Valentines Myths in Italy

Gods, Saints, and Other Valentines Myths

demi_graffittiOur cheeky group of expats (COSÌ) has chosen the timely topic of romance, relationships, and all things “dell’amore” in honor of San Valentino, whose festa we celebrate tomorrow. I’ve written about this a few times before, so initially I wasn’t that jazzed to revisit the subject. Then I read a blog post by my friend John Henderson, and my enthusiasm briefly stirred. It was a fleeting, vicarious moment, but it brought me back to those days long ago, when I was trying to make sense of another culture’s courtship rituals.

John, while contemplating a map of Italy that hangs in his apartment, made the following observation: “The Italian mainland is shaped like a woman’s thigh-high leather stiletto, and the island of Sicily is a man’s testicle.”

Yes, it’s a landscape fraught with peril and confusion. There are no discernible reference points for newly expatriated American, and we quickly learn that the dating protocols in Italy are the only thing more confounding than the bureaucracy.

For starters, we all arrive in Italy firmly believing (and wanting to believe) the myth that Italians are extremely passionate and affectionate.  But that’s just for appearances—for making a bella figura. Once you quickly move beyond the loud, effusive, “Ciao, amoreeee!!!” the big hug, and the obligatory two-cheek kiss, things cool off in a hurry. As a whole, Italians are very closed-off and cautious when forming relationships of any kind.  If you want to experience real Italian passion, you have to observe the soccer stadium, not the “dating scene.” Read John’s article for a more detailed explanation—I’ll put a link at the end of this post. My blog is strictly PG-13, so I’ll leave the dirty details to him.

Let’s move on to more family-friendly myths and legends…

Saint Valentines Myths

Everyone who lives in Rome is familiar with the famous Ponte Milvio, where young couples go to symbolize their commitment by affixing a small lock to the bridge, and then throwing the key into the Tiber River. From what I’ve heard, the ritual was supposedly invented by the author Federico Moccia, made popular in his 2006 book, “Ho voglia di te,” (“I Want You”) and the movie that followed.lucchette

I’ve never seen the movie or read the book, but I’m wondering if the writer was inspired by none other than Saint Valentine himself. Not much is known about the famous saint except that he was martyred on February 14, 269 A.D. on the northern outskirts of Rome. He was subsequently buried at a cemetery along the Via Flaminia, very near (you guessed it) the Milvian Bridge. Coincidence? Probably not, but I guess I’ll have to confirm that with Signor Moccia…

(Or if any of you out there can fill in the blanks with this story, please leave your comments below!)

Regarding Saint Valentine’s association with all things romantic, the history is less clear. In fact, there’s only the unconfirmed legend that he disobeyed the orders of Emperor Claudius and performed weddings in secret so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. A more likely explanation, in my opinion, is that the pagan gods were already losing favor in Rome around this time (less than 100 years before Constantine finished the job), and so Christian saints and martyrs were gradually being recruited to the fill their shoes.

I can just imagine the gossip in the streets of Rome back then. “Cupid is SO last millennium! Hey, I bet Valentino could do the job! You know, he was quite the scoundrel before taking his vows of celibacy. Once he had a few drinks in him, even the livestock got nervous.”

…and Juliet is the sun! (or not)

Nowadays, those damn “lucchetti” are everywhere in Italy, and it sometimes creates some practical problems. In fact, the lamppost on Ponte Milvio was so loaded down with them that it collapsed a few years back. When I was in Verona in October, the area just below Juliet’s balcony was covered with the stupid things. No surprise, the little souvenir shop located right there in the courtyard sells them to sentimental tourists wanting to seize the cheesy photo-op.


Castrato. Photo: Wikipedia

The whole Romeo and Juliet thing is manufactured, too, of course. Not that it’s a bad marketing scheme, but it’s really a shame that so many tourists go to Verona for this reason alone, while the city offers so much more in the way of actual history.

What other examples are there of mis-attributed Italian sex appeal? Well, there’s the opera. What can we say about a theatrical art form that originally placed castrati in the leading roles? These were the rock stars of their era, and yet I doubt that the young girls hung posters of their favorite pseudo-soprano in their bedrooms. Then again, today we have Justin Bieber, so I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

My Valentinedemetra

So you see, all these stories about the passionate, love-obsessed Italians are total non-sense. Juliet was the invention of an Englishman, male opera stars were relieved of their manhood before they ever reached puberty, and Saint Valentine really has nothing to do with love at all. Alas.

Well, none of that really troubles me too much. I have my own little Valentine. Her name is Demetra—another pagan goddess. And for me, she’s the very embodiment of love.


Our group is starting to get a bit more organized, and soon we will be announcing our new Facebook Page, and our plans to overthrow the Italian government. (Not really, we wouldn’t want that job.) But please visit their pages so you can get a more diverse take on “Love, Italian Style.”

Here they are:

Surviving in Italy: Seducing Your Partner the Italian Way

Girl in Florence: When your love story is best answered, “It’s complicated.”

Married to Italy: The search for sex in Italy: 6 Italian slang sayings.

Florence Diaries: What it’s like to fall in love with Italy.

The Unwilling Expat: Searching for San Valentino

Sex, Lies, and Nutella: Be My Valentine; “Viva l’amore – abbasso i sedili”

An Englishman in Italy: How Pecora Nera wooed Mrs Sensible

And my personal honorary guest for this week, John Henderson: “Rome’s war of the sexes makes relationships a battlefield.”

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Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

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