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Posts Tagged ‘romeo and juliet’

My Secret Siena, Part 1

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Juliet by Anne FortierAnne Fortier is the author of the novel Juliet, available now in paperback.

Check back next week to read more on Anne’s experience in the beautiful city of Siena and how it made its way into her writing in Part 2 of this entry!

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It is only too easy to lose oneself in the magic of Siena
It is only too easy to lose oneself in the magic of Siena

It all started when I fell in love. Not with Shakespeare or some suave Romeo next door, but with the utterly irresistible Tuscan town of Siena. With its medieval architecture and stubborn disregard for most things modern, it is quite simply the perfect escape for romantic dreamers like me, and I had not been in Siena for many hours before I was desperate to set a novel there.

I can still see myself meandering through the Medieval maze that is Siena, aching to unravel its hidden mysteries. I even filled a small bottle with water from the ancient fountain called Fontebranda in a romantic – and probably highly unhygienic – attempt at capturing the magic of the place and bringing it home with me.

Plot hound that I am, I tracked down one of the bloodiest chapters in Siena history, namely the ancient feud between the Tolomei and the Salimbeni families – two households, as the Bard would have it, both alike in dignity, albeit in fair Siena, where we lay our scene…

Palazzo Salimbeni, still today as intriguing as it is forbidding
Palazzo Salimbeni, still today as intriguing as it is forbidding

So fierce was the feud between the Salimbenis and the Tolomeis that they would set fire to each other’s houses and murder mere children in their beds, back in the Middle Ages. Amazingly, their palazzos are still there, standing proudly along the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Siena, little over a hundred steps apart. And although the ancient families have long since moved away, the memory of their bloody rivalry remains.

Perhaps this rich and complex history was what inspired the Italian writer, Masuccio Salernitano, to invent the story of Romeo and Juliet in 1476, and to set it in Siena. This early version is largely forgotten today, and many people think it is my invention. Well, it is not. The famous love-tragedy was already over a hundred years old by the time it landed on Shakespeare’s desk. I’m sorry. As much as I like the film SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I can safely promise you it didn’t happen that way.

In the Siena underground, you lose all sense of time. The past, it seems, is merely asleep...
In the Siena underground, you lose all sense of time.
The past, it seems, is merely asleep…

Readers also often ask me whether it is really true there is such a vast labyrinth of caves in the Siena underground. The answer is yes, and because these caves were originally an aqueduct leading water into public fountains and private houses, Siena is full of mysterious basements with gaping holes leading… where exactly? Obviously, in JULIET, I could not resist the temptation to send the heroine down into this secret world, and I don’t think it is a plot-spoiler to say that she stumbles upon a lot more than just water.

One of the subterranean bone piles from the Black Death in 1348
One of the subterranean bone piles from the Black Death in 1348

Part of my inspiration for setting the original story of Romeo and Juliet in the year 1340 is that this was the era of the Bubonic Plague, which left its grizzly mark on Siena – a mark that is still there, if you know where to look. Why the plague? You might wonder. But the answer lies within Shakespeare’s play. “A plague!” says Mercutio to Romeo and Tybalt, just before he dies. “A plague on your houses!” It was impossible not to make this famous curse a driving force in JULIET.

Similarly, my inspiration for the elusive treasure that has remained hidden for over six hundred years (and which shall remain unnamed, don’t worry!) came from Shakespeare’s tragedy as well. Interestingly enough, even people who claim they know the play forwards and backwards confess to me they never thought much about this particular object before. And so for me, part of the fun of writing JULIET has been to “reinvent” the play in fun and surprising ways, and to fuse Shakespeare’s poetic fiction with the reality of Siena, past and present.

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