ROME — Young love literally sealed itself to the ancient Milvian Bridge. Inspired by a scene out of Italian teen literature, adolescent Romans began carving their initials onto padlocks and affixing them to the bridge’s railings before tossing the key into the rushing Tiber. Thus, the Eternal City could bear witness to the boundlessness of juvenile romance.
Whether insipid or enchanting, the custom would spread from the Milvian Bridge like teen acne. Love padlocks erupted on historic bridges in Naples, Milan, Florence and Venice. As the books and films that launched the trend became a smash across Europe, so did author Federico Moccia, and the Pont des Arts in Paris became hopelessly pockmarked with locks faster than you could say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” They proliferated in Barcelona, Prague, London and Cologne, Germany. Since their beginnings in 2006, love-lock sightings have come in from as far away as the Brooklyn Bridge and Guam.
But here in Rome, where perhaps the only thing more exalted than love is aesthetics, young lovers would find their nemesis in the form of a stout politician named Gianni Giacomini. Convinced that the 5,000-plus locks strung up in recent years were not only sullying the beauty of the two-millennium-old monument but also obscuring its place in history as the site where Constantine I defeated his rival Maxentius, the regional president of the Roman district where the bridge sits led a campaign to liberate it from the bonds of love.
Despite a last-minute attempt by Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno to grant clemency to the original love locks that started the international trend, Giacomini’s work crews took them down Sept. 10 amid a blaze of metal cutters and TV crews. The multi-year fight over their removal is a tale not only of the uniqueness of Roman politics but also of the politics of love in Italy.
“When I wrote the scene about a young couple that puts a padlock here, I wanted the Milvian Bridge to become a new tradition for Roman lovers, something that could be passed down through the generations,” said a rheumy Moccia as he stared at the lockless sides of the Milvian Bridge. “But they dragged love into politics, and love lost.”
Although evidence of locks as talismans of love predate Moccia, few deny that the custom exploded with the publication of his novel “Ho Voglia di Te” (“I Want You”) in 2006. One of Italy’s most successful authors, with more than 10 million volumes sold, the 49-year-old said he affixed the first lock to the Milvian Bridge two days before publishing the book. “I did not want readers who came looking for the lock placed by my characters to be disappointed,” he said.
The book — Moccia’s style of tortured young romance is perhaps best described as a “Twilight”-saga novel without the fangs — became a hit. Soon, one lock became two, then 20, 200, then thousands. Within a year, there were so many affixed to one lamppost that it collapsed into the Tiber River.
Sensing the threat to the bridge, local officials reached an accord with young Roman lovers in 2008. They could string up padlocks, but only on newly installed gratings. Yet, as months passed, Giacomini, who became the local president of Rome’s 20th District in 2008, said the folly of compromise became clear. Not only did old locks rust in the humidity, becoming ever more unsightly, but as couples broke up, a new tradition arose. Angry, brokenhearted youths would return to the bridge, now a major hangout, and scrawl vengeful graffiti about their ex-lovers.
“I cannot even repeat what they would write,” Giacomini said. “It is so, so terrible.”
Another thought occurred to Giacomini that, he said, ultimately convinced him that the locks had to go. “I came to the realization that locks should not be a symbol of love,” he said. “Love should be freely given and always free to leave. Love cannot be bound, and yet that is what these locks are meant to do.”
After a long and heated debate, the local council voted in December to remove the locks. But Rome’s powerful mayor, Alemanno, intervened, calling Giacomini to ask for a delay. Then, without informing Giacomini, Alemanno announced a peace summit at the bridge in January, where he hoped Giacomini and Moccia, who was deeply opposed to the removal, could work things out.
Testy exchanges ensued. Making a pun on Moccia’s bestselling book “Three Meters Above the Sky,” Giacomini responded like so when asked by reporters where the locks should go: “Three meters under the bridge.”
Ultimately, a compromise appeared to be reached. On the banks of the river, close to but not on the bridge, Giacomini proposed a “Romeo and Juliet” balcony with romantic lighting that could be erected to house locks old and new. But as months dragged on, Giacomini saw no movement by the city to make good on the deal. So he took matters into his hands. On the morning of Sept. 10, he donned his sash of local office and grabbed a pair of metal cutters.
“Enough is enough,” he said.
Since then, a debate has simmered, from the local papers to the espresso bars. Should the story have ended with the score Giacomini 1, Love 0? It is especially jolting, many here say, because after an equally fierce debate in Paris, the French opted to keep the padlocks of love buldging over the Seine on the Pont des Arts.
“My rational side listens and agrees, but something inside me remembers the troubled teenager, the feeling of high school love,” the Italian novelist Marco Lodoli wrote in La Repubblica. He continued, “I can’t tell what, but something puts me with the crowd of the padlockers who are deluded by this cruel decision.”
Now being kept in a “safe and secret location” in Rome, a few of the locks may soon go on temporary exhibit at a museum. The fate of the rest remains unclear.
That does not necessarily trouble the likes of Nicola Misciano, a 22-year-old economics major who affixed a padlock to the bridge with his girlfriend late last year. “She is more upset than I am,” he said during a recent evening on the bridge. “It meant a lot to her, so it did mean a lot to me. But let’s face it — they were pretty ugly.”
Edward Cody in Paris contributed to this report.