The Italian City That Keeps Love Alive

Verona's Juliet Club lives Shakespeare's words: If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully.

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Posted in , Feb 10, 2014

An artist's rendering of an angel on a Veronese balcony, penning a letter

Verona, Italy, is my hometown. Not only did I grow up here, but my parents ran a bed-and-breakfast that catered to tourists from all over the world who came to see our Roman amphitheatre, medieval Castelvecchio, the gardens of the Giardino Giusti.

They often asked us for suggestions on what else to see. I thought I knew all of Verona’s secrets.

So I was surprised one evening a couple of years ago when I was chatting with a couple from the United States. I loved hearing what foreigners thought of our city–plus, it was a good chance to practice my English. “We just loved Juliet’s House,” the woman told me.

A lot of people knew Verona as the setting for one of the world’s most famous love stories: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare probably never set foot in Verona himself, but he imagined the city so vividly people still came to see it for themselves hundreds of years later.

In 1936 an enterprising Veronian built a balcony on a house off the Piazza delle Erbe and declared it the Casa di Giulietta. Its courtyard is often crowded with people who take turns posing on the balcony.

That wasn’t the only spot where pilgrims might feel a kinship with the tender, angelic Juliet. For centuries people with romantic troubles had written letters to Shakespeare’s heroine. At first they left their letters at the San Francesco al Corso Monastery, which was said to be the place of Juliet’s tomb.

Later, when mail service improved, they sent letters addressed simply to Juliet Capulet, Verona, Italy. Some tucked notes between the bricks in the wall at Casa di Giulietta, or wrote their messages right on the bricks themselves.

Eventually the house put up panels that could be replaced twice a year–once on September 16, Juliet’s birthday, and next on–when else?–Valentine’s Day.

“The Juliet Club has its work cut out,” the American woman said.

“The Juliet Club?” I asked. “Is that something you have in the USA?”

“No, it’s right here in Verona,” she said. “The club receives Juliet’s mail and responds to every single letter by hand. More than six thousand a year.”

How could such a thing be going on right here in Verona without me knowing about it? I had to learn more. For the first time in my life, the tourists were directing me somewhere!

I found the Juliet Club housed in a small building on the outskirts of the city. It was founded in 1993 by a baker, Giulio Tamassia, who remains president. I spoke to one of the volunteers, Giovanna. “We are Juliet’s secretaries,” she said.

She showed me piles of mail in a dozen languages: Italian, German, English, Spanish, Japanese... “Dear Juliet,” one letter began, “I’m writing to you because you’re the only person who can understand how I feel.”

“So many letters start like that,” said Giovanna.

People who were lonely, or were too young and shy to open their hearts to family or friends, turned to Juliet, a girl who sacrificed everything for love. The girl who said, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,/My love as deep; the more I give to thee,/The more I have, for both are infinite.”

Angels carried prayers to God and brought divine comfort. Juliet’s secretaries brought a different kind of comfort. The comfort that comes from another human being who says, “I understand.”

When I saw the archive of answered letters and imagined all those people reaching out for support, I knew I wanted to contribute. I became a volunteer. My training was rigorous, and I was under constant supervision.

Happy love, sad love, lost love, unrequited love–with the help of more experienced volunteers, I learned to really think about what each letter-writer needed.

“What they all need most is someone who listens, like a friend,” Giovanna explained. “You don’t expect a friend to solve your problems. You just need her or him to be there for you. To love you, no matter what.”

Today I’m an official secretary of Juliet. Every week I take a stack of letters home to answer, choosing just the right words. When I come across a scenario unfamiliar to me, I pass it to a secretary with different life experiences.

Our ages span from 20 to 55 years old. Some are single like me, some are married, some divorced. Some are women, some are men. Among us we can always find just the right way to let the letter-writer know we care.

When Juliet dies at the end of Shakespeare’s play, we’re told that her “immortal part with angels lives.” But we at the Juliet Club help keep her alive on earth too. Right here in her–and my–hometown.

 

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