Years after the #MeToo hashtag appeared on social media I found myself on a balcony in Via Capello in Verona, staring down at a statue of Juliet, Shakespeare’s teenage star-crossed heroine. A jovial, laughing crowd of men and women of varying ages surrounded her, vying for a chance to touch her right breast. It’s believed the courtyard and house belonged to the fictional Capulet family made famous by the play (or more likely the movie), Romeo and Juliet. According to local myth, caressing Juliet’s breast brings the toucher good fortune in love.
Looking more closely, the mob felt disturbing. Teenage girls dolled up for school outings, safari-suit-wearing couples, members of the socks and sandals brigade, no matter their travel gear they were almost all deliriously baying and howling for the chance to touch Juliet. In a 15-minute period I saw most of the men touch her breast but fewer of the women did. Young men and their friends cheered and clapped raucously while older men responded more quietly, but the leer on each face as they fondled the statue was equally disturbing. Some of the women who touched Juliet’s breast also smirked knowingly for the camera.
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None of the women present seemed perturbed by the actions of the men. The whole thing had the feeling of a celebratory outing, fuelled by an intoxicating sense of liberation at doing something “naughty” but allowed because it was part and parcel of the tourist experience.
I was horrified by the disconnect between what was happening elsewhere in the world and this small section of Italy. I’d come to Casa di Giulietta to visit the rooms where it was purported Juliet had lived and I didn’t know about the breast rubbing tradition beforehand. Curious as to what the officials working in the house thought about the scene outside, I asked one to tell me what was going on. The smiling woman looked positively joyous as she told me the story and almost swooned when she used the word love. She didn’t seem at all aware it could be perceived as giving the green light to child abuse (remember, Juliet was only 13), even if the victim in this case is a statue.
This local ritual has morphed into an unabashedly shameless opportunity for men to stand victorious, one arm around Juliet’s waist with the other firmly squeezing her cold, unresponsive breast. Yet no one seems to care. Down in the courtyard I heard Spanish, English, Russian, and other non-Italian languages being spoken. People looked happy, focussed only on getting a selfie with the statue and their friends. I couldn’t stomach it and left.
Implicit in the idea of touching Juliet is that it’s simply a tradition and therefore harmless, mere folklore fun. However this tradition only goes back to the early 1970s, when sculptor Nereo Costantini’s 1969 Juliet statue was placed in the courtyard at the behest of the local Lion’s Club. In 2014 Costantini’s work had to be replaced with a replica. Thousands of touches had worn through Juliet’s right breast in some places, and the elements had damaged the rest. A Google search revealed many authors who have written about the degradation of the original statue as something amusing. The alleged history of the house and its connection to Shakespeare’s unfortunate young lovers featured heavily, but none commented on the appropriateness of the physical act. I found only two articles critical of this tourist experience. Both concerned the same United States surgeon. He included a photo of himself mugging for the camera, hand on Juliet’s breast, in his presentation at a gynaecology conference. This opened up a flood of complaints, anger, and accounts of sexual harassment by male surgical staff towards female colleagues.
Soon after my visit to Verona the #MeToo movement started up in Italy. Women who spoke out about abusers were slut-shamed and it became clear the patriarchy wasn’t about to change any time soon. However, based on what I observed that day, it’s not only Italian men who need to shift their views on women.
The majority of both women and men sightseeing at Juliet’s house were likely travelling outside their own cultures but this doesn’t explain or excuse their behaviour. Were they to act this way in their own countries, they could be roundly condemned, fined, or even arrested. Being a tourist doesn’t give us carte blanche to do as we like, outside social norms. However more often than not that’s exactly what happens.
I’d love to see people embrace travel as an opportunity to question the beliefs and values we are raised with, particularly with regards to women — to challenge attitudes towards us and the way we’re treated in our own countries and thus highlight unquestioned traditions and deliberate discriminations. Maybe then Juliet’s statue won’t need replacing again.