Sunday, 15 December 2013

Wheels and young William

Back to Venice and its abundance of history, art and romance. The wonderful city is so overpoweringly full of exquisite beauty – house after house, street after street, canal after canal – it made me almost blind to the details. I did manage to observe a particular building on the Canal Grande from the very first time we were riding past it on a vaporetto, a local water bus.

It was the richly decorated balconies with the unique wheel motifs and the relatively small size that appealed to me. I am a modest person with modest dreams. An adorable little palace of these proportions, with a width of a single room, would fulfill my fantasies of a Venetian residence bountifully.

Little did I know I had set my eyes on the Palazzo Contarini Fasan, also called ‘Casa di Desdemona’. According to legend, this 15th century palace is the house where Othello’s loved one Desdemona from Shakespeare’s ‘Othello, the Moor of Venice’ lived. There is probably no truth in the legend and even if there were how could Shakespeare, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, have known about the tale?

'Shakespeare stories 1985', illustration by Michael Foreman.
Quite a number of Shakespeare’s plays are set on the Continent, especially in Italy. Many of his plots were borrowed from older works, both classical and contemporary, which was customary at that time. He must have got acquainted with classical writings at school. However, some of the original tales dating from his time were from abroad, such as ‘Un Capitano Moro’, the story by Cinthio from 1565 ‘Othello’ is based on. What’s more, some scholars find it inconceivable Shakespeare could have been able to describe, say, Venice in such detail had he not seen the setting himself.

There is a period of several years in William Shakespeare’s life called ‘the lost years’. That is because there are no records on his whereabouts in his early adulthood. Italy was the centre of the Renaissance and therefore the dream destination for anyone with a serious interest in the arts. Shakespeare may have made a voyage on one of the merchant ships that were sailing between England and Venice, for example. Thanks to the handsome dowry that came with the 26-year-old lady he married at 18 he could have afforded it. It is completely imaginable an eager and resourceful man in his early 20s may have spent several years on the Continent exploring all the glorious places he had read and heard about, earning his board and lodging on his way, in the process learning a thing or two about human nature.

Stranger things have happened even to ordinary people. Travels have been made also the other way around. Some people left Venice for good, such as my maternal grandmother’s grandfather’s grandfather who ended up living the rest of his life in northern Europe, although that took place more than 150 years later, in Casanova’s time in the mid-18th century. The once powerful Republic of Venice had started drying out and the ancestor of mine must have decided to try his luck up in the north where the armed forced of the relatively fresh superpower, the Kingdom of Sweden, would welcome mercenaries from far-away places.

In Sicily, legend has it that also Shakespeare was an immigrant. Sicilians claim he was Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza (the last name translates ‘shake spear’) from Messina whose family fled the Holy Inquisition first to Venice and later settled down in England. Is this just a fabulous piece of fiction? No one with a mother tongue other than English could certainly have created the verses his brilliant pen produced. Then again, what if he was only a child when the family left Sicily…? I don’t think so but who am I to tell, who is anyone in our time to tell? People were moving freely around Europe for all kinds of reasons centuries before the concept of free movement of people within the EU was ever invented.

I sometimes regret I studied English at a business school where we never dug deeper than Austen and Dickens. Luckily, a mammoth entitled the Complete Works of William Shakespeare has been patiently waiting on my bookshelf for at least a quarter of a century now. One of these days, it will be a thrill to find out how much I can actually decipher of the original texts. One thing is certain: Shakespeare’s works are a precious gift to the whole of mankind wherever the author might or might not have originated from.

'The Complete Works by William Shakespeare', Tudor edition 1951, illustration by Eric Fraser.

Here I go again. I couldn’t help getting carried away with my recently discovered love for Venice. It is fascinating to be able to visit such vast man-made sites that are largely almost identical to those someone, let alone your ancestors, beheld hundreds of years ago. By the way, he who wound up on the west coast of the Ostrobothnia province of the Swedish county of Finland was no more than 9 years Giacomo Casanova’s junior so I’m happy to report my ancestry is safe in that respect.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

Othello, Act III, Scene III


  1. Those are again fantastic pictures of Venice.
    Sarah x

    1. Thanks, Sarah. It was raining when we arrived but we were lucky to see a couple of sunny days, too.

  2. My first time on your blog (via Down by the Sea.) I looked at your beautiful photos of Venice. We also were there last year for 5 days and your photos brought everything back to me. We went to the Peggy Guggenheim museum as well and I did take the same photo with the blue bottles – yours is better than mine, but I have not posted mine yet. I did write a couple of posts on Venice though (on the side of my blog under Italy,) but I need to write more. I’ll come back to look at more of your photos, but after the Holidays, as I am way behind on everything.

    1. Thank you for popping in and welcome again. I must take some time to explore that of your soon...