Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Shakespeare and Italy 11 - Belmont Foscari Montferrat

Roe Chapter 6 continued:

6B. Next is whether or not there is an actual location on the mainland that could correspond with Portia’s Belmont. There’s an argument that if Shakespeare really knew Italy and the Italian language well then he surely would have put his Belmont on a hill or mountain top, since that’s what the name implies. But his main source for the play also used ‘Belmonte’ and that wasn’t on any hill, but was described as ‘a beautiful port’.

And it turns out there seems to be a near perfect estate along the canal from which a carriage or boat could be taken from the Veneto to Venice. What Roe and Dr. Magri find as this very fitting real location for Shakespeare’s Belmont is what we know as the “Villa Foscari” which sits along the Brenta Canal . Roe mentions it as “a most magnificent villa”. It is also known as the “Villa Malcontenta”. It was constructed around 1560 and is now part of the University of Venice and can be found easily on Google maps along with many photos of it. It is not the only Grand Villa along the canal but it is at least close to the expected distance from Venice and considered a unique architectural masterpiece, and was owned by one of the most illustrious aristocratic families of Venice, and so also it would have been a place to be visited by important travelers from England and elsewhere.

The text describes the journey as being a round trip of 20 miles, or 10 miles from Belmont to the Venice landing pier of il Molo by the Ducal Palace. Roe calculated that it is about 5 miles from the tranect at Fusina to il Molo. So it would be about another 5 miles from Fusina to Belmont.  The exact distance isn’t important since we’re talking about a meandering canal and likely a somewhat meandering road next to it and as well the Ferry trip wasn’t in an exact straight line. Also, it would be a silly distraction for the author to try and give precise distances for each leg of the journey. A round number of miles would suffice, just as Montaigne in his journal mentioned a 20 mile segment of his journey from Padua before arriving at Fusina on his way to Venice.

However, this has been made a point of dispute against Roe’s evidence and against Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge of Italy. So let’s look at this argument more closely. Roe’s calculation seems to have been that the true round trip distance is ‘exactly’ 20 miles, which would match the round trip distance Portia mentioned from her Belmont to the Ducal Palace. But Roe also said “If my calculation is accurate” so he was open to a differently calculated distance if it had backing.

The argument against the idea that the author had Villa Foscari in mind for Belmont is that it appears to be only 7 miles from it to the Ducal Palace, and the round trip would then only have been 14 miles—far shorter than the story’s distance. My own calculations for Villa Foscari’s distance to Fusina, using Google maps, is 4.6 miles if we used a modern road. So a 16th century meandering road following the canal would bring the distance closer to 5 miles. I then estimated the distance to the Ducal Palace from there to be about 4 miles. And maybe 400 years ago a more indirect ferry route was needed, and so again the second leg of the journey could have been closer to 5 miles. In any case, even if the total one-way distance was 8.6 or 9 miles then a rounded number of 20 would suffice and have a nice simplicity to it as well as being a number Portia liked. So the approximate total distance adds to the likelihood that the author could have had Villa Foscari in mind, especially if other evidence added even more support.

Further reasons for this villa as inspiring Portia’s Belmont from Magri’s book. 1) Portia mentions that she and Nerissa will be staying where “there is a monast’ry two miles off”. There was in fact, two miles from Villa Foscari, a “Cadelle Monahe” or “The Nuns’ House" and also nearby a famous Benedictine Abbey and Monastery of St. Ilario.  

2) Magri describes how the windows of the Villa Foscari could only show light from inside (just as described in the play) if someone returned to it by the road as Portia and Nerissa did from Venice, and not by the canal.  

3) In Act 1, Portia recalls “a Venetian (a scholar and soldier) that came hither in the company of the Marquis of Montferrat”. This allusion to this Marquis, irrelevant to the plot, is a peculiar and extraneous detail. And why a Marquis and why of Montferrat? Well, it turns out that in July 1574, Henry of Valois (the future Henry III), and newly-elected King of Poland was returning to Paris from Poland, and had stopped and lodged at Villa Foscari. There the King, and various ambassadors and lords were invited to dinner. And among the many dignified guests was the “Marquis of Montferrat”. The author’s knowledge of this very peculiar fact, as it is not rational to argue it was a random guess, and along with the other fitting facts, together support a verdict favoring the author’s uncommon knowledge of this area of Italy and its history. The facts could have been learned outside of personal travel but not easily without extensive detailed research or lengthy conversations with those with the intimate knowledge. And there is no evidence that the Stratford William had such access. It can only be imagined that he had. 

6C. Some further pieces of evidence of the Author’s deeper knowledge of Venetian customs and law comes from the description of Portia’s disguise for traveling to Venice. She mentions wearing a dagger. And Roe points out how it was strictly against the law in Venice for citizens to carry swords. And that in the 36 plays of the First Folio, 35 have someone with a sword. Only this one does not. And though in Othello Iago and Roderigo have swords, they are officers of the Venetian army and so are a permitted exception. The legal procedure described in the trial scene has also been found to be sound in many ways, though also naturally exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Magri notes that “Shylock knows that only ratification of the agreement will guarantee his rights”, and so that “though a verbal agreement would be legally valid, its execution is very difficult to prove in Court”. So “a deed drawn up in the presence of a notary was the only effective evidence” for the agreement. The type of bond used in the play (“single” instead of, though suggestive of, the “unilateral” bond of Italian Law) did not exist in England at the time and so further displays unusual Venetian knowledge. Further, as in the play, no witnesses needed to be examined by a judge, and “testimonial proof” was inadmissible. Magri also explains Shakespeare’s use of a 'Duke' for the Venice 'Doge' and why such a person could be seen to preside over such a court procedure. These are just some of the play’s legal aspects that reveal an understanding of the Venice legal system by the author.

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