The gay marriage debate arrived within walking distance of the Vatican on Saturday as Rome's mayor registered 16 gay marriages celebrated abroad in open defiance of Italy's government.

Gay marriage is illegal in Italy. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano recently sent a notice to local prefects saying any registrations of gay marriages celebrated abroad would be voided, and Rome's prefect has vowed to do so immediately.

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino received thunderous applause as he arrived in the city hall reception room where the couples, their friends and family gathered to make their marriages official in Rome's city ledger. One by one, the couples -- gay and lesbian, some with children -- were called up to witness Marino transcribe the date and locations of their weddings, including in Spain, Portugal and the U.S.

Marino said Saturday was an important day in the fight for equal rights for all and that "the most important right is to say to your companion 'I love you' and to have that be recognized.

"We have a lot of work to do to make sure everyone's rights are recognized," he said before transcribing the first of 16 marriages, standing with the spouses after handing them the registration document and posing for photos.

Jonathon Dominic Spada, a 26-year-old from Santa Barbara, California, and Fabrizio Maffeo, 35, a Roman computer specialist, were there to register their 2013 marriage in Boston.

"It's important -- a limited recognition, but it's something," Maffeo said. "I'm proud of our mayor."

The next step, he said, was for Italy to change its law to allow gay marriage and gay adoption -- a step he said they were looking forward to.

Premier Matteo Renzi has said he would propose legislation allowing gay unions, though it wouldn't include adoption.