Bread and Circus

An online journal of culture

Month: August, 2007

Sûr, le Pont

by Editors

EXCURSIONSPonte di Sospiri (c) George P. Landow. Used with permission

Sûr, le Pont

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

Following the horrendous bridge collapse in Minneapolis, bridges have become a nationwide concern.

With this heightened focus, I began musing on many European bridges that span not only rivers, but more importantly centuries—if not millennia. A brief survey of their age-old tenacity might lend some comfort to those who’ve temporarily lost their confidence in humankind’s engineering ability.

Ponte Milvio, Rome, Italy—206 BC

The oldest bridge in Italy was famously a place to find love—albeit of many stripes, such as Tacitus’ accounts of Nero’s immoral pleasures. Furthermore, it was the place where Constantine defeated Maxentius, beginning the West’s long history as a Christian civilization.

Recently written-up in the New York Times online, the Ponte Milvio has found new caché among lovers who imitate art in their romantic gesture of signing their names to padlocks, locking them to chains on the ancient bridge, and then throwing the keys into the Tiber, sealing their vows forever. The ritual was invented by Federico Moccia, author of the recent “I Want You” (Ho Voglia di Te) series of books.

The “Pont du Gard,” Nîmes, France—1 AD

The Pont du Gard began its life as a trifecta of Roman engineering genius; it’s an aqueduct, a footbridge and a cargo bridge. Now a world heritage site, the grounds are home to a prodigious visitors center. (One can’t help feeling that Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (1989) has had something to do with its overflowing, tourbus-filled parking lot.)

Along with hordes of Americans, many others enjoy taking a dip in the bridge’s shadow to escape the summer heat in Provence. I visited it years ago—while 7 months pregnant—and I can personally attest that those cool waters below give a welcome respite to some hot, tired (swollen) feet.

The Aelius and Angels’ Bridge, Rome, Italy –138 AD

Famously crossed by Dante, and captured in art by such greats as Piranesi, who can beat a bridge decorated with ten angels designed by Bernini?

Originally, the Angels’ Bridge was built as a direct route to the mausoleum of the Roman Emperor Hadrian Aelius—now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo. It became a stronghold of the Papacy in the Medieval period, changing its role from pagan to Christian, and symbolizing the evolving culture of Rome.

As you stand on it you are surrounded by both history and the present, at once viewing Michelangelo’s Vatican dome as well as Rome’s contemporary urban pulse.

The Pont d’Avignon, Avignon, France –1171-1185 AD

Found in the same gorgeous part of the world as the Pont du Gard, the Pont d’Avignon is a must see after a self-tour of the medieval Palais des Papes (Papal Palace).

As the famous song goes:

Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond
Les beaux messieurs font comm’ çà
Et puis encore comm’ çà…

And so it goes, on and on, including the bell’ dames, the jardiniers, couturiers, vignerons, and blanchisseus’s, each one joining-in to form an ample cross-section of humanity.

Though admittedly it is now a “bridge to nowhere”, this perhaps adds to its Zen appeal as a great place to eat your Croque Monsieur and watch water as it (proverbially) goes under the bridge.

The Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy –1345 AD

In surveying the Ponte Vecchio we are reminded that—being more entrepreneurial than practical—the Florentines never gave much credence to platitudes like the Indian proverb: “Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house on it.”

Originally the clusters of sheds were medieval butchers’ shops, but later, during the Renaissance, these were converted by Giorgio Vasari into more appealing (and less rancid-smelling) jewellers. It was in one of those tiny shops that my engagement ring was purchased by a hopelessly romantic Firenz-o-phile. (We’re talking about a guy who has a fleur-de-lis tattoo in permanent homage to the city’s heraldic device here.)

There is a great story about how, during World War II, the Nazis were ready to bomb the bridge into smithereens, but the airman in question was so horrified at the thought of destroying this treasure that he defied his orders. I’m so glad he did.

The Pont Neuf, Paris, France –1578-1607

Whether or not you’ve read Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline’s Rescue (1954) recently, the Pont Neuf is an iconic image of Paris.

Connecting the Ile de la Cité to the Left and Right Banks of the River Seine, the bridge was the first stone bridge in Paris built without houses upon it, in order to give better traffic flow. That was in 1578, under Henri III. Its span of arches recalls ancient Roman works, like the aforementioned Pont du Gard.

In its simplicity and measured rhythm, it has that certain intangible je ne sais quoi…of course, everything is better in Paris.

The Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy –1591 AD

Begun in 1588, the Rialto Bridge serves to connect the two sides of the Grand Canal. This was a great improvement over the wooden boards used to span the gap in previous generations.

The profile of the upper part of the bridge is classically-inspired, two rows of shops and walkways capped by a barrel-vault supported by Doric columns. This conservative vision for the bridge changed little when, originally, such renowned architects as Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio, Vignola—even Michelangelo—were considered for the engineering job. What was in question was the multiple-arch support structure they all offered to the regents of Venice. In the end the little-known Antonio da Ponte trumped them all with his single-arch plan of support.

Da Ponte’s completed bridge therefore symbolizes not only the Venetian connection to Roman antiquity, but also a prototypically-Venetian sense of independent thinking and entrepreneurship.

The “Ponte dei Sospiri,” Venice, Italy –1600 AD

Without leaving Venice, we end our tour at the Bridge of Sighs in the neighborhood of the Piazzo San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and the waterfront. The bridge is an architectural “nephew” of the Rialto Bridge, for Antonio da Ponte was in fact the uncle of its designer—Antoni Contino.

Its decor is a whimsical Renaissance concetto (conceit). Its crest is adorned with so many volutes that it might be misconstrued as a stone precursor to the pompadour. Moreover, the mask-corbels along its supporting arch dance across the span like an Italian version of the varied citizens from the Pont d’Avignon song.

Functionally, the Ponte dei Sospiri connects the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) to the Republic’s municipal jail. As the story goes, the tiny bridge offers the condemned their last view of freedom through its stone-barred windows on their way to confinement.

The bridge got its romantic name from the now famous lyric by the poet Byron:

I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand.

Lord Byron (1788-1824), Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto iv. Stanza 1.

Fin (The End)

Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph. D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email

Image (top): Photograph by George P. Landow, © October 2000. Used in accordance with guidelines published in The Victorian Web.

Strong Women Make Better Dessert

by Editors


Strong Women Make Better Dessert:

The Power of the Female Characters in American Pie

By Erin Dionne

It’s as American as, well, apple pie. Sex and teen films go together like whipped cream and a frat party. The contemporary teen sex romp has been around for decades—remember Porky’s and Losin’ It?—but none of them have hit a nerve with their audience like the American Pie franchise. Whether it was Jason Biggs’ physical comedy, Finch’s anal persona, or Stifler’s lewd and rude nature, the first movie hit big—grossing over $100 million at the box office in 1999. But although the plot follows the boys quest to lose their virginity, it’s the female characters in the film who help elevatAmerican Pie --available from Amazon.come the original American Pie not to the level of high art, but at least to a place that twists conventional expectations. Without them, Pie would be just another sticky, unsatisfying, empty-calorie dessert.

American Pie, for those who haven’t seen it, revolves around four male friends about to graduate from high school. Oz, Kevin, Jim, and Finch don’t want to leave their high school years behind as virgins, and so make a pact to sleep with someone by prom. The only problem is that, outside of Kevin, the other three guys don’t have girlfriends and must start their pursuits from scratch. Stifler, an obnoxious hanger-on, claims to have the most experience of the group, though offers more commentary than help—and from his overblown attitude and lack of finesse, it’s clear that he’s lying. All in all, typical teen fare represented by the guys’ view of sex as uncomplicated and straightforward. As prom grows nearer, and the main characters grow desperate, hilarity ensues.

Even though the cameras follow the boys, it’s the female characters who reveal the film’s real story. They are the ones who ultimately say who, when, and where. It’s the case in nearly every teen movie, of course–without consent from the second participant, there is no lovin’ for our heroes (and the sex comedy would take on a dark, violent mantel). But in American Pie, the plot is not just about how the boys get the girls to accept their advances—indeed, it’s about what the girls teach the guys in the process: that sex is anything buy straightforward, and there’s no such thing as “uncomplicated.”

Tara Reid’s character, Vicky, has been dating Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) for quite a while. He wants to sleep with her, but she wants to know he loves her—which stops him in his tracks.

Oz (Chris Klein), in trying to scope out someone who doesn’t know his lacrosse-playing jock side, ends up legitimately falling for Mena Suvari’s “choir girl,” Heather, and swiftly sees the value in keeping their relationship—and sex life—private.

