BY DINITIA SMITH
"Dear Juliet," the letters all begin...
"Dear Juliet ... You are my last hope. The woman I love more than anything in the world has left me. ..."
"Dear Juliet, I live on the third floor. My parents don't allow my boyfriend to come to my house. So I have to sneak him in. ..."
"Dear Juliet, my name is Riccardo. I am 10 years old." Riccardo is in love with an older woman, 14. He saw her in Verona the summer before. Does Juliet have news of her?
Every week, hundreds of letters pour into the office of the Club di Giulietta, in Verona, Italy, the city that is the setting for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Some are addressed simply "To Juliet, Verona," but the postman always knows to deliver them to the club's Via Galilei headquarters. Every letter is answered by the club's group of volunteers, no matter what the language, sometimes with the assistance of outside translators. (In the past, the owner of a local Chinese restaurant helped.)
"Help me! Save me!" wrote an Italian woman whose husband had left her. "I feel suspended on a precipice. I am afraid of going mad."
Her answer came from Ettore Solimani, who was the custodian of Juliet's tomb for nearly 20 years, beginning in the 1930's. "Men have moments when they are unable to control themselves," he wrote.
"Have faith ...," Mr. Solimani added later in the letter. "The day of humiliation will come for the intruder, and your husband will come back to you."
Now two American sisters, Lise and Ceil Friedman, have put some of the letters and a few of the responses into a book, "Letters to Juliet," along with the story of the club and the play's historical background. It is being published in November by Stewart, Tabori & Chang. But on Wednesday, Lise Friedman, an adjunct professor at New York University, will read from it at the university's Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.
And what is the real history of the play? The theme of tragic love between two young people from feuding families goes back at least to Ovid. Luigi da Porto, in "Newly Discovered Story of Two Noble Lovers" (1530), set the tale in Verona with rival families, the Montecchis and Cappellettis. There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever visited Italy, and some scholars think he based "Romeo and Juliet" on a poem by Arthur Brooke published some three decades before. But the myth of Romeo and Juliet and it is something of a myth has become vital to the tourism industry in Verona, where Juliet's house and tomb are supposedly located. Giulio Tamassia, president of the Club di Giulietta, has said that the house on Via Cappello has been called "Juliet's" only since the 19th century. And the balcony on its front dates from the first half of the 20th century. (Shakespeare mentions no balcony in the play. For her famous Act II, Scene 2 speech, Juliet comes from "above.")
Outside stands a bronze statue of Juliet. Tourists rub the right breast for good luck. It is now considerably shinier than the left.
For years, tourists stuck notes to Juliet on the walls of the house with bubblegum. Last year the gum was removed, and white plasterboard put up for those who feel they must write. There is also a letterbox at the house, and its missives are collected and answered by the club. These days you can even send an e-mail to Juliet at firstname.lastname@example.org. Very few letters, oddly enough, are sent to Romeo.
"There are hundreds of letters from U.S. teenagers," said Elena Marchi, the assistant to Mr. Tamassia, in a telephone interview from Verona. One reason is that "Romeo and Juliet" is part of many American high school curriculums.
"It's easier to talk to someone you don't know," said Ms. Marchi, a professional translator when she is not answering letters. "There are things you wouldn't say to your mother."
Ms. Marchi goes to the club every day, she said. "Once you start," she said, "you never give up, it's so interesting."
At least since the turn of the last century, messages have been left at Juliet's tomb in a former monastery on the Via del Pontiere, about a 15-minute walk from Juliet's house. But the letters really began flowing in 1937, the year after George Cukor's film "Romeo and Juliet" was released. That same year, Mr. Solimani was hired as the custodian of the tomb, which was probably originally an animal trough. (There are no bones there. Although the two lovers are supposedly buried together, over the years Romeo seems to have vanished from the picture, and it is now usually called just Juliet's tomb.)
Mr. Solimani planted rose bushes and a willow tree, trained two dozen turtledoves to fly around the cloister and to land on the shoulders of female visitors, and took it upon himself to answer the letters.
In the late 1980's, the club began to answer them. It receives money from the city for stationery and postage, but is otherwise run by volunteers.
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