Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Bassano Fresco by Peter Farey

In the comments on her essay "Marlowe and the Dark Lady" (September 2011), Maureen Duff mentioned a fresco in the town of Bassano del Grappa in Italy, some forty miles north-west of Venice, which appears to have been referred to in Othello. This connection was first suggested by Roger Prior in his article, "Shakespeare's Visit to Italy," 1 where he argues that Shakespeare (whom he assumes is the man from Stratford-upon-Avon) must have visited Bassano at some time, so detailed is his apparent knowledge of the fresco itself and of the town's inhabitants. 

This suggestion seems to have been ignored by Shakespearian scholars, but has been picked up by some non-Stratfordians, such as John Hudson,2 who proposes Emilia (Bassano) Lanier as the true author, and the Oxfordian Richard Whalen. Surprisingly, Richard Paul Roe's book 3 makes no mention of it, and although it gets a mention in Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers (p.431) no Marlovian has as far as I know written about it in any detail.

The particular passage in Othello which apparently contains the "fresco" references is when Iago – having planted the idea of Desdemona's infidelity with Cassio in Othello's mind, thus driving him into a jealous rage – reacts to Othello's demand for proof. (3.3.405-411)

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 is a speech which clearly rankles in Othello, as later, having insulted and dismissed his wife in front of Lodovico, he exits with the words "Goats, and Monkeys." (4.1.265)

According to Prior, the fresco was on the front of a house in the "Piazzotto del Sale" – "the little square of salt." It was painted in 1539 by Bassano's most famous painter, Jacopo dal Ponte, usually known as Jacopo Bassano, having been commissioned by the Dal Corno family, whose house it was and who were the official sellers of salt in Bassano.4  
Before looking at this fresco, however, it is perhaps worth noting that in the main square of Bassano there were two apothecary's shops. The owner of one of these had been known as "the Moor" after the sign of a Moor's head which hung outside his shop and, although this particular apothecary had retired by 1585, his family carried on the business for many years. The other was part-owned by someone called Giovanni Otello, a familiar surname in Bassano at the time. Although Cinthio's Hecatommithi, the main source of Othello, concerned both "the Moor" and "Disdemona" (sic), it was Shakespeare who introduced the name Othello for the main protagonist.

Not having seen the fresco itself, which has now been transferred to the museum in Bassano, I have to rely on the descriptions given by Roger Prior and John Hudson. They explain that it is divided into four horizontal bands, the second highest of which is a frieze depicting animals and musical instruments. Two of these animals are a goat with a monkey sitting beneath it. On the third band, roughly underneath them, is a large painting of a naked woman – Truth – who stands between two arched windows, and beneath her, on the lowest band, is a painting of the Drunkenness of Noah. The windows were fitted with slatted blinds, called "jealousies," which when opened appeared as doors partly concealing the naked Truth. The juxtaposition of the goat, the monkey, salt, drunkenness, jealousy, and the "door of Truth" seem to be far too obvious to be only coincidental.

If so, when might the author Shakespeare have visited Bassano del Grappa? To establish this, we need to look at the Bassano family, of which Emilia Lanier was a member. This family originated in Bassano, specializing in the manufacture and playing of musical wind instruments. Probably of Jewish origin, they had left the town by 1515, however, because of the anti-semitic policies of the town council. They settled in Venice, but five (of six) brothers emigrated to England in 1540, becoming members of Henry VIII's King's Music, and founders of the first recorder consort at the English court. By 1590, all of these brothers were dead, but their offspring, including Arthur, Edward, Andrea and Jeronimo, sons of the late Anthony Bassano, continued as instrument makers and court musicians. Emilia Lanier (née Bassano), daughter of Anthony's brother Baptista, was their cousin.

In August 1593, three of Anthony's sons – Arthur, Andrea and Jeronimo – received from the Crown a surprising and lucrative grant, a licence to export an average of over 100,000 calf-skins a year over a period of seven years. In fact, it was a licence the family held until 1621, with Edward also being included in 1607. It is therefore hardly surprising that neither Arthur nor Andrea (nor Edward, in fact) collected their quarterly payment as court musicians in person for the next three quarters and appear to have been away from London for seven months or so. The brothers had inherited a house in Venice, and Bassano was an important centre of the leather-working industry. As it happens, the Otello family had been prominent among the leather handlers of the town, and possibly still were.

Roger Prior suggests that the brothers must have invited Shakespeare to accompany them, having picked up an expert knowledge of the leather trade from his father, who was a glover. We, however, might consider the alternative proposed by Maureen Duff Christopher Marlowe.  His father was a shoemaker who had at one time actually been a "searcher" (inspector) of leather for the Shoemakers Company, the guild which covered virtually all leather-working trades. Was it in fact suggested by "the Crown" that they knew just the man for the job?

One thing we may still wonder is why the author of Othello seems to associate the fresco in Bassano so much with sexual arousal ("as prime as Goats, as hot as Monkeys, / As salt as Wolves in pride"). John Hudson, thinking that the author was Emilia Lanier, suggests that the brothers took their cousin on the trip with them. If, as is popularly believed, she was the "dark lady" of the Sonnets, perhaps he is right!

© Peter Farey, August 2013

Peter Farey is a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, and twice joint winner of the Hoffman Prize for "a distinguished publication on Christopher Marlowe."

1 Roger Prior. "Shakespeare's Visit to Italy," The Journal of Anglo-Italian Studies, Vol. 9 (2008). The University of Malta. 
2 John Hudson. "Goats and Monkeys" (accessed 12 August 2013). 
3 Richard Paul Roe. The Shakespeare Guide to Italy (2008). Harper Perennial.
4 The member of the family who probably had most influence on the fresco's symbolism and design, Lazzaro Dal Corno, had been awarded the title Conte Palatino by the Emperor Charles V, and the "County Palatine" was, of course, one of Portia's suitors in The Merchant of Venice.

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