Starcross'd lovers send pleas to Juliet
By COLLEEN BARRY
VERONA, Italy — Hers was a literary, not literal, existence. And her own love story was, let's just say, starcross'd.
Nonetheless, thousands of lovelorn every year pour out their hearts and seek solace from Juliet, Shakespeare's heroine.
Their entreaties arrive by the dozens — handwritten missives, sometimes with drawings, or photographs, penned on handmade paper or sheets meant to look like ancient parchment. Some are addressed simply: Juliet, Verona, Italy.
Thanks to compassionate letter carriers, they find their way to an upstairs office overlooking the courtyard of the fabled home of Juliet Capulet, just opposite the balcony of Shakespearean fame.
And there, improbably, they are answered by 15 self-appointed secretaries to Juliet.
"Let's say by now we are pretty expert. After 15, 20 years we are able to manage this phenomenon," said Giovanna Tamassia, who has been writing replies for 16 years. "But it is also true that sometimes a particularly difficult letter arrives and then we speak among ourselves."
Soon, the secretaries will be looking for more help: They expect a deluge after Friday's U.S. release of the movie "Letters to Juliet," about one such letter.
"When the film comes out: Help!" Tamassia said.
The movie stars Vanessa Redgrave as a woman whose letter of regret over leaving her Italian love to return to Britain is found behind a loose brick at Juliet's Verona house, a famous tourist spot and romantic pilgrimage. A young tourist (Amanda Seyfried), who stumbles on the long-ago letter while assisting the secretaries, helps Redgrave's character seek out her Romeo, named Victor.
Victor is played by Redgrave's real-life husband, Franco Nero, and the story of young love abandoned and then rediscovered after decades echoes their own: The pair met on the set of "Camelot" in 1967, had a son Carlo, and went their separate ways until finding each other again and marrying in 2006.
"And she says a wonderful line, 'Sorry I'm late,' and I answer, 'When we speak about love, it's never too late,' " Nero said, in Verona.
That situation is familiar to the real-life secretaries.
Some of Juliet's pen pals see her as an enchanted figure able to guarantee their love, said Tamassia: "Please, let Marco and I never leave each other. Let me find eternal love."
Others are seeking a confidante.
"Almost all of the letters contain the phrase 'Juliet, I can only tell you. Only you can help me,' " Tamassia said.
Yet others ask Juliet to tell the object of their affections of their love, something they feel they cannot express adequately themselves.
By age group, most are adolescents. By nationality, most are American. And by gender, most are female.
"Sometimes, it is enough to be listened to, not to get practical advice. They just need to let it out, to tell their story," said Elena Marchi, a Juliet secretary for seven years.
THE LEGEND GREW
The legend of Juliet is rife with superstition of unknown provenance, fact entwined with fiction. A bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard has a right breast worn shiny by the touch of tourists wishing for luck as they pose for a souvenir photo.
It's easier to trace the origin of the letters. Late 19th-century photographs indicate that visitors were leaving notes at Juliet's symbolic tomb.
The phenomenon was helped, says Verona-based art historian Ceil Friedman, by the late Ettore Solimani, the tomb's custodian for two decades.
"He was an energetic, lively, interesting person, not content to sit and sell tickets. He invented a series of rituals to the tomb. He would invite visitors to hold hands, make a wish, and promised the wish would hold true," said Friedman, who with her sister Lise Friedman wrote the book "Letters to Juliet" that inspired the film. "He even trained turtle doves to fly and land on female visitors."
And he began responding to letters, signing them simply: "Juliet's secretary." As word spread that the letters were answered, more arrived.
The responses trailed off after he was forced to retire in the late 1950s, until a history professor took it over, abandoning the job after four years when his identity was revealed, Friedman said. Then for years, a city worker penned the letters between official business and on her own time, until the late 1980s, when city officials asked the "Club di Giulietta" to take over.
For the secretaries, the fact that Juliet never really existed is unimportant.
"Even if she is a literary figure, she has become real," said Tamassia.