“The padlockers are neither poets, sculptors or artists but vandals and hooligans, the locks are ruining marble, iron and stone and are a new and ‘vulgar’ symbol of Italian love” La Repubblica, Italian Newspaper
The Ponte Vecchio that crosses the river Arno in Florence is the oldest bridge in Tuscany and by happy chance the only one in the city that wasn’t blown up by the retreating Germans as they cleared out from Florence in their withdrawal from Italy during the Second-World-War.
Knowing how the Germans were fond of blowing things up that must have been a one-in-a-million fluke!
One version of the story is that Adolf Hitler himself gave the order not to blow it up. Another is that no one wanted to destroy such a beautiful thing so the German commandant made radio contact with the Americans and offered to leave the Ponte Vecchio intact if the Americans would promise not to use it. The promise was held. The bridge was not blown up, and not one American soldier or piece of equipment went across it. The bridge was spared.
The first bridge on this site was built a long time ago by the Romans and was constructed of wood on piers of stone. It was ruined in 1117, reconstructed soon after but destroyed again in 1333 by flooding and then rebuilt once more in 1345, but this time more sensibly in stone.
Due to the high volume of traffic using the bridge, a number of shopkeepers set up shop to catch the passing trade. The first merchants here consisted primarily of blacksmiths, butchers, and tanners catering mostly to travelling soldiers who were passing through but when the Medici family moved into Florence bringing with them vast wealth and an appreciation for the finer things in life they promptly cleared the bridge of all the dirty trades, that were probably a bit of an eyesore anyway, and certainly responsible for polluting the river below.
They replaced them with goldsmiths and more similar upmarket shops and today it remains lined with medieval workshops on both sides with some of them precariously overhanging the river below supported only by slender timber brackets. A number of these shops had to be replaced in 1966 when there was a major flood that consumed the city and damaged some of them but this time was unable to destroy the bridge itself.
Running along the top of the bridge is a corridor that the Medici had built so that they could cross the river without having to mix with the riff-raff below and is now an art gallery. When we visited the bridge it was busy with street traders and shoppers and the ever-present scrounging beggars. Along the bridge there were many padlocks locked to the railings and especially in the middle around the statue of the Florentine sculptor, Cellini.
This, I found out later, is a lover’s tradition inspired by I Want You, the 2006 novel by Federico Moccia where by inscribing names, locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river they become eternally bonded.
This is an action where I would recommend extreme caution because it sounds dangerously impulsive to me; I think I would further recommend taking the precaution of keeping a spare somewhere in case I needed it later. Apparently all of these love tokens do lots of damage to the bridge and thousands of padlocks need to be removed every year. To deter people there is a €50 penalty for those caught doing it and that is a much higher price than I would be prepared to pay for eternal bondage!
This tradition might sound all rather romantic and lovely but apparently all of these love tokens do lots of damage to the bridges because as they age and rust this spreads to the ironwork and thousands of padlocks need to be removed every year from bridges across Europe. In Venice the penalty is a whopping €3,000 fine and up to a year in prison for those caught doing it and that is a much, much higher price than I would be prepared to pay for eternal bondage!
To anyone who thinks this is mean spirited please bear in mind that in June 2014 the ‘Pond des Arts’ in Paris across the River Seine collapsed under the weight of these padlock monstrosities and had to be temporarily closed. They are not just unsightly – they are dangerous!
Actually, it may be that there is some truth in this eternal bonding tale because according to ‘Eurostat’, even though the divorce rate has doubled in the last five years, Italy has one of the lowest rates in the European Union. Sweden has the highest and although I don’t know this for a fact I’m willing to bet that across all of Europe the Vatican State probably has the absolute lowest!