Alyssa Velazquez is currently a Masters student at Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. Her publications include “Tupperware: An Open Container During A Decade of Containment” in Women’s History Magazine and Men and Manolos: Love and Relationships in the Heels of a Hopeless Romantic. In this article for The Votives Project, she writes about letters left at the site known as Juliet’s courtyard, and especially the 2010 film Letters to Juliet that documents these epistolary ‘dedications.’
When the act of dedicating an ex voto is captured on camera and transferred onto 35-mm film, the viewer’s gaze is often transferred from the object being exchanged onto the devotee. The ephemera on altars, churches, and gravestones become props that the actor utilizes to complete a performative action. As an artistic medium, film captures the devotee in situ, sometimes revealing their personal life story and often documenting their emotionally charged responses to the votive and its performance.
Juliet of Verona’s earliest appearance was in Luigi da Porto’s Historia Novellamente Ritrovatat di due Nobili Amanti (A Story Newly Found of Two Noble Lovers) in 1530. The story was set in a Verona governed by Bartolomeo dell Scala, and in the midst of a family feud between the noble Montecchi and Cappelletti. The commonality of characters, location, and storyline suggests that Shakespeare read Luigi da Porto’s Italian novella of two tragic Veronese lovers, and was thus inspired to write Romeo and Juliet, forever immortalizing Juliet as a heroine of love.
Shakespeare’s play became bound to a physical landscape when historical records indicated that Juliet Cappelletti’s grave was an underground tomb near Verona’s San Francesco Church. Locals began making pilgrimages to her tomb, leaving notes of heartbreak and appeals for help, as well as petitions for guidance. In the 1930s, Ettore Solimani was appointed by the city as the guardian and custodian of Juliet’s tomb. He began collecting the letters that were being left by visitors.
The story of Juliet caught the public imagination once again in 1937, with the international release of George Cukor’s film: Romeo and Juliet. Cukor’s film substantially increased visitors to the supposed site of Juliet’s burial. Ettore was so moved with empathy by the tomb’s multiplying assemblage of personal notes that he began replying to them; he signed every return letter as “secretary of Juliet.” After retiring as the tomb’s custodian, Ettore Solimani began redirecting Juliet ‘devotees’ to the building that was believed to be her home in Verona. Because of the fragile nature of Juliet’s underground catacomb, pilgrims were now being prompted to visit and leave their notes of petition within the Cappelletti’s courtyard. Solimani converted the building into the headquarters of the Il Club di Guilietta (Juliet’s Club): an organization dedicated to replying to the millions of letters that continue to be left on the courtyard walls for Juliet of Verona.
In 2006, Lise and Ceil Friedman published In Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona and the Power of Love; that book would be the foundation for the 2010 film Letters to Juliet. The film follows the journey of Sophie, a fact checker for The New Yorker, to Verona, Italy. During a day of sight seeing Sophie (played by Amanda Seyfried) walks by the Cappelletti’s home and comes across a loose stone in the famed courtyard’s wall that conceals an unanswered note from 1957. Sophie not only brings the letter to the secretaries, she also asks if she can be the one to write the reply. Within a week, the original letter-writer makes contact with Il Club di Giulietta, and following Sophie’s advice, sets out to find her long lost love.
The film, Letters to Juliet, captures the breadth of interactive elements within Juliet’s courtyard—visitors can place their hands on Juliet’s statue for luck, stand atop her balcony, or leave a handwritten note of intercession. But you can read all about these belief-based acts in a guidebook. The unique dimension of Letters to Juliet in the presentation of ‘secular’ votive offerings is the mode of representing sentiment. Each and every devotee is shown to be emotionally invested in their ‘offering’. Their heartache can be heard through a medley of audio recordings of their hand written letters. Though Sophie is not able to hear what we, the viewers hear, her gaze—and by extension the viewer’s gaze—takes in the emotional expressions of the courtyard’s occupants.
Juliet’s courtyard is a site of sentiment, and is organized to perpetuate sentiment. The camera effortlessly shifts the contemporary onlooker’s view onto the women and men within this literary site, and depicts Juliet’s home as a location of monumental and historical significance. Four hundred years later, Juliet’s influence continues to be sought after through the deposition of messages and appeals.
Unlike love-lock accumulations—as reported on by Ceri Houlbrook—that consecrate romantic commitment, the letters left for Juliet question relationships and offer heartache. These are not tokens of thanks for a love fulfilled, but written appeals of assistance and guidance. It is this intercessional nature, embedded in “Dear Juliet,” that links followers of Juliet (and their words) to the religious language of votive offerings.
by Alyssa Velazquez