would visit for their casket-work. The grand hall wouldn't be able to keep even two princes and their retinues apart. However, it's there, it once had royal visitors and it's twenty miles away. There's even a monastery 2 (more like 4) miles away providing a handy source of assorted clergy.

Roe traces a potential route for Portia, involving two legs of five miles from Malacontenta to the Ducal palace via Fusina, which, he claims, adds up to exactly 20 miles there and back. Five miles from the house to Fusina, where Roe locates the 'tranect' and another five miles to the Ducal court house. 

Once again, it isn't accurate.

It's only a fraction over three miles from the house to Fusina and only two more across the lagoon to the Tronchetto, the public ferry terminal, surely a much better candidate for 'the tranect'. It's 7 miles altogether to the Ducal Court. In fact the furthest point on the round trip down The Grand Canal is less than 9 miles away by water. By road, Villa Malacontenta is nearly 12 miles from the station, more like 14 from St Mark's square.  Precision is tough in this line of work. Still, maybe Portia was a horse rider and extra confident of her outcomes. She could be rounding up or down and counting or omitting the return journey. Fast worker Portia - that's why she has a sports car named after her. 

The only thing the Villa Foscari has going for it, as a possible location for Belmont is its distance from Venice. And the idea that it corresponds exactly to Portia's 20 miles doesn't stand up.

Interesting, yes. Helpful, no. In the source material, Belmonte is a port, a few days sailing away from Venice. Will has simply chopped off a syllable and moved it closer. The shorter distance detracts somewhat from its social opposition to Venice but speeds things up rather nicely. The shorter, less Italianate name is possibly intended to reintroduce a bit of distance. That's probably not all that can be squeezed out of the importance of the location of Belmont. But it's enough for this part of the argument. Sola.

Given that the Tempest is popular in the debate right now, where on the map does Roe nail Prospero's island? The Isola Vulcano is his choice. It has fumaroles and sulphur all the things that Caliban describes and is about the right size. Roe 'discovers' some very tenuous links between Sicily and the Catalan language and finds that the name 'Caliban' is similar to the Catalan word for outcast and 'Arial' also has a role in Catalan.  Yet 'Arial' is itself a Biblical forename and a common English word with variants present in all romance languages. For Caliban, there are almost endless possible etymologies. There may even be closer links to Sicily. The origin of the name 'Caliban' is one of those details that scholars like argue about. A lot. It might be a very simple anagram of 'can(n)ibal', the Arab word 'kalebon', meaning vile dog, the similar Romany epithet 'cauliban', a conflation like the anthropophagi in Othello, a corruption of Cariban, a native of Caribana (then the northern part of South America) or or even a long-odds but accurate reference to a citizen of Calibia, a town in Tunisia. You choose your favourite and launch yourself into the dispute. Just don't base a whole theory on your conclusions, though. If you are a betting man who likes to calculate the odds, Romany and Arabic words are far more common in Sicily than Catalan vocabulary. 


If you stood on the Isola Vulcano, as I have, you would have your doubts. If you told any nearby group of 10-year olds that 'Prospero and Miranda were two people cast ashore on a remote island' then asked if the island they were standing on could be the island in question, they would all immediately answer 'no'. Without comparing vegetation they would realise that The Aeolian Islands are a tight, populated group, very close to Sicily which is almost always clearly visible (Etna is BIG), and not far from the Italian mainland. "You could light a fire here and someone would be turn up in a couple of hours to find out what was going on." Another real-life 10-year old (actually related to me) reckoned he could swim to the mainland 'in about three hours'. That's 10-year olds for you. 


Be not afraid: The Aeolian Islands seen from behind the Sicilian town of Milazzo. 
Prospero can be seen with his staff atop the promontory on the left of the Isola Vulcano (we think).

A problem? Well, only if you are trying to prove someone has made a personal visit and is using an accurate description in a piece of fiction. There are other, similar, genuinely remote islands like Ustica, actually used as a prison island which Roe doesn't consider for reasons which are not clear. He may have needed a larger scale map. Pantalaria used to be the critic's favourite. It has all the right attributes and is even in the right place, assuming Miranda and Prospero left from the nearest port, Genoa. There are no connections to the The Earl in these other locations. So no mentions for Ustica or Pantalaria. 

The crucial element, however, in the case against the Isola Vulcano, which the candidate-less Roe can cunningly omit, is that the real evidence that Earl went to Sicily is exactly equal in quantity to the real evidence that Shakespeare went to Sicily. None at all. 

The work is an engaging but mostly superficial canter round the issues, strongly agenda-centric, illustrated with examples which sometimes look convincing but sometimes show a poor understanding of life in Italy and England in the 16c. Whilst I can recommend it as a source of lots of interesting, colourful Italian background, ultimately, his list of discoveries aren't always original and don't really contribute anything conclusive to the authorship question.

It's very like those books which map the Odyssey onto modern cartography using Homer's description of stars or flocks of birds or measurable distances. A lot of the speculation is quite convincing, however, when looked at in detail, much of it will have you scratching your head. It's great strength is that its author has read the work and does care about it. It's great weakness is that even were it all true, it doesn't advance anyone's arguments.

Henri III of France, greeted by the Doge at The Villa Contarini on the River Brenta. It was back into the carriage after this.
Just a year before the Earl's visit, yet despite wishing to maxmise security and minimise public attention,
there were no more riverboats and certainly no canals for Henri III on his journey eastwards from Padua.


Share this post

Disqus comments