Stifler (Seann William Scott), in his refusal to learn from the women around him, reminds the audience that not all men—especially teenage boys—understand the dynamics at play between love and sex. So focused on getting laid, his bravado, innuendo, and lewd remarks drive every girl away from him. He’s left with sickening rage as Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) sleeps with his mother (Jennifer Coolidge)—proof that Finch’s relative emotional maturity can attract a bigger prize than Stifler will ever attain.

But it’s Jason Biggs character, Jim, who suffers and succeeds the most with the women in the story. At its outset, he views women as merely vehicles for sex—objectifying them by masturbating to the scrambled porn channel and stripping them of personality or humanity as he obsesses over them. In his first major wake-up call, foreign exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), object of his obsession, causes him to humiliate himself not once, but twice, in the midst of their tryst. The scene is all the more poetic as Nadia is unaware that the interlude has been staged for the high school population’s viewing pleasure via Jim’s web cam. It’s not until the end of the film, when flaky and annoying Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) not only agrees to sleep with him, but dominates their encounter (uttering the memorable “Say my name, bitch!”) and leaves him, does Jim realize that sex—and women—are more complicated than he ever imagined.

In each case, having the teenaged girls dictate the terms of the encounter not only imbues the guys’ struggle with humor, it also makes the story resonate. Kevin, Finch, Oz, and Jim may be out to “get some,” but what they end up with is far different from their initial expectations. The girls end up getting even more. They begin to understand their sexuality, develop an awareness of the choices they have and can make, and exert a measure of power in their relationships.

Teen sex romps rarely offer feminist undertones, or feature more than the stereotypical blonde bombshell characterizations of women (or if they do, it is through the archaic angel/slut representation, with one “chosen” virtuous woman represented throughout the film is the prize for the hero). After all, there’s plenty of humor to be found in men chasing women and tricking them to fall into bed, or hapless heroines being swept off their feet by a deceptive hero…or so I’ve heard. But pitting powerful women—even to the extent that they don’t know they are powerful— making their own decisions, against a group of guys ups the ante for the audience. And Pie is all the more sweet for it.

Erin Dionne, co-editor of Bread and Circus, is the author of the novel Models Dont Eat Chocolate Cookies from Dial Books for Young Readers. Available in spring 2009.

Image (above): The cover of American Pie on DVD (Universal Studios). Available at

A Gift of Love

by Editors


A Gift of Love

By Kathleen Ginder-Vogel

My black lab puppy, Fairfax, is smart as a whip, mostly well-behaved, knows all kinds of fun tricks, can walk five miles a day, and likes to cuddle; in a year, I will give him away.

“How can you do that?” people ask, incredulous. “I could never do that,” they say, shaking their heads.

I am raising Fairfax to be a guide dog, because I want to give someone else a more independent life. You don’t get many chances to make a tangible difference to another person’s existence, but I will. When my dog becomes a guide dog for a blind person, I will give that person the biggest gift of love I have ever given to another.

People ask me how I got involved with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the guide dog organization based in Yorktown Heights and Patterson, NY. I was looking for a dog or cat to add to my household, already populated with one orange-striped princess named Poppy. I love both dogs and cats and thought it might be fun and different to have a dog to take on walks and interact with a little differently than one interacts with a cat. However, my husband is an academic, and we don’t know where we’ll be moving when he gets his faculty job. Back to San Francisco, where we can only afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment and certainly can’t afford to have a dog? To the Midwest, where we might be able to have ten dogs? To Switzerland? We thought perhaps a cat would be the way to go.

Then I read an article about the Wilmington coordinators of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB) puppy raisers in Northern Delaware, and I started to think about raising a guide dog. GEB puppy raisers are responsible for proving a safe and loving home, socialization opportunities, and education in manners to puppies from eight weeks old until they go in for training at fifteen-twenty months. The organization provides a crate for the dog and regular dog training lessons, and covers veterinary costs (most vets donate routine care and vaccines to Guiding Eyes). It’s a win-win situation: volunteers benefit from GEB training and resources. The organization gets committed people to provide loving homes to its dogs before they are old enough to be trained as guide dogs. Volunteers agree to follow GEB’s procedures and guidelines and attend regular meetings, which are as beneficial to the raisers as they are to the dog.

I decided that not only would this experience be the major volunteer commitment I was looking for, it would be a great way to learn how to properly train and raise a puppy for a wonderful cause.

