Love, in all its splendor and mess, found a fit expression on Rome’s oldest bridge. Inspired by a best-selling book, then the movie version, young couples wrote their names on a padlock. They chained their locks around lampposts on Ponte Milvio. Then they symbolically cut off escape by tossing the keys into the wine-dark Tiber below.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times, August 6 2007
Built in 206 B.C., Ponte Milvio is Rome's oldest bridge.
Locks and keys are for sale on Ponte Milvio, where couples write their names on the locks and then throw the keys into the river.
But reality quickly set in, as it often does after passion. Thousands of locks and chains piled up. The lamps atop two light posts crumbled under the weight. Neighbors complained of vandalism. Politicians who tried to solve the problem were accused — and this is bad in Italy — of being anti-love.
Late last month, a solution was put into place. City officials set up six sets of steel posts with chains on the bridge, so now lovers can declare themselves without damage to the infrastructure. And so this city of monuments has just created another one, if at a cost: tossing a key off Ponte Milvio, some Italians complain, may soon be as touristy as flipping a coin into the Trevi Fountain.
“It’s less romantic,” said Costantino Boccuni, 28, a soldier who had just affixed a lock to one of the new spots to declare his love for his wife of six years, Daniela, 26. “It was more beautiful before. It was more original.”
“Now, it’s more like a fashion,” he said.
But still, as Rome’s distinctly lovely light faded into evening, they did it. And in the few days since the new posts went up, dozens of new love locks have been sealed shut on Ponte Milvio, in a perfect world, forever. (Though in practice, the city will periodically prune the locks just as they sweep the coins from the Trevi Fountain.) People are also being encouraged to use a Web site, www.lucchettipontemilvio.com, where they can create virtual padlocks.
The story of how Ponte Milvio, north of Rome’s center, became the city’s symbol of love follows a particularly Italian script blending history, myth, truly ludicrous political posturing and the unexpected.
Built in 206 B.C., the bridge attracted lovers long ago. Tacitus, the first-century Roman historian and statesman, reported that even in his time it was “famous for its nocturnal attractions.” Emperor Nero, Tacitus said, visited the bridge “for his debaucheries.” (It is also the place where in 312, Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius. He became the first emperor to convert to Christianity, which to many Italians stands against the sort of love often found on Ponte Milvio.)
Last year, the writer Federico Moccia created the second installment of a story of young Romans called “I Want You.” Like many affairs, his hero’s starts with a lie: he convinces a potential girlfriend of an invented legend in which lovers wrap a lock and a chain around the third lamppost on the bridge’s northern side, lock it and throw the key into the Tiber.
“And then?” the girl asks.
“We’ll never leave each other,” he says, with no shame.
Mr. Moccia, 44, said he dreamed up the ritual. “I liked the idea of tying locks to love because it is more solid, tangible,” he said. The book sold 1.1 million copies, then the movie came out and soon life began imitating art.
Mr. Moccia said he was stunned when locks and chains appeared on the bridge, though he tied the craze to a lingering malaise in Italy, which is growing old, producing fewer babies and suffering from an economy that often keeps young people unemployed and living with their parents into their 30s.
“It is a precise sign of our times — there is a lack of dreaming,” he said. “We only hear bad news. There is no longer the smile of who we see from afar or near the dream. And that gesture of the lock on the bridge, of the feeling of the iron closing, it’s a promise. It’s beautiful.”
Soon beauty turned to menace. Lovers came from all over Italy, joined by some tourists. The ancient bridge, which also attracts not only lovers but drinkers and no small number of pot smokers, began to be covered in lovers’ graffiti, along with the overwhelming number of chains. This spring, the city cracked down.
Inevitably, politics intruded. In this nation’s long battle between left and right, right-wing parties accused the leftist mayor, Walter Veltroni, with a crime far worse than corruption.
“The left is against lovers,” one rightist city official, Marco Clarke, charged in February.
Fighting words. An artful compromise clearly needed finding. Thus the posts and chains.
Lovers can affix their locks directly to them (which seemed to be the case on two recent, very pleasant evenings on the bridge). Or if they insist on chaining them to the lampposts, the locks will periodically be moved to the posts and chains.
“We have used good sense, meaning we realize that it is about a primary and innocent feeling,” said Silvio Di Francia, a city official responsible for solving the problem. “However, if all the historic bridges had locks we would have a problem with the maintenance.”
So the tradition continues, if with some reservations about compromising on love. Some young Roman said that even before the new posts, the ritual had lost its appeal and gotten touristy. Indeed, two vendors sell locks on the spot for one to five euros. Families pose for cellphone photos.
“I would be embarrassed,” said Michael P., a 22-year-old who withheld his last name because he was smoking marijuana. “It’s a question of dignity. If I want to express love, I will express it in my way.”
But Gianluca and Federica recently declared their love with a lock, as did Ricky and Francy, Piti and Piti, and several Mirkoses with suspiciously similar handwriting. Anna and Philip Colletti, from Montreal, marked their 25th anniversary with a lock. Their children told them about it.
“Twenty-five years of marriage — it might freak out these young couples,” Ms. Colletti said.