Love, in all its splendor and mess, found a fit expression on Rome's oldest bridge last year. Inspired by a best-selling book, then the movie version, young couples wrote their names on a padlock. They chained it around a lamppost on Ponte Milvio. Then they symbolically cut off escape by tossing the key into the wine-dark Tiber below.
But reality quickly set in, as it often does after passion. Thousands of locks and chains piled up. The lamps atop two lightposts 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 finally put into place. City officials created official spots for the locks - 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 and routine as flipping a coin into the Trevi Fountain.
"It's less romantic," said Costantino Boccuni, a 28-year-old soldier who had just affixed a lock to one of the new city-approved 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 and chains 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).
The story of how Ponte Milvio, at the north of Rome's center, became the city's symbol of love follows a particularly Italian script, a perfectly balanced mix of history, myth, truly ludicrous political posturing and the unexpected.
First 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." The Emperor Nero, Tacitus said, visited there "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 still stands against the sort of love often found on Ponte Milvio.)
Last year, a novelist and screen writer, Federico Moccia, wrote the second installment of a story of young Romans called, in English, "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 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.
Moccia, 44, says he just 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, the movie version came out - and soon life began imitating art.
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, suffering from an economy that often keeps young people unemployed and at home with their parents into their 30s.
"It is a precise sign of our times - there is a lack of dreaming in Italy," 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, who may some day become prime minister, 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 in two recent, very pleasant evenings on the bridge). Or if they insist on chaining them to the lampposts, the locks will periodically be transferred down 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. And some young Roman said that even before the new official posts, the tradition had lost its edge.
They complain that it has become just another tourist attraction, complete with two vendors selling locks on the spot for €5, or $6.90, €3 or €1 for the smallest. Families pose for cell-phone photos there.
"I would be embarrassed," said Michael P., a 22-year-old photographer's assistant who would not give 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 marked their love with a lock, as did Ricky and Francy, Piti and Piti, 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," Colletti said.