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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice

What is Ponte dei Sospiri?

Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs in English, is an iconic bridge in Venice that’s made from white stone and was designed by Antonio Contino in the early 17th century.

Ponte dei Sospiri

Ponte dei Sospiri History

‘I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;

A palace and a prison on each hand:

I saw from out the wave her structures rise

As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand…’

With these words Lord Byron, in his narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, described the iconic Ponte dei Sospiri (or Bridge of Sighs), the elegant crossing between the Palazzo Ducale (or Doge’s Palace) and one of the city’s old jails. Its name is said to derive from the sighs of those condemned by the State Inquisitors, sobbing at their last sight of the sea before being confined in Venice’s dark prison, hidden from daylight. This tale is in fact just that, a tale, a romanticised myth: many Italian cities have similar bridges connecting the tribunal with the jail, but none of these were named the ‘Bridge of Sighs’. Nor was a stay in this jail reserved purely for political prisoners locked up for life.

The bridge was erected after a series of devastating fires in the 16th century, followed by a programme of extensive rebuilding that included the present Rialto Bridge. After various proposals, Venice decided to build a new jail as an independent building. In truth, the Prigioni Nuove (or New Prison) never fully replaced the pre-existing jails located in the Doge’s Palace, known as I Pozzi (or the Pits) and I Piombi (or the Leads, so named because of its position beneath the lead roof of the palace). From 1563 until 1614, Giovanni Antonio Rusconi, Antonio da Ponte and his nephews Antonio and Tommaso Contino worked on building the new prison. Ironically, despite the infamy which the Bridge of Sighs has conferred on it, the new jail was built to improve conditions for the state’s prisoners.

The bridge, made of pristine Istrian stone that shines under sunlight, was built in the early 17th century by Antonio Contino in elegant Baroque style and is fully enclosed with its narrow windows constructed in an escape-proof design. Externally, the bridge is divided into three architectural orders from bottom to top. The arch close to the water is decorated with grotesque faces, known as mascarons. On top of this there’s the passage proper, externally punctuated by quadrangular slabs, columns, and the coat-of-arms of Marino Grimani, the doge who ordered the bridge to be built. It’s topped by a lunette with a central relief of Justice flanked by two lions. Inside the bridge there are two separate corridors stemming from the palace, and light streams through the narrow windows with their stone tracery akin to intricate textile designs. This forbidding structure, now a celebrated symbol of Venetian architecture, has had a far-reaching influence, with copies to be found in Oxford and Cambridge.

Only two prisoners ever escaped from prison in Venice: Giacomo Casanova and his accomplice, a renegade priest named Father Balbi. The world