Legend tells of a defiant priest who married lovers during wartime
By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
When people think of Italians as great lovers, it stands to reason that they must wonder what Valentine’s Day must be like in Italy. After all, isn’t Italy the most romantic country in the world? In fact the holiday, known as “La Festa di San Valentino” or “La Festa degli Innamorati” in Italy, is reserved and celebrated solely between lovers and sweethearts. No passing out Valentine’s Day cards to schoolmates there, unless one happens to be your “tesoro.”
How and when did this holiday for lovers actually begin? Some historians insist that it dates to the Roman Empire as a pagan festival to celebrate the Queen of Roman gods and goddesses. The ancient Romans considered Queen Juno to be the goddess of women, fertility and marriage.
However, the most common legend surrounding the origin of Valentine’s Day goes back to St. Valentine, a priest who defied the Roman emperors’ order banning marriage between lovers during wartime. Valentine secretly married lovers during this ban and once discovered he was put to death on Feb. 14.
In 494 AD, Pope Gelasio I declared a Valentine’s Day celebration in honor of St. Valentine to replace the pagan festival, and the original St. Valentine’s festivities were celebrated as a spring festival where lovers would gather outside in gardens or parks to listen to music and exchange poetry. One ancient tradition that is still celebrated is for an unmarried girl to wake up early and stand by her window, as legend has it that the first man she sees that day will marry her within a year.
Whatever the actual beginnings of the holiday, the bottom line is that the day has evolved as a lovers’ holiday. Italians give each other flowers, plan romantic dinners and present each other with chocolates, much like in the United States. The renowned Italian chocolate company Perugina celebrates this day by making a special edition of Baci, a chocolate candy with a shiny red wrapper and a sweet red cherry and liquid center rather than the traditional hazelnut one. These chocolates are always a favorite and inside the foil wrapper there is a “love note” with a romantic phrase.
Florence and Venice are traditionally considered to be two of the most romantic places in Italy but Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, celebrates Valentine’s Day with a four-day celebration of events designated “Verona in Love.” In the center of Piazza dei Signori a giant red heart is painted on the street and illuminated heart-shaped lanterns are featured throughout the city center. Free concerts with romantic themes take place in Piazza dei Signori and there is a contest for the most beautiful letter written to Juliet. To attract lovers and sweethearts to spend a weekend in Verona, many of the local hotels offer deals and restaurants feature specially priced menus.
A much more modern Valentine’s Day tradition that is said to have begun in the 1980s on a fence in the Hungarian city of Pécs is the tradition of love locks. Once the fence got full, love locks quickly spread to other cities in Europe.
In Italy love locks are known as lucchetti dell’amore. According to some sources this tradition of locking padlocks on bridges, railings and lampposts actually began in Italy not long after the release of the best-selling book “Ho Voglio di Te” (I Want You) by Italian author Federico Moccia. This was followed by the popular movie with the same name starring Riccardo Scamarcio and Laura Chiatti.
In the story, young lovers tie a chain and padlocks around a lamppost on the north side of Rome’s Ponte Milvio and inscribe their names on it, lock it and throw the key into the Tiber River below. The action suggests that the couple will be together forever. The hit movie inspired thousands of couples to take up on the idea to profess their undying love to one another.
Throughout Italy and other cities around the world today, locks are found bridges but also in more peculiar places such as an overhead sign on a walking trail in the Cinque Terre. Many cities have placed bans on having these locks on bridges, citing that it takes away from the beauty and culture of the structure and also adding safety concerns.
Although in the past, Rome authorities have issued a decree that the thousands of padlocks on the Ponte Milvio must be removed, and in Venice a few months earlier the authorities removed hundreds of locks from the Accademia Bridge and announced their intent to do the same on the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, the love tradition persists.
In Florence police removed more than 5,000 locks from the Ponte Vecchio where it is a crime to attach these locks today, yet they continue to appear anywhere they can be attached. The phenomenon has spread to Turin, Bologna, and Palermo. It seems that love does truly conquer all as removing the locks has become a losing battle with the Italian authorities.
Not to miss out on a chance to cash in, many vendors are now selling expensive locks to lovers so they can still make a pledge even if they are ill-prepared.
Worldwide the initially innocent and charming practice has become a concern to city officials. In fact, New York City has strong enforcement in place, now that the Brooklyn Bridge has become a prime site for the annual “adoration” of everyday padlocks inscribed or doodled on with dates and initials of the couple.
Whether a romantic dinner, flowers, candy, locking a padlock or a variety of other professions of love, the Italians will do up it big with lots of love and passion. That’s amore!