Led by their Communist mayor, the people of Terni have launched a crusade to reclaim St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers who has attained greater fame abroad than in his native country.
On Sunday, the city in central Italy's Umbria region launched a yearly award ceremony dedicated to acts of love around the world. Next year, it plans to offer free honeymoons to newlyweds.This steel town wants its decapitated third century bishop to really be its valentine.
The Roman Catholic saint for lovers has been as much a mixture of myth, religion and tradition as Easter bunnies or St. Nicholas, who eventually became a jolly red-suited Santa Claus.
The Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints says 17 Valentines are listed in the official encyclopedia of saints - including ones from Italy, France, Spain and Germany.
"But we are relatively sure that Terni's is the real Valentine because he is the oldest," says Ivani Rossi, president of the Valentian Cultural Center. He has been working to bring back what he says is "real significance" to the festivity rather than "a growth in the Valentine gift industry."
According to historical accounts from the Middle Ages, Placido, the prefect of Rome, had the spiritual head of Terni's Christians beheaded on February 14 of the year 270 after having him imprisoned and whipped.
Valentino had a garden where, according to legend, he allowed children to play or lovers to meet. While he was jailed Valentino handed the keys of the garden to two carrier pigeons with a message inviting the children of Terni to return there during his absence.
After his martyrdom, Valentino's body was brought back here by his followers and buried. The funeral urn was discovered in a cemetery during the 17th century and is now kept in a basilica, minus a tooth given at the time to Leopold of Austria, who venerated the saint and funded the basilica's construction.
Benedictine monks spread the cult of the saint to Anglo-Saxon countries including England and the United States.
Although Valentino remained the patron saint of Terni, town residents - as well as most Italians - didn't realize how famous he was becoming abroad, according to the current bishop of Terni, Franco Gualdrini.
"We found, for example, that people knew more about the American mafia `St. Valentine's Day Massacre' than about St. Valentine himself," Gualdrini said in an interview, referring to the Prohibition-era slaying of seven men in a Chicago garage by Al Capone's mobsters.