Monday, September 12, 2011

12. Ponte Sisto: A Bridge with a History

Today's photos:


1. Ponte Sisto with the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the background.

2. A view of the bridge as you look toward the Trastevere side.

3. A tour boat about to pass under Ponte Sisto.

4. The occhialone seen from the tour boat. Notice the coat of arms of Sixtus IV.

5. The left side inscription.

6. The right side inscription.



Ponte Sisto is a bridge which crosses the Tiber River and leads into the Trastevere neighborhood at Piazza Trilussa.  The bridge we see today dates back to 1475 when it was built by order of Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere (1471-1484) from whom it takes its name.  The year 1475 was a Holy Year and large crowds of pilgrims were expected in the Eternal City and especially at St. Peter's Basilica, the focal point of many of the religious activities and celebrations. Before this time the only bridge crossing the Tiber near St. Peter's was Ponte Sant'Angelo.

A curiosity

Sixtus undoubtedly had a vivid recollection of the disaster which had occurred twenty-five years earlier during the previous Holy Year of 1450.  One day, so many people had crowded onto the narrow Ponte Sant'Angelo that  the subsequent pushing and yelling apparently caused a mule on the bridge to go berserk.  In the resulting panic, 170 pilgrims were killed; some were crushed to death in the stampeding crowd, while others drowned as they fell or jumped into the river.  So the new bridge of Sixtus was intended to divert much of the traffic from Ponte Sant'Angelo to Ponte Sisto in order to avoid a repeat of this kind of tragedy.

But the history of this bridge goes much farther back than Sixtus IV and 1475.  The first bridge at this spot was built by the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known by his nickname, Caracalla (211-217).  It was named Pons Aurelius Antoninus after the emperor.  The bridge was rebuilt by the emperor Valentinian I (364-375) and renamed Pons Valentiniani in his honor.  Then in 792 the bridge was almost totally destroyed by a flood.  What was left of it - only one of its five arches – was given the name Pons Ruptus (Broken Bridge).  It remained in that unusable condition until Sixtus had it rebuilt in 1475, once again with five arches.  However, looking at the bridge today you see that it only has four arches.  This is because one of them was demolished when the retaining walls of the river were built in the late nineteenth century.


A curiosity

Just to make some interesting connections here, Sixtus IV is the pope who also had the Sistine Chapel built beginning in the same year as the construction of the bridge, 1475.  Both the bridge and the chapel were designed by the same architect, Baccio Pontelli, a favorite of Sixtus.  Pontelli used in his bridge the one arch left standing from the flood of 792.  It is enclosed in the arch which today is nearest the Trastevere side of the bridge.  (For a fuller discussion of Sixtus IV, the Sistine Chapel and Baccio Pontelli, see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 25, The Sistine Chapel).

The bridge suffered an unfortunate addition in 1877 when an elevated metal walkway supported by a cast iron railing was constructed and attached to it.  It was a structure totally foreign to the nature of the bridge, disfiguring the original design.   Finally, following a long restoration, completed in 1999, this architectural monstrosity was removed and the bridge was restored to its original look and purpose as a bridge solely for pedestrian traffic.

A curiosity

On the face of the center arch of the bridge there is a large round opening which the Romans have named occhialone (large eye).  The locals will tell you that it serves a practical and useful purpose.  During flood stage when the water is so high that it begins to flow through the occhialone, be prepared for major flooding along the course of the river.  The "eye" also serves to allow debris to flow through during a flood instead of crashing into the bridge. At the very top of the occhialone you can see the "signature" of the builder . . . the coat of arms of Sixtus IV.

On the opposite side of the bridge from Trastevere there are two Latin inscriptions, one on either side of the entrance to the bridge.  The one on the right recalls the building of the bridge by Sixtus.







Sixtus IV, Supreme Pontiff, for the usefulness of the Roman people and of the multitude of pilgrims who will be coming to the Jubilee, with great care and expense, restored from the foundations this bridge which they properly were calling "Broken", and he willed that it be called "Sisto" after his own name.

But I like the inscription on the left much better because of the clever way it was written.  It is as if someone were speaking to travelers who are about to cross the bridge, reminding them that Sixtus built it and inviting them to say a little prayer of thanks to him before crossing.








You who cross by the kindness of Sixtus IV, pray God to long save and protect for us our excellent supreme pontiff.  Fare well, whoever you are, when you will have prayed these things.

The originals of these two inscriptions were destroyed during the construction work of 1999 and were replaced . . . with some imperfections here and there.  In any case, the next time you start across this historic bridge on your way to or from Trastevere, pause for a moment to look at the inscriptions, and to think about Sixtus IV who provided us with this beautiful and practical architectural gem which we continue to enjoy over five hundred years later.


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