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A Not-So-Fair Verona

The Juliet statue in Verona, Italy is believed to bring good luck to pilgrims who rub the statue's bronze breast.
The Juliet statue in Verona, Italy is believed to bring good luck to pilgrims who rub the statue's bronze breast. By Courtesy of Veronika Bashak
By Serena Jampel, Crimson Staff Writer

Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most famous love story of all time, so it’s no surprise that thousands of tourists flock to “fair Verona,” the charming Italian city where the play is set.

And with tourism surging across Europe this summer, Shakespeare’s famed city of love and tragedy is getting more attention than ever. Romantic pilgrims flock to the city’s kitschy stores and contrived museums, reveling in Romeo and Juliet’s enduring passion. But local traditions surrounding young Juliet’s statue speak more to an undercurrent of misogyny than a quest for love that conquers all.

Legend has it that rubbing Juliet’s bronze breast will bring good luck (much like another familiar statue’s foot in our own Cambridge). Tourists old and young, of all genders and identities proudly and enthusiastically grope the statue meant to represent a 13-year-old girl — whose infatuation with the son of a family enemy was not exactly a model of a mature, healthy relationship.

A quirky tradition or a tacky tourist gimmick is one thing, but the optics of watching a contiguous flow of people grab Juliet, snap a picture, and go on their merry way makes it feel like more. If one of the most iconic and beloved fictional women of all time is constantly groped for others’ momentary enjoyment and personal gain, what does that mean for the rest of us real-life women?

The origins of the questionable tradition coincide with the relatively recent installation of the statue. It was created in 1968 by Nereo Costantini and installed in 1972 in the courtyard of a villa historically belonging to the Cappello family, who are believed to be an inspiration for the Capulets in Shakespeare’s play. However, the balcony and the items in the restored villa were built in the mid-20th century to entice tourists. Furthermore, the statue standing in Verona today is a reproduction made in 2014 because the constant manhandling caused cracks to form in her right breast and arm. How much unwanted touching does it take for a woman to crack? For this Juliet, it was approximately 5 million people per year.

The original statue was placed in the current location as the burgeoning feminist movement took hold in Italy. While the legend of touching her breast for good luck cannot be linked to a specific person or political group, it feels utterly too convenient that right at a time when advocacy for womens’ rights was gaining momentum, this statue and the tradition of lewdly grabbing her would surface.

Only two to three percent of statues in the world depict women, illustrating a vast gender gap in public monuments. Of those, many depict allegorical virtues like Liberty, Justice, or Faith. Very few statues represent women known for their stories, successes, or good deeds. This gender gap demonstrates that our societies do not celebrate the lives of remarkable women nearly as much as men, an uncomfortable reality that has affected everything from public policy to social norms. When one of the rare statues of a woman celebrated for her role in a beloved story is the object of inappropriate attention, it feels like yet another limit on womens’ potential. It is as if a woman cannot be celebrated publicly without other people taking ownership of her body and violating that veneration.

Juliet is no feminist icon. She spends most of her short life confined by a man (her father) or obsessed with one (Romeo). What little agency she claims is used to take her own life in despair. Still, her character has resonated with millions of people over generations. The romance, the naivete, the passion — she is a great fictional character because we empathize with her impossible situation and root for her love to prevail.

Sadly, hers is also the reality of many women across the globe — taken advantage of and put into impossible situations by men who hold sway over them. The message of the statue is that she, and women like her, are everyone’s property, available to be demeaned and disrespected for the momentary pleasure of another.

Obviously, a statue is not perfectly analogous to a human woman and neither is a fictional character from the 16th century. A statue will always be a symbol and a public monument, naturally lending itself to extra attention and handling. But when 81 percent of American women reported experiencing sexual harassment in a 2018 survey, we should be radically reassessing the environments that enable inappropriate gender-targeted behavior.

Yes, it is just a statue. But it is also a statue of Juliet, a young girl whose innocence and passionate love are idealized, fetishized, and mocked. She walks the impossible line of womanhood, too girlish yet also too serious, too defined by the men around her and yet too independent to rule out completely.

Centuries of critics and theatergoers have found resonance in her story and her emotional turmoil, whether or not they believe she’s a feminine or feminist ideal. The least we owe her — and to all women — is to show her some respect. And yes, that includes not snapping that pic on vacation.

—Staff writer Serena Jampel can be reached at

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