Bridges as contested spaces: love locks in Venice

Bridges in Venice are a good example of the complexity of urban spaces, in terms of conflicting spatial logics. Venice is a collection of islands that are interconnected with bridges made of wood, metal, stone or a combination of these materials. If you are not moving around in a boat or a public vaporetto, your only alternative to commute around Venice is to walk and cross the many canals by foot.

For locals, bridges are necessary to pursue a variety of non-touristic tasks: doing groceries, taking children to school, visiting the doctor or commuting to work. For tourists, however, bridges are the perfect opportunity to take selfies and appreciate the surroundings, and some tourists also use bridges as places to sit and to have a snack. Despite the many regulations that have been created to tackle the obstruction of bridges, the difficulty of enforcing these policies and the massive number of tourists make bridges a sort of ‘contested spaces’, and the clashes between locals and tourists are not infrequent. Additionally, where there are tourists, there are opportunities for profiting, and bridges in Venice have also become ‘improvised stores’ for street vendors, musicians and performers and even criminal gangs (for example, the classical ‘cups and ball’ scam is particularly popular in Venice, despite the efforts of the police to keep them away).

It is not only the number of tourists but their spatial uses what originates the clashes between locals and visitors. For example, a couple taking a photo with a selfie-stick or a group posing for a photograph consume ‘more space’ than a local carrying a bag of groceries. The elderly population of Venice, who might require railings to climb the steps, are frequently annoyed at tourists who sit on the steps and block the way. In this competition for space and with the antagonistic ways of perceiving and experiencing the city, it is not surprising that many locals have engaged in a sort of ‘micropolitics’, using their bodies has a way to express their disagreement – for example, by pushing – or have altered their routines in order to avoid specific areas during the peak hours of the day (which in Venice is from 10 am to around 6 pm).

As part of the RIGHTS UP project, I have created the following map to highlight another negative consequence of mass tourism: The love locks on Venetian bridges. A love lock is a padlock placed on a surface to symbolize a connection, such as love, friendship or family ties. The love lock is placed by individuals or groups, and the key is later tossed away in the surrounding water or kept in a secure location by the participants. I visited each bridge represented on Google Maps and counted 2668 love locks (October 2018), with 45.35% of the love locks placed in only 10 bridges. The Rialto bridge, one of the most iconic attractions in Venice, has 262 love locks under it, or approximately 9.82% of all the love locks in the city.

To understand the map, the following symbology is necessary:

  • An orange dot represents a bridge with zero love locks.
  • A green  dot is used for 1-5 love locks.
  • A yellow dot is used for 6-20 love locks.
  • A red circle is used for bridges with more than 21 love locks.
  • A purple circle is used for bridges with more than 51 love locks.
  • A black circle is used for bridges with more than 101 love locks

Discover details on Google Maps

As the map shows, there are many bridges with zero love locks on it. It is important to mention that many of these bridges are made of stone or wood and do not have any railings, therefore the placing of love locks is dependent on the specific characteristics of a given bridge. Stone and wood bridges with railings include love locks, just as the Arsenal bridge. Moreover, the bridges with most love locks are situated in parts of the city that have an open view to the Grand Canal or the Venetian lagoon, and they are also near the most visited parts of the city (for example, on streets that lead to Rialto, San Marco square or the Cathedral of the Salute.

Additional materials:

Check out the academic paper by Ceri Houlbrook "Lessons from love-locks: The archeology of contemporary assemblage". The paper provides a theoretical reflection on love-locks as a collective, cultural practice, and describes the evolution of the depositions in the city of Manchester.



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