People attach significance to the places where important events occur or that are associated with important people – we know that. This tendency is so strong in us that these associations have been codified – they comprise two of the four reasons (HALF!) a historical place can qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. But what I had never considered until recently is this – the events/people don’t have to be real for people to treasure a place associated with them.
“In fair Verona where we lay our scene,” is the famous opening line to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and it is there, in the real Verona, Italy, that the doomed couple and their love is celebrated. So entwined are the beloved tale of star crossed lovers and the real-life city, that 6,000 letters are mailed to Verona each year addressed to Juliet! And hundreds more are left at the Casa di Giulietta, the World Heritage site that may once have housed the family that inspired Shakespeare’s Capulets. Though Juliet’s House is Verona’s number one tourist destination, the privately owned Casa di Romeo receives its fair share of visitors (even though, all they can do is stand in the street and gaze up at its high walls). All this, even though there is very little to suggest that Romeo and Juliet ever existed, much less that they had a passionate and ill-fated love affair.
The tradition of sending letters to Juliet likely goes back centuries. Reportedly, people began leaving the letters on a tomb believed to be Juliet’s, later the letters started to arrive by mail. By the 1990s, the city was receiving so many it created an office to deal with them. Called the “Juliet Club,” the office is staffed by volunteers who have fashioned themselves “Juliet’s secretaries.” The city pays for stamps and paper (promoting its identity as the hometown of Romeo and Juliet is excellent for tourism), and the secretaries respond to each letter of hope and heartache by hand.
Letters written to Juliet have also been a problem for the former inn known as Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House), which was bought by the city of Verona from the Cappello family (who may have been the model for the Capulets of Romeo and Juliet) in 1905. Every day crowds of people make their way through the narrow archway into the courtyard to admire and photograph the most famous balcony in the world. That the balcony was constructed from a medieval sarcophagus in the 17th century and there is almost nothing to link the house to Romeo and Juliet does not deter the hundreds of people who declare their eternal love (or perform impromptu recitations of the bard’s tragedy) there every day. Many romantics believe that posting letters on the courtyard’s walls will make their love everlasting, and until the practice was put to an end in 2012 for fear of permanently damaging the historic structure, thousands of scraps of paper, post-its, and letters were affixed to the house’s brick walls with chewing gum, tape, and other sticky substances. Today, any sentimental lover caught affixing a note to the structure can be fined up to 500 Euros – and the city has designated several places to leave the tokens without damage to the building.
As far as I know, no one is writing to Romeo or affixing love notes to the Casa di Romeo, the privately owned 13th century house that was the home of the Montecchi family(possibly the real-life inspiration for the Montagues). But people do make the short trip from Juliet’s house to stand outside its fortified walls. Affixed to the exterior of the building, with it’s squat tower and high walls surrounding courtyards, is a plaque that reads:
Oh where is Romeo? …
Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here,
This is not Romeo, He’s some other where.
From Romeo and Juliet Act I, Scene I
Despite the tenuous evidence linking the Casa di Romeo and Casa di Giulietta to the bard’s most tragic and popular play, and even less evidence suggesting that Romeo and Juliet were real, thousands of people are drawn to visit Verona each year and thousands more send letters, many addressed simply to: Juliet, Verona, Italy in the hopes of finding a connection to them and to the legendary love they shared. For whatever reason, Romeo and Juliet and the events of their (most likely fictional) lives have touched people. They are important to them. Because of that, Verona is more than just a beautiful city with excellent examples of Roman and Medieval architecture, it is a city of love and tragedy. It’s personal. As people meander through its cobbled streets, they get a sense of the medieval city. The high walls of ancient houses articulated around inner courtyards and fortified by turrets and thick stone remind them that Verona is a city where families were once pitted against each other in ancient rivalries – rivalries so intense and violent they were forced to live in virtual fortresses. From the evidence of Verona’s real history visible in its preserved buildings and monuments, its not hard to make the leap to the legend of Romeo and Juliet. And that is the power of place.