2. Love, Permanence and Padlocks
A Timeless Gesture in the Modern World
Whilst walking across the icy bridges of Salzburg in Austria, we were intrigued to note a number of bicycle locks and padlocks attached to the railings. ‘Strange place to secure your bike,’ I mused, and thought nothing more of it. A month later, as we stepped onto the bridges of the Grand Canal in Venice and saw that they too were lined with padlocks, we realised that these padlocks were in fact nothing to do with any bizarre ideas of riverside bicycle security. Instead, these chunks of metal, some with randomly scrawled names on them, appeared to represent some form of romantic expression which, after a quick check on Wikipedia, would seem to have literally gone global! Akin to an idea going ‘viral’ in cyberspace it seems that bridges all over the physical world are experiencing this phenomenon known as ‘Love-Locks’. But where, we ask, has it come from?
Looking back in history, padlocks have held a romantic symbolism across the world for centuries- whether as a sign of security, punishment or of everlasting love. In Europe, during The Romantic era, one might wear a heart-shaped locket, often containing a beloved’s lock of hair, demonstrating love and commitment. Conversely, in Khiva, Uzbekistan, padlocks have been traditionally used to symbolise the sealing of a curse on an unhappy wife’s mother-in-law by it’s attachment to a shrine. In his opera ‘The Magic Flute’, Mozart used the padlock’s symbolism in the punishment of ‘Papageno’, the story’s main character, who has his mouth locked for lying (a fact most probably unbeknownst to the ‘love-lockers’ in his native Saltzburg!). These days, rather less romantically, you’ll probably most commonly notice the padlock symbol as a sign of security when browsing the web, or perhaps to tell you when the train toilet is engaged…
In it’s physical form, the padlock is symbolic in both its function as security and as a metaphor for permanence. The gesture of attaching a padlock to a structure as a symbol left at the end of an era has occurred more than once in recent history. In Florence, when students finished their studies at University it was a tradition to attach their locker padlock to an object, throwing away the key. Similarly, when soldiers finished military service, they would mark the occasion by performing the same ritual with the lock from their wardrobe. In the West, padlocks have even reached into current fashion, whether it be a clasp on a designer handbag or a trinket on a charm bracelet.
On a, so-called, ‘Love-Lock’, a couple should engrave (or use the timelessly romantic permanent marker to write) their names onto a padlock, attach it to a bridge and throw the key in the river below; thus symbolising their eternal love and commitment to one another. Although the origins of this ritual are disputed, perhaps an ancient Chinese tradition or perhaps a marriage ritual in Russia, it seems the current onslaught of ‘love-locking’ can be, somewhat less timelessly, attributed to the 2006 novel, and later film, by Federico Moccia, ‘I Need You.’ In this story, the two protagonists attach a bicycle lock to a lamppost on the Ponte Milvio bridge in Rome, swear their undying love and kiss before thrusting the key into the Tiber below.
Not surprisingly, the Ponte Milvio bridge in Rome subsequently became the main focus for the unprecedented numbers of love-locking pilgrims from all over the globe. To the extent that a particularly popular lamppost collapsed under the sheer weight of all the padlocks! However, as we’ve seen on our travels, it isn’t just on the Ponte Milvio where this is happening, it’s now occurring all over the world, reported from the Sydney Habour Bridge, to the Great Wall of China to the Pont de l’Archeveche bridge in Paris, the list goes on.
As a result, city councils the world over are reaching various levels of exasperation. Particularly when the rusting padlocks start to damage the very structures they’re attached to. Consequently, the padlocks have started being, somewhat unromantically, removed by council officials with bolt-clippers; fines have been installed on guilty ‘Love-Lockers’ and Rome has even set up a website for ‘virtual’ love locks! (http://www.lucchettipontemilvio.com/ if you’re interested.) But as this bombardment of naive romanticism continues, even the scrap metal thieves haven’t deterred the spontaneous enthusiasm of the Love-Lockers.
In contrast, as the world seems in rapture with it’s newly found, timelessly romantic gesture of eternal love and commitment, it would appear that some cynics are unconvinced by the sentiments of the ‘Love-Lockers’. In Paris, the ‘City of Love’, one waiter was reported to comment, “The Fools! They haven’t understood anything about love have they! Love is not about possession or property, it’s about wanting the other to be free, including the freedom to walk away.” Author Alain Badious goes one step further denouncing the act as a ‘puerile fantasy!’ However, in a world wrought with divorce, marital discomfort, and a desire to perpetuate the Shakespearian ideal on romantic love- why shouldn’t people have a little faith? Surely this mass act, as a unprecedented wave of faithfulness in love, should be refreshing?
In my opinion, it doesn’t matter that this is may just be a popular progression of the commonly scrawled, juvenile graffiti of declared love. It’s simply relieving to see that lovers can be still be romantic. In a world where, increasingly, many of our interactions are carried out online, in a virtual world, there is still the universal desire to make love tangible, to make concrete, permanent expressions and perpetuate it on a worldwide scale. The Parisians may be cynical about padlocks symbolising the true nature of love- but given a choice of ineffective bicycle storage, a liars punishment, cursing mother-in-laws or a semi-permanent and slightly extravagant declaration of love, I know which padlock I’d rather be. AM&PM