25 October 2014

French Bridges: 1. Pont Saint-Bénézet, Avignon

Earlier this year I spent some time in the south of France, and while in the Avignon area I had time to visit a few bridges. I'll cover six or seven of them over this and the next few posts.

The Pont d'Avignon is one of the most famous historic bridges in France (perhaps in Europe), forming part of a World Heritage Site. I won't recount its history here (Wikipedia offers an excellent summary), but it's interesting to query quite why it is such a famous bridge.

Built in the 12th century, it was not especially structurally innovative. It may have been considered beautiful, but it has not been sympathetically treated over the years. Originally, it was a lengthy viaduct of 22 arches, spanning the entire width of the Rhone (which is split at Avignon into two channels with a central island). Today, only 4 arches survive at the eastern end, the others having long since been destroyed by floods.

The stone arches are elliptical, or possibly three-centered, in profile, and are built in four parallel sections. Perhaps this was inspired by the nearby Roman Pont du Gard, the lower section of which was built in the same manner. Today, it seems an odd decision, sacrificing integrity for what I can only guess was short term economy (the ability to reduce the cost of the timber centering by reusing smaller sections).

The arches sit on massive stone cutwaters, but these evidently did not suffice to resist the river's might. The largest surviving pier supports a bridge chapel, with chambers both above and below the main bridge level. The walkway surface is now flat and does not follow the rise in the bridge arches, evidence of unsympathetic restoration works undertaken in the 19th century.

A gatehouse survives at the extreme eastern end of the bridge, with a twin-section timber drawbridge used to bar access. The drawbridge is still raised every evening and lowered every morning, but the only users of the bridge now are tourists who have paid an entrance fee. The ruined bridge goes nowhere - it is simply a pier, where visitors pay for a sense of contact with antiquity.

Perhaps there is something of the "romance of ruins" at work. Certainly, the Pont-Saint-Esprit, a quite similar bridge from the 13th century, which spans the Rhone further north, is nowhere near as well known, and that bridge remains intact (albeit heavily modified). Perhaps the bridge's fame is simply because it is the subject of a well-known song, but surely the song became popular because the bridge is famous, rather than vice versa.

I took many photographs of this bridge.

Further information:

1 comment:

Imre said...

It's interesting how think about the "whys" in historical buildings, as does the Happy Pontist here.
The savings in construction costs may have been a cause for building the arches in 4 sections. It shall be remembered that bridge building was some kind of "venture capital investment" in the middle ages, since the construction time took many years, for such large bridges often many decades.
On the other hand, the project started paying off after the bridge had opened to traffic and the users started to pay the bridge toll. Even after a successful completion of the bridge, it could have been easily damaged by flood, wars, and with built-up bridges such as the Ponte Vecchio in Florence or the Old London Bridge by fires. Of course, these may already have struck during construction.

In the light of this, savings in the construction phase seem quite rational to me. As noted by the Happy Pontist, a structural engineer of today would prefer structural integrity, since we have a deeper understanding of these structures than was available when the Point Saint-Bénézet was built. But judged by the fact that some portions of the bridge survive until today, its builders weren't too wrong either.