How does one clinch love in the 21st century? In Paris, it is done by chaining padlocks to one of the city’s most venerated bridges, the Pont des Arts. The city has long been synonymous with romance and is littered with lovers’ haunts; a new one emerges every second whether it’s a smoky, sidewalk café or a secluded bench along the Seine. Now the amorous profile of the Pont des Arts has been elevated thanks to the invasion of the cadenas d’amour or love-locks. By early 2010, almost 2,000 padlocks had been locked to its railings.
In 1802, engineers Louis-Alexandre de Cessart and Jacques Dillon started to work on the Pont des Arts, a nine-arch pedestrian bridge that they envisioned as a suspended garden with trees, flowers and benches. At one end of the bridge is the magnificent Louvre, the Palais des Arts during the Napoleonic Empire; at the other, the circumspect face of the Institut de France, dedicated to preserving Hugo (among others) and defeating the language of Shakespeare. Two centuries later, De Cessart and Dillon would never have suspected the bridge would be “padlocked”; its “garden” effectively growing metallic roots.
The Pont des Arts is a favourite of Parisians and tourists alike: it doubles as an atelier en plein air for painters and photographers as well as a picnic venue. Tourists occasionally bring checkered tablecloths for the benches while students prefer to huddle on blankets imbibing wine while their ghetto blasters blare raucously. But the bridge is more than a rendez-vous point—it is a means of self-expression: the lovesick scrawl their names or more poetic sentiments on these padlocks. Waterproof markers seem to work best—their durability is meant to underscore the weighty sentiments behind these declarative love-tokens. However, most Parisians think of the padlocks as a plague; as of May 2010, all the locks were cut off, but like a bad penny they keep returning.
There are two theories on how this padlock craze originated. One theory posited by Italophiles is that the padlocks are a case of life imitating art and were inspired by a scene from the Fernando Moccia’s book “I Want You”; the protagonists sealed their relationship by locking a padlock to a lamppost on Ponte Milvio in Rome and then throwing the key into the Tiber River. In late 2006, the “Moccia Phenomenon” commenced: thousands of Italian teenagers chained padlocks to the lamppost until it collapsed under the weight. The Mayor of Rome—something of a romantic himself—added lampposts to the Ponte Milvio and moved some of the padlocks to the City Hall to be displayed.
The other theory originates in China where padlocks blanket every metal pole and fence of Mount Huang, also known as the Yellow Mountain in Huángshān. It is the custom for couples to “lock their souls together” and then throw the key into the valleys of mist. However, breaking up is a little more complicated: the only way to release your souls is to find the key and unlock the appropriate padlock.
Indeed, “padlock-mania” has swept through many countries, but still divides the public: some see them as a symbol of incarceration or vandalism; others believe that it captures the transience of love. In Paris, a city where love seems like a commodity you can purchase with your daily croissant, it makes sense that lovers have another forum for expression. Indeed, even if the sentiments themselves eventually fade, these public displays of affection lend a lovers’ covenant some permanence – and who doesn’t want to leave their stamp on the world’s most romantic city?
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