Romeo and Juliet (and more!) in Pisa

Lurking in the back of my post on the medieval textile exhibit in Pisa were some costumes I only mentioned. It seems I only posted one shot here which is a shame. The costumes in question are Danilo Donati’s designs from the Franco Zeffirelli 1968 film Romeo and Juliet, and they are beautiful.

Donati cast the Capulets in vibrant red and the Montagues in cool blue. The bright colors on rich velvets threaded with gold are exciting. Fortunately for the costumes but unfortunately for photography, the lighting was dim in the museo. Zeffirelli strove for authenticity, including controversially with the ages of his stars, but it the production is still very much a product of it’s time and both his and Shakespeare’s romantic visions.

For example, I always felt that there were never enough people or things going on in the street and market scenes. They were filmed in Gubbio and Pienza. There are visually fantastic sequences with the Nurse and Montague boys walking through the marketplace and this wide expansive piazza. It’s unclear whether others besides the cast members (extras) should be there and some filter in and out and modest crowds form when the boys fight in the film. But, Shakespeare had never been to fair Verona, and he had never seen the market in the old Roman forum that never seems to shut down that is also absurdly close to the residences of the families he based his tale upon. At least up through Venice’s acquisition of the city, the foro, now the Piazza delle Erbe, was the center of Verona’s mercantile life, a smaller plaza full of busy people, tasty foods, fresh produce, stalls full of fine goods, and an ancient Roman fountain – which, by the way, still delivers crisp and refreshing water from the mountains. (Do refill your bottles here if you are in town.) Imagine the boy’s street brawl there. It feels like Zeffirelli forgot Verona was a market town, a bustling hub of a city. But it does let us focus on the story and characters.

Anyways, striving for accuracy does not necessarily mean being truly historically accurate when in the pursuit of art, and this applies to the costumes too. But in the scheme of film, these are excellent historical costume pieces. The story is old, and even Dante references the two families being at each other’s throats in his Purgatorio:

“Vieni a veder Montecchi e Cappelletti, Monaldi e Filippeschi, uom sanza cura: color gia tristi, e questi con sospetti!”

(“Come and see the Montecchi and Cappelletti, the Monaldi and Filippeschi, heedless man: those already wretched, and those fearful!” (Robert M. Durling’s translation))

The story with the star-crossed lovers probably dates from the later half of the 15th c, at which time it had been a generation or two since the city had submitted and sworn loyalty to Venice as the Venetians pushed for control of surrounding mainland. Though there would be brief control by the Germans and French, Verona would remain a part of the Serenissima until it’s dismantling under Napoleon.

I know you’re asking, where are the photos? But this is to provide some context for the costuming end. We have a window for the story, which tells us when the costume before, as well as a setting as a Venetian holding to provide context for the play’s imagery.  These families are now Venetian nobility. Verona became a wealthy and vibrant mainland jewel for the Republic of Saint Mark. Plus, ever wonder why it’s totally cool that the lovers meet while masked..?

The costumes should reflect this sumptuousness, a counter to the ugly feuding between the families that the true authority figure, Prince Escalus, wishes to put to rest. The Prince would be not like the familial princes elsewhere on the peninsula, but an elected official from the Venetian government, a rector. The feud hurts both trade and bystanders – civil unrest is not good for business, another indirect way to hurt bystanders, and it needs to end. The Prince is willing to extend the rarely used  (in Venice, anyways) death penalty to either the Montagues or Capulets for further disruption. Shakespeare may not have realized it, but he was likening their actions to that of treason or murder with this official pronouncement. The feuding families are taking it out on the Serenissima, and not out in the lands of Lombardy like in Dante’s day.

