Did Shakespeare visit Italy? Most scholars insist that the author, despite setting a third of his plays in the country, did not travel there. The most commonly cited proof is that he transformed the inland cities of Milan and Verona into ports. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine travels from Verona to Milan ‘by boat’. In The Tempest, Prospero says that at Milan ‘they hurried us aboard a bark’. Panthino describes Proteus as ‘shipped’ and says Launce will ‘lose the tide’. Here are clear signs, it is said, that Shakespeare had no idea what he was talking about when it came to Italy. The author, we are told, was a geographical ignoramus.
But recent work on Italy suggests otherwise. It seems that scholarly certainty has led to confirmation bias: the ignoring and reinterpretation of evidence that conflicts with a firmly held belief. The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that ‘shipped’ and ‘tide’ need not refer only to the sea. Launce himself explains the ‘tide’ as ‘the flood’, a valid term to describe the timed rising of water in a canal’s locks. Literary scholar Sir Edward Sullivan established over a hundred years ago that in the sixteenth century Milan and Verona were in fact joined by large navigable canals, and that boat was a preferred method of safe travel between these and other northern Italian cities. But, in fear of encouraging authorship doubters, who tend to make much of the Italian evidence, many Shakespearean scholars feel compelled to refute Sullivan. Scott McCrea, in a book subtitled The End of the Authorship Question (2005) declared ‘such canals are absurd.’
Yet outside of Shakespeare studies the large navigable canals of northern Italy are well known. Historians and geographers have written about them. Leonardo Da Vinci designed the mitre gate that made them possible. They were mentioned by the period’s travel writers Montaigne and Coryat, and many of the scars marking their former routes are still visible on Google Earth. The city of Milan, in 2008, announced it was attempting to raise over a billion euros to restore ninety-four miles of its ‘historic shipping canals’. Shakespearean scholars alone deny their existence.
They claim that the Italian details Shakespeare didn’t make up, he got from books. Certainly, he could have learnt of ‘great barks [sailing] to Milan’ from Montaigne’s Travels In Italy (1581). But what, barring the author’s first-hand experience, might account for the discovery that there is a precise location in Florence where Helena, standing on the route Bertram and his men would take returning to their garrison from the Tuscan wars, would be able to see the city’s Port, while pointing out a pilgrim lodge bearing the sign of Saint Francis? This information is not available on any sixteenth or seventeenth-century map of Florence, or any text that might have been available to the author. Nor, in its precision, is it the kind of information one could glean in conversations with Italian ex-patriots or travellers. It is not surprising, perhaps, that both the Port and the lodge, though still in existence, have been dubbed ‘imaginary’ by those scholars who are certain the author never visited Italy.
Yet a substantial body of research evidences Shakespeare’s entirely accurate knowledge of not only Northern Italian waterways, Venetian horses and Bergamo sailmakers (all denied, yet factual) but also Messinian curses, Veronan churches, Sicilian vistas, regional proverbs, customs and fashions, and dozens of other evocative details. Much of this research was published in Richard Paul Roe’s The Shakespeare Guide to Italy(2011).
But Roe is not the only researcher to have uncovered evidence that the author possessed the kind of Italian knowledge only first-hand experience would provide. Professor Roger Prior of Queen’s University Belfast was investigating A. L. Rowse’s proposed Dark Lady, Amelia Lanier Bassano, when he discovered some inexplicable links between her family’s hometown and Othello. In Bassano del Grappa, forty miles northwest of Venice, Prior discovered a fresco originally commissioned by the Dal Corno family. Painted by Jacopo dal Ponte on the wall of a house in the Piazzotto del Sale (‘the little square of salt’) in 1539, its iconography includes a goat and a monkey, drunkenness, and a naked woman, whom Prior identifies as Truth, partially concealed by small doors with slatted blinds called ‘jealousies’. After Iago provokes Othello’s jealousy and is asked to provide proof, he delivers a small speech that mentions goats, monkeys, salt, drunkenness and ‘the door of Truth’ in rapid succession.
