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With the World Shakespeare Festival in full swing, why not step back in time to visit the sources of the writer’s inspiration from Venice to Sicily? With a little help from some of Britain’s finest Shakespearean actors, Italian historian and broadcaster Francesco da Mosto is your guide

Venice is my city, and the first Shakespeare play I saw was The Merchant of Venice. The atmosphere of what he described still exists on the streets and narrow alleys of the Rialto; the smells of spices and fresh fish in the nearby market linger in the air as they would have done in Shakespeare’s time. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi, next to the Rialto on the Grand Canal, is due to become a shopping centre, commissioned by Benetton and remodeled by OMA architects, but it was originally a busy trading post for German merchants in Venice. It is not far from where I live, although today the different languages of the tourists substitute the garrulous voices of 16th-century seafarers.

Description: the Rialto on the Grand Canal

the Rialto on the Grand Canal

The name of the merchant, Antonio, is forgettable. But not that of Shylock or the ghetto where he and all the other Jews were obliged to live, and where the atmosphere and sights hardly seem to have changed. Venice’s Ghetto (www.ghetto.it) was the first place in the known world where Jews were not persecuted. Founded by the Republic of Venice in 1516, it was a kind of caged haven where huge gates and guard prevented anyone from leaving between sunset and sunrise. The name comes from a term used for the foundries – geti – in the area. Today you visit what were known as the Scole, the synagogues built in the 16th and 17th centuries on the Campo di Ghetto Nouvo and Campiello delle Scole, and the Jewish Museum in the Campo di Ghetto Nouvo. I took the actor Ciaran Hinds around the Ghetto, reflecting on the degree to which the Jewish quarter could have influenced the character of Shylock. We also walked along the corridor leading to the Hall of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace, where Shylock would have met the Doge.

Description: Venice’s Ghetto

Venice’s Ghetto

Venice was a cultural and commercial gateway between east and west, and an extremely cosmopolitan society in the 16th century, which is why the setting for Othello was so appropriate. If Shakespeare ever came to Venice, I think he would most certainly have visited the Doge’s Palace, as well as taking in the view from St Mark’s Campanile from where you can see the bronze figures of the two moors (Mori) who strike the bell in the Torre dell’Orologio. He would also have seen the Palazetto Contarini-Fasan on the Grand Canal, known as Desdemona’s House, where legend has it that a jealous husband from the Moro family of Doges murdered his wife.

Description: the Doge’s Palace

the Doge’s Palace

The area around the Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto in the further reaches of the Canaregio district is evocative of Shakespearean times. Walking along the nearby Calle dei Mori to the Fondamenta dei Mori, you will find four statues of moors on the façade of Palazzo Mastelli. The one with the turban is Sior Rioba who came from Morea (one of Venice’s former Greek outposts).

Description: The one with the turban is Sior Rioba who came from Morea (one of Venice’s former Greek outposts)

The one with the turban is Sior Rioba who came from Morea (one of Venice’s former Greek outposts)

Insider tip: The Fondamenta della Misericordia in Venice’s Cannaregio district has many good bars and restaurants, including Osteria da Rioba (00 39 41 524 4379), which serves an imaginative menu and delicious wines.

Verona markets itself as the city of love, and the power of Romeo and Juliet seems to break through the bounds of fiction when you see Juliet’s tomb. Before it was even open to the public, Lord Byron came here and said the tomb was “as sad as her love”. The covered walkway leading to what was supposedly Juliet’s House (the property was once owned by the Capulets) is now covered in graffiti, written in many languages. There is also an organization based in Verona, The Juliet Club (ww.julietclub.com), to which people send their lonely-heart letters and sympathetic volunteers write replies. Next door to what was allegedly Romeo’s family house there’s now a restaurant, Osteria al Duca (00 39 45 594 474). However, the sycamore woods outside the Porta della Paglia, where Romeo went to brood over his love, seem to be just as Shakespeare imagined them.

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