Cara Giulietta, Querida Julieta, Chère Juliette, Dear Juliet … so begin the thousands of letters addressed to this renowned "ragazza" received every year at Casa di Giulietta in Verona, Italy.
It seems that no matter the language, literature's most heartbreaking heroine still represents romance, passion, and, above all, tragedy. Six hundred years after their deaths, Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers continue to epitomize undying love, stirring people's emotions and inspiring them to reveal their most intimate, hilarious, touching, and tragic experiences with the most complex human emotion.
For nearly 70 years, people from across the globe have written to Giulietta in search of advice, sympathy, an attentive ear, or as simply a way to express their emotions. This Italian version of "Dear Abby" is so popular that the Verona-based Club di Giulietta (Juliet Club) has established an annual competition. The Cara Giulietta prize is awarded every year on Valentine's Day to the most compelling love letters that found their way to Juliet's doorstep during the previous year.
This year there were two winners of the Cara Giulietta prize. One, Elisabeth from Bergamo, told a tale of unrequited love, dedicating her letter to Paolino, a man she met and fell in love with while on a trip through Turkey. The other, Valeria from Venice, explored the complexities of entering a new relationship after heartbreak. "He bears the weight of my past with me without my asking him to do so. And so I tell myself that two possibilities exist: I can live between the ruins pretending it's the beautiful building I remember or arm myself with all possible strength and rebuild elsewhere. With him."
In her work, "Letters to Juliet," Lise Friedman describes more about the Cara Giulietta prize, the history of Juliet's correspondence, the volunteers responsible for answering these letters, as well as the stories of the people who write them.
"The ones that we found most compelling are the ones that are from the guy, the amusing ones from kids, of course, and the ones that reflect someone's state as opposed to 'I'm writing a letter that I want to win a prize for,'" said Friedman. "The ones that are more about sending a message in a bottle, sending a feeling, a passion, a trouble into the ether, those are the ones that are really very interesting and have the most gravitas because they are sincere."
But what exactly is it about Juliet that inspires thousands every year to pick up their pens and pour their hearts out or seek relationship advice from a girl who killed herself for her soul mate? Yes, Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers have symbolized universal love for nearly six centuries, and yes, their story has melted even the most unsentimental of hearts, but shouldn't Romeo be getting some fan mail too? Not so much, said Friedman.
"Juliet is sort of the protagonist of the play as we know it. She is the fulcrum around which all the action takes place. She, in Shakespeare's play, is 13 almost 14. She's a young girl. She's very impetuous, she's very passionate, and her desire is what drives the play forward and I think that's why, ultimately, people relate to her. They identify with her," said Friedman. "The tragedy is really her tragedy as opposed to their tragedy."
Begun by Ettore Solimani, the son of the first secretary of the original Club de Giulietta, in the early 1930s, the tradition of answering Juliet's letters has continued for generations. Originally a one-man (or one-woman) job, the outpouring of correspondence has grown to such an extent that it takes the work of nine secretaries to personally answer each letter Juliet receives.
Originally a men's club aimed at maintaining the traditions and legends of the city of Verona, the Club di Giulietta, under the leadership of Giulio Tamassia, began awarding the Cara Giulietta prize in 1993. In the past decade, the awards ceremony, held at Casa di Giulietta, has attracted numerous Italian stars, such as ballerina Carla Fracci, film director Franco Zefferelli, actress Giulietta Masina and celebrated tenor Andrea Bocelli.
So, what do these letters teach us about love and human beings? "What I learned about love, about yearning, about desire is that I knew it was universal," said Friedman. "But I understand something now about people's need, their desire to express themselves even if there isn't a person there to express themselves to."