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as Goats, as hot as Monkeys,
As salt as Wolves in pride, and Fools as gross
As Ignorance, made drunk. But yet, I say,
If imputation, and strong circumstances,
Which lead directly to the door of Truth,
Will give you satisfaction, you might have’t.
This speech so rattles Othello that in a later scene he exits declaiming ‘Goats and monkeys!’ The fresco is not the only link between Bassano del Grappa and Shakespeare’s play. The main source of Othello is a story in Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (available, in Shakespeare’s time, only in Italian and French). But though Cinthio’s tale concerned both ‘the Moor’ and ‘Disdemona’ (sic), it was Shakespeare who introduced the name Othello. Shakespeare scholars have been debating for decades where the name came from, with many theorising that Shakespeare made it up: using ot-hell-o to echo Des-demon-a, or the Greek word ‘ethelo’ to indicate ‘will’, or Ot-hello to suggest the Ottoman empire. They seem entirely unaware of Prior’s discovery that in the main square of Bassano in the sixteenth century there were two apothecary’s shops: one known as ‘The Moor’ (being at the sign of the Moor’s head), and the other part-owned by a man named Otello. This Italian form of the name Othello was common in Bassano and the surrounding area. Shakespeare’s text specifically connects Othello to apothecaries: he has Desdemona’s father accuse Othello of corrupting his daughter ‘by spells and medicines’. There is no mention of spells or medicines in the Cinthio text. Could this convergence of names and geographical locations really be a coincidence?
Though one might imagine Professor Prior’s discoveries would be of considerable interest to Shakespeare scholars, their implication – that the author of Othello visited Bassano del Grappa – cannot be comfortably contained within orthodox scholarship. Professor Prior suggested that Shakespeare visited Bassano – then a key centre for Italy’s leather trade – on his father’s business. But there is no external corroborating evidence for the Stratford man’s venturing beyond these shores; and there is a generalised belief (hardened by many into a ‘fact’) that the author simply did not travel. Confirmation bias therefore ensures that any evidence that he did is dismissed as false. Professor Prior’s findings were thus published, in 2008, in the University of Malta’s obscure Journal of Anglo-Italian Studies, leaving mainstream scholars completely oblivious to their existence.
At least twelve (and some say as many as fifteen) of Shakespeare’s plays are wholly or partially set in Italy. Ernesto Grillo noted that Shakespeare’s works contain over 800 Italian references. As Francesco da Mosto noted in the BBC series, Shakespeare In Italy, Shakespeare’s Italian knowledge is so good that some Italians believe he was a Sicilian man named Crollalanza (crolla=shake; lancia=spear). Born in Messina, Crollalanza wrote a play in Messinian dialect entitled Tanto traffico per Niente, which can be translated as ‘Much traffic about nothing’. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is set in Messina. Whether it was inspired by Crollalanza’s play, or the other way around, is not yet clear. Indeed, to my knowledge, English-speaking scholars have made no attempt to investigate the links between these two plays, and do not even acknowledge the Messinian play’s existence.
The wiring of the human brain ensures that our fixed beliefs largely go unchallenged; any piece of information that would create cognitive dissonance is filtered out, or reinterpreted. Thus it is perfectly natural that Shakespeare scholars, certain that the author never travelled in Italy but faced with evidence that he did, will either genuinely not register the information, or if confronted with it, find a way to dismiss it.
Yet evidence that Shakespeare had first-hand knowledge of Italy continues to accumulate. We cannot explain it, and have no chance of doing so until it is accepted as a genuine phenomenon. One wonders how long it will take for mainstream Shakespearean scholars to acknowledge that confirmation bias is restricting the advancement of knowledge, and turn their faces – and their research budgets – to Europe. In the year that marks the 450th anniversary of the Stratford man’s birth, we might hope it will not be too much longer.