As everyone knows, Romeo and Juliet lived in Verona. Or did they? In fact, the evidence is slim, but this does not deter the Veronese, whose city is home to a thriving “Juliet industry”.It was common for writers in 16th century England to set their tales in Italy, and Shakespeare was no exception. Although it is unlikely that he ever set foot in Italy, he drew his inspiration from contemporary Italian stories. Many versions existed of the legend of the ill-fated lovers caught up in a bitter inter-family feud, but it was Shakespeare who made it world famous.
The story itself dates back to the 13th century, when conflict between families was rife in Verona, as in many Italian cities. Evidence of this can be seen in the many fortified houses around the city. Romeo and Juliet may not have been real characters, or have had any connection with Verona, but the essence of their story would have been familiar to Italians of that time.
Juliet’s House in Verona
They are certainly very real to many modern tourists, as I discovered when visiting Juliet’s house in Verona on a sunny August morning. This attractive medieval building, complete with stone balcony, claims to be the house where Juliet grew up, and today the courtyard is full of tourists, tour guides and snapping cameras. A bronze statue of Juliet stands near the door and visitors are advised – without any apparent sense of irony – that to touch her left breast will bring them luck in love. There is certainly no shortage of people queueing up to try the magic for themselves.
The inside of the house is a curious mix of medieval merchant’s dwelling – well worth a visit in its own right – and shrine to Shakespeare’s heroine. The first floor room contains a number of paintings of the romantic couple and it is this room that is the most popular, with tourists crowding to stand on the balcony and have their picture taken and they gaze wistfully down into the courtyard!
On the next floor is a room devoted to props from Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 film of the play, including the bed in which Romeo and Juliet spent their one night together. However, the banks of computer screens in the adjoining room bring you sharply back to the 21st century. This is the home of The Juliet Club, and the screens allow visitors to send their messages soliciting advice in matters of the heart directly to “Juliet”.
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The Juliet Club
Apparently the first letter to Juliet was sent in 1937, and they have carried on arriving ever since. The Club was established in 1990 and volunteers reply to over five thousand letters a year from hopeful romantics around the world. Every letter is answered – after all it was an undelivered letter that led to the unhappy conclusion of Juliet’s own love story.
A more traditional form of communication can be seen outside the house. The walls of the passage are plastered with graffiti proclaiming the names of real life lovers. Not just the usual hearts and names daubed with marker pens, but thousands of post-it notes and scraps of paper secured with bits of blu-tack or chewing gum.
The chewing gum is a headache for the Verona authorities, who say that it is causing damage to the ancient masonry. In 2005 a campaign was launched to persuade people to use the computer screens rather than the walls but this was largely unsuccessful.
But Where is Romeo?
A walk across town takes you to Juliet’s tomb. This is located in the ancient convent of the Capuchins but has long been reputed to be Juliet’s final resting place. Today the red marble tomb is dimly lit and strewn with fresh flowers.
But by now you might be asking, “What about Romeo?” Well, you can see Romeo’s supposed house, in the Via Arche Scagliere. But this house, which has certainly seen better days, is not open to the public, and is marked only by a plaque above the door containing a rather pointed quotation from the play: “Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here. This is not Romeo, he’s some other where”.
Ultimately, where is Romeo? In a city where Juliet has attained iconic status as a lover, the object of her affections seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.
This article first appeared in Italy magazine under the title “Wherefore art thou, Romeo” in February 2006. Reprinted by permission.