The production of R&J that I directed came and went as shows do. Throughout the following year, however, I was unable to leave the idea of the origin of the feud behind. The play was done, but my research continued. I’d waded shin-deep into the history of Verona; now I completely submerged myself.
It was during that year I discovered some interesting facts. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the time the tale of the star-cross’d lovers supposedly took place, important people were visiting Verona. Dante, the father of Renaissance literature. Giotto, the father of Renaissance painting. Petrarch, the poet who technically started the Renaissance by finding Cicero’s letters there. In a very real sense the Renaissance began, not in Florence as I’d assumed, but in Verona.
I cracked open earlier versions of the play, the short stories (some not so short) that were Shakespeare’s sources, and then back further to his sources’ sources. Luigi da Porto pinpoints a four year period wherein the tale is supposed to take place – during the reign of one Bartolomeo della Scala, sometime between 1300 and 1304.
Della Scala? Shakespeare’s Prince of Verona is named Escalus, a Latinized version of della Scala. But the name was ringing another bell. I went back and found that Dante had dedicated the third canticle of his Divine Comedy, ‘Paradiso,’ to Bartolomeo’s little brother, Cangrande della Scala.
Cangrande. It didn’t mean much to me at the time. But it would.
As I was running around doing historical research, I was also pleasure-reading. I am a glutton for well-written historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome’ series, all of it. At the time, though, at the suggestion of my future wife, I was reading Dorothy Dunnett.
Dunnett is to me the pinnacle of the genre. She is the only author who consistently makes me feel stupid – not always a good quality in a writer, but I can’t fault her for it. Her writing is smart and densely layered. You have to earn Dunnett, want Dunnett, especially the first hundred or so pages. But once you’re in her world, there’s no going back. She weaves a tapestry so fine, so richly detailed, so at the core of human experience, that her books are each a treasure. It was Dorothy Dunnett more than any other writer who showed me that a book can be intelligent, dark, witty, gruesome, and exciting all at once. Her death was a heart-breaking loss to literature.
But back in early 2000 I hadn’t yet completed even the first of her series of historical novels. I wasn’t fully able to enjoy The Lymond Chronicles because Dante and the rest of the Verona cast kept getting in my way. So I laid her books aside and started to write.
It was going to be short, more a novella than anything. Two friends in love with the same woman have a falling out over her. Simple, sweet, it would get the idea out of my system.
Frustration followed. The first couple attempts I couldn’t find the voice. I was obsessed with the notion of the feud, which at that time was the core of my book. But it simply wasn’t enough. While the origin of the Capulet/Montague feud fascinated me, it was the backdrop – the della Scalas, Giotto, Dante – that kept leaping to the fore.