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.