It is a typical Monday morning in a small office in the Italian city of Verona. Barbara sits at her desk and begins reading letters addressed to her long-dead boss. 'Dear Juliet, where have you been all these years? I hope your tomb is not too cold. I am an English teacher and we have just read your story. Everybody started crying at the end.'
Barbara is a professional dancer and a part-time secretary. She works for the world's oldest agony aunt, who died seven centuries ago. 'My job is to reply to all the letters to Juliet,' she explains. 'Verona stages an annual festival on her birthday, September 16. I danced at one and was asked if I wanted to help with Juliet's fan mail - she receives 5,000 letters every year. One of the first letters I opened was from a Polish girl who wanted to commit suicide. I wrote back telling her not to. I don't know if she took my advice or if she is alive or dead.
'It's a great responsibility writing on behalf of Juliet. The letters she gets are all about unrequited, forbidden and thwarted love. There are many people still suffering in the same way Juliet did with Romeo. They relate to her. She is a symbol of doomed but eternal love. That is why so many people write to her. Her story is universal - as relevant today as it was in the 14th century.'
Set in 1303 and first published in 1596, Shakespeare's tragic tale of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet was well-known in Italy. A cavalry captain, Luigi Da Porto, had already written a novel about the two feuding families. The first lonely-heart letter written to Juliet arrived in her home town in 1927. In 1937, shortly after the release of George Cukor's film version of the tale, another arrived. It was simply addressed, 'Juliet, Verona'.
The then-curator of Juliet's tomb, which is in a monastery in the city centre, replied. More letters came and the Club di Giuilietta (Juliet's Club) was formed. It now has seven secretaries, aged from 24 to 40, to deal with the mail. Their office is a converted garage. The only two male members are the office cat (named Romeo) and the club's founder, Giulio Tamassia, a retired manager of a confectionery factory.
'To be one of Juliet's secretaries you must be discreet and sensitive,' he says. 'It does not matter if Juliet was real or fictional. The thing that matters is everyone gets a reply. For many, she is real and her story is real. The Capulets did exist; they were called the Cappellos. You can see the family's emblematic cap carved in the archway and over the fireplace at Juliet's house, No 23 Via Cappello.
'People come from around the world to renew their vows and kiss on the balcony, although it is not the original. An outside balcony would have been an open invitation to burglars. It would have been in the inner courtyard. Couples come to marry near her empty sarcophagus. Some, such as [British poet] Lord Byron, chip off a souvenir from her tomb.
'We have two letter boxes in town just for people to write to her. But the thing everyone wants to do is touch her right breast. You will be lucky in love if you touch the right bosom of the statue standing in front of her house. It has got smaller over the years with all the manhandling. It is now an A cup.'
Tamassia's daughter, Giovanna, a professional translator and interpreter, supervises the incoming and outgoing mail. Letters come from around the world every day. In her postbag she finds a letter from the United States from a mother of two whose husband of six years is having more fun with his friends than with her. She has begun an affair with a neighbour. She does not know whether to persevere with her marriage or move in next door. A teacher tells of her love for one of her students. She knows her feelings are illegal, but she writes, 'I must make him mine or die'. There is a letter from a gay Cuban boy in love with his best friend ('How can I tell him without upsetting him?'). Another is from a French woman who found her husband in bed with his best male friend. She is afraid to make an issue of it.
'We get every conceivable type of letter,' says Giovanna. 'We get a lot from prisoners. We had
one written by a Finnish man on a flight to Moscow about his French girlfriend. We get many from
Middle Eastern women. People just want to talk, to establish a dialogue, to share their innermost feelings and problems with Juliet Capulet.
'Juliet does not theorise or judge; she listens and tries to understand. We say things such as age and race are not important and only true love counts, and that sometimes keeping love is as hard as finding it. These people share with Juliet a feeling that the world is against them, that they are not cut out for happiness. We answer SOS's from modern star-crossed lovers.'
Manuela Uber, who has a degree in modern languages, deals with the Japanese correspondence. Staff at the town's Chinese restaurants used to help with the translations of other love letters from Asia, but now, a Chinese washing-machine repairman has taken on that role.
Says Uber: 'Subjects range from being jilted and breaking up to couples just growing apart. Seventy per cent [of letters] are from women. Women have an incurable longing for love. They stake everything on their emotions. They can't stop loving despite everything. We get a lot of letters from and about
exes; a lot, too, from people from different racial backgrounds whose parents forbid their love and refuse to recognise their relationship. It's very sad. There is a lot of desperation out there.'
Marinella Fedrigolli, who works for the agricultural department and is married to a butcher, is the most experienced of Juliet's secretaries, having worked for the club for 10 years. 'People write to Juliet care of her club when their sadness becomes too oppressive and their love sorrows impossible to bear,' says Fedrigolli. 'Despite the fact she was only 14 when she died, Juliet is their sister, their mother and their confidante. Young people don't relate to their elders, to priests, teachers and parents. Juliet is their ideal role model. When there is no one left to turn to, they turn to the irrational.'
Occasionally, the club's staff receive feedback from their correspondents. 'You reminded me of my dignity and stopped me doing something stupid. You gave me back my desire to live,' reads one. Secretary Stefania Bua, whose husband is a salesman, says it is gratifying to offer solace. 'To know you have helped to make someone less sad and more happy is a wonderful feeling,' she says.
The letters also shed light on some national traits when it comes to romance. 'The Italians write passionate letters. So do the French - they seem to have the most complicated romantic lives,' says Italian literature graduate Elisa Foschi, another secretary. Her fiancee wrote anonymously to the club for advice on his own love life. 'The letters we get from Britain are half from men and half from women. British men can be quite lyrical. One recently wrote about his love-shattered heart, frozen like a rose and then dropped.
'It's mainly teenagers who write from the [United] States. They believe in Juliet and what she stands for. The letter-writers believe in the strength of love. They want to be reassured they are not the only ones who aren't free to love.' She picks up one letter and reads: 'We owe our happiness to you, Juliet. You possess magic powers, the powers that only great love brings.'
Every St Valentine's Day, the club awards prizes for the best love letters. 'This year's winners from France and Italy are representative of the best,' says secretary Alice Guidozizzi. 'They speak of Verona being a land of love and a love that has no equal. One describes Juliet as a citizen of Verona as well as the world.'
The secretaries gather around a table to discuss how to answer newly arrived letters. 'How do you know when you are in love?' writes one. 'Is it when the sun shines brightly and the stars twinkle more in the sky?' The envelope carries an Australian stamp. 'I don't see stars when he kisses me. How can I make a Romeo of this man? Or is my Romeo someone else?' asks another, postmarked from Melbourne.
'Dearest Juliet, I am writing because you alone can understand. I know you are still living because you live in each one of us. In all our hearts.'