Three-meter long ropes of pink and red padlocks reach up to the ivy-covered balcony, known as Juliet’s Balcony, in Verona. People would like to believe that this was the balcony made famous in the scene when the ‘star crossed lovers’ declare their love for each other in Shakespeare’s play. Visiting tourists close small locks on the building as a sign of their unbreakable bond to each other, and as a romantic gesture of sympathy to Romeo and Juliet, who died for love. Watching the teenagers who go into the nearby shop to buy locks or write graffiti on the street walls, or the older couples who come in to take photographs, it doesn’t seem to matter to them that the government of Verona built it in the 1930’s. All around the rose marble city there are sites like this: Juliet’s tomb is in fact unoccupied, and her house picked simply because the family name resembles Juliet’s family name, ‘Capulet’.
The city in recent years has tried to be honest about the history, but the fictional characters seem to have a life of their own. I think that it is only partly fuelled by commerce. It is true that people have capitalized on the story: you can buy Juliet perfume, small cakes called ‘kisses of Juliet’, as well as the pink and red locks. But the other emotion that fuels this fictional history seems to be the desire to believe that the story of the lovers who pursue their love at fatal cost could have happened.
‘You do know the story is fake,’ I told one of my Italian friends visiting the city.
‘No, you’re joking, ‘he replied, offended, and asked repeatedly if I was sure.
‘But it would have been beautiful,” he sighed.
Normally, as a former news journalist, I would give whoever would listen a lecture on the dangers of manipulating history, and the importance of fact checking. But, after having been out of news for so long, I’ve lost some of my pompous ways. I’ve been writing more and more stories that blur fact and fiction, memory, and imagination. Our true histories are found somewhere in between all of these, as they are so much more than events that happened.
In fact, this strange recreation of history made me happy. Somehow, I took it as evidence for our collective need for poetry in our lives, and how it can concretely manifest itself. The most real thing about this story is not the buildings and stones that have lasted for centuries, but Shakespeare’s words that have made his characters live:
“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”