On my birthday, after flying home to Delaware the day a huge ice storm hit the Midwest and East Coast, I had been trapped in Chicago’s Midway Airport for 24 hours. I was wandering the airport, making friends, using electrical outlets, and entertaining myself. I had paused at a mostly-empty gate to read the paper and drink my orange juice, when the gate attendant spoke to a man behind me. “Sir, your gate has been changed to gate A19.” We were across the airport from that gate, but I thought nothing of it, until he said, “That’s fine, but can you get someone to walk me there?” Sensing a person in need, I turned. A tall man was sitting with his guide dog, a beautiful black lab. I piped up, “Oh, I can take you. I’m stuck in the airport for the day anyway.” “Are you sure?” asked the attendant. “Yeah, of course,” I responded. I introduced myself to the man, whose name was Joe, and met his dog, Todd. As Joe, Todd, and I walked through the airport, and I marveled at this dog’s ability to lead Joe in the right direction, based on my cues, we talked about Todd. Joe explained what I was already starting to learn, that puppy raisers raise the dogs as babies, and then they work with trainers for several months before they get paired with a blind person. Joe flies a lot for work, and Todd flies in the cabin with him, tucked under the seat.

I managed to get on the last flight back to Philly that afternoon, in time to have my birthday dinner at home, and I concluded that meeting Joe and Todd was serendipitous. Soon after, I applied to be a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I was invited to a pre-placement class, where one of the organization’s Regional Managers explained the organization’s mission, the puppy raising program, taught us multiple training techniques, and let us work with some of the puppies in the Delaware region. My husband and I attended ten hours of training before we filled out a puppy raiser agreement, our contract with GEB.

On April 23, a GEB staff member handed me a black bundle of fur with a little white splotch on his chest, and I fell in love.

The first few days weren’t easy. He was getting used to being in his crate, away from his litter-mates, in a new house. However, as time went on, he learned to walk on a leash, do more tricks, come when called, not bother the cat, and so on. GEB’s training methods, resources, and care for the dog’s health and well-being have been phenomenal. We have had GEB’s complete support throughout the process of raising Fairfax.

Giving Fairfax up will be full of heartbreak—even the puppy raisers who have raised ten puppies say it is always hard. But I keep coming back to the fact that Fairfax is the best gift I could ever give anyone. I get to touch a life and make it better. He will be happy; he’ll get to spend every waking second with his owner, and he’ll be doing the work he was born to do. A friend of mine once remarked that he feels sorry for guide dogs when he sees them; I explained that they love it. I’ve seen them working; they are so proud in their harnesses. If they seem unhappy or distracted, I think what you are really witnessing is intense focus. I watch Fairfax closely as I work with him; when he is concentrating, his eyes become serious; his mouth closes, and he moves with determination. Though he may occasionally let his attention move to other things, he is actually splitting his attention; half is on me, his handler, and half is on the other things in his environment of which he must be aware.

I believe that Fairfax has what it takes to be a guide dog, but people have told me that the dogs choose the life they want to lead. Sometimes, when I’m walking Fairfax, he just stops. He smiles and looks at me like, “I don’t feel like doing this right now.” I know every trick there is to get him moving again, but sometimes, he just doesn’t want to walk with me right then. It’s possible that he will choose that he doesn’t want to be a guide. He’ll then have the option of working for the police department, ATF, or being paired with an autistic child, all of which are wonderful ways in which he can save, protect, and improve lives. In rare instances, dogs come back to the family that raised them, and of course, we would be delighted to have him back. However, I am prepared for him to leave us. He is an extraordinary dog, bred for and capable of bringing independence, joy, peace, and love to another life. He won’t just touch that life, though. He has already touched my husband’s and mine; he has touched my friends’ and families’ lives; he has brought kisses and cuddles to countless neighbors. Most importantly, he has brought awareness of blindness and disabilities to our community and reminded those who have met him that there are all kinds of ways to help improve the world, just a little bit.

I love Fairfax dearly, but it’s more than that. To me, he is love incarnate. He will love whomever he is with; what other animal gives you such unconditional affection? His person will adore him. Everyone who meets him will think he is beautiful and sweet. His presence will spread sensitivity and awareness of blindness and other disabilities. This little black dog with the cute white patch on his chest has made my world a better place, and he will make the world better for so many others before he is through. It’s this that makes me kiss him and hug him and love him to pieces. It’s this that makes it possible for me to give him up.


Copyright 2007 Kathleen Ginder-Vogel

Bread and Circus contributing writer Kathleen Ginder-Vogel owns the freelance writing business Poppy Communications.

Picture (top): Fairfax shows his goofy side. Photo by Matthew Ginder-Vogel.