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Letters ask for Juliet’s advice

Secretaries in Italy expect deluge of mail after film opens

VERONA, Italy – Hers was a literary, not literal, existence. And her own love story was, let’s just say, star-crossed.

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.

Yet 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.”

They expect a deluge following today’s release of “Letters to Juliet,” a new movie starring Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave that tells the story of one of those letters gone lost.

“When the film comes out: Help!” Tamassia said.

Some of Juliet’s pen pals see her as a figure that can cast a spell to guarantee their love, she said: “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.

And others ask Juliet to tell the object of their affections about 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 of Juliet is rife with superstition of unknown provenance, fact entwined with fiction. A bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard has its right breast worn shiny by the touch of tourists wishing for good luck, while posing for a souvenir photo.

It is 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,” said Friedman, who with her sister Lise Friedman wrote a book, “Letters to Juliet,” that inspired the film.

“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. 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 Solimani 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,” Tamassia said, “she has become real.”


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