The approach of St. Valentine’s day only reminds us that as much as love can light up your life, it can also be a real downer. One day you’re meeting a nice young girl at a party and the next thing you’re committing suicide next to each other in the family crypt. It’s a familiar story, but no director has been able to wring as much beauty from the old tale of “Romeo and Juliet” as director Franco Zeffirelli did in his English-acted, Italian-based 1968 version of the film. Stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting — the Kristen Stewart and R Pats of their day — are no doubt the best-looking couple to play the star-crossed lovers on screen—but Zeffirelli also had the benefit of a handful of magical, romantic locations across Italy to make his “tale of woe” one of the most rapturous Shakespeare adaptations on the big screen.
Naturally, downtown Verona doesn’t quite look like it did in the 16th Century, so Zeffirelli hopped all over Italy to get the exact looks and shots he wanted. The balcony scene is, of course, the centerpiece of any “Romeo and Juliet” production, and Zeffirelli’s is no exception—shot in the back garden of the Palazzo Borghese 20 miles south of Rome in Artena (tourism info), the vine-encrusted, overripe setting became a symbol of passion when held against the stony, sun-bleached exteriors that mark the rest of the film.
For the fight scenes, Zeffirelli headed north to Gubbio in Umbria, where a mix of 16th-century buildings and an Ancient Roman city plan created the right obstacle course of ruined buildings and paving stones for the aerobic swordplay. The grittiness and dryness of the scenes also underline the… lack of fertility in playing war games with the boys.
While the town of Pienza, in Siena stood in for Verona in general, the memorable marriage and crypt scenes took place in and around the Church of St. Pietro in Tuscania. Sure, Romeo and Juliet got a bum deal. But at least they got a lovely little tour of central and northern Italy along with all that kissing and dying.
For more tours through the world of film that don’t involve poison or seppuku, pick up a copy of “Film + Travel” today.
Images courtesy of Paramount.