So now we turn to Pisa, quite far from Verona, to see some of those costumes. Judging from both paintings (and Cesare Vecellio), the costumes span quite a large time frame, a pastiche of Italian costume from the 1480’s through the 1540’s, more for effect than accuracy, or perhaps, to make the whole more romantic and timeless. At least that’s what I would think the goal was for a piece that supposedly strove for accuracy. They are accurate individually, but together there’s a motley jumble of eras, even among the cosmopolitan and wealthy merchants and nobility. It’s all for the feel of it rather than the accuracy.

The costumes should be bold, if only to reflect the egregious flaunting of law, safety, and decency that the merchant families engage in on a regular basis. They should shout to a wealth that was still hard to fathom in most of Europe, and they should be passionate, as befits family, character, and story. Donati’s costumes soar in this regard like few on film do. If we were being accurate, compared to some of the other noble ladies, Juliet’s crimson ball gown is, like, so 15th century. What, is this a cast-off! But the tighter sleeves and long lines make her looks smaller, lither, and innocent from the drama of her family. Compare it to her mother’s attire. The film is worth a watch, and keep in mind the color coding and Donati’s intentions. Take a look at Juliet’s dress during the wedding scene. It’s a quite telling rough spun pale lavender with long, voluminous sleeves. Then, look at when she wears the same dress next.

That’s all I’ve got to say on the background, so without further commentary, here is Juliet’s famous red gown. The only thing I can add, after comparing the dress to that of the film, is that it is incredibly hard to see the color differences between the crimson and ochre panels on the dress in many film stills. They are all colored out and over saturated so the whole damn thing looks red. So, you’ll see as is with no editing, editing to account for the low lighting in the room, and editing that brings up the vibrancy to show it is true to film.

With lighting as-is:


Corrected to remove shadows and restore brightness and show true color:



And now as on over saturated film, where the  ochre is hardly discernible:


Over saturated film still (what ochre?):


But here’s a truer to color still, just to prove it’s the same dress! See that ochre gold!


A similar close up of sleeve and bodice IRL. Either there’s some sag from the weight or the mannequin doesn’t have Olivia Hussey’s shoulders:


Close up of neckline/bodice (uncorrected):


Close up of neckline/bodice (corrected):


Back view showing belt tie and hidden zipper, a small modern concession. It’s well done and could be mistaken for hooks. I think this was covered by a cape in some shots:


In addition, there were some men’s costumes, from the Montague and Prince side of the color spectrum. The placard said that these were all used at some point:


Close up:



Another, with green taffeta, nice golden sleeves, and fur trim:


Close up:


Rear view of another, with thick pile brocade:


And close up:


…and there was this gorgeous jeweled gold number that was, so the placard says, intended for Juliet, but is not seen in the film. At least that’s what my notes say. Was it used in another production? If anyone can place this gorgeous overdress, I would be happy and impressed:


Close up of the beading and trim:


…and showing the train:


There were also these two pretty white frocks, and I’m not sure to whom they really belong. I forgot to take a picture of their placard. That’s probably why I didn’t group them with the other medieval textiles. Yet, they are so obviously medieval construction techniques and patterns, so why didn’t I? I have no bloody clue. They belong to some nebulous third party, maybe.


The first gown in satin with embroidered double hemmed seams (the one on the left, no train):


The second frock (on the right) is a really nubby/slubby unglossy silk or silkaline cotton (or a fine woolsey?):


A close up of it’s back, a beautiful job and cute wee shoulder ties:


There we have it! And that is all I have from Pisa, double and triple checked.


~ by glasslajora on July 17, 2013.

4 Responses to “Romeo and Juliet (and more!) in Pisa”

  1. The second frock (on the right) is from “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”. Regards.

  2. Beaded overdress looks like it’s from 50s version with Susan Shentall.

    • Thank you, Violetta! I haven’t actually seen that version. I looked at a couple stills online and it does look incredibly like the one of Juliet in her final moments. None of the other dresses from the stills seem to match up quite right from my memories of the exhibit, but that was a brief internet survey… and that stunning gold overdress seems spot on. I will have to watch this film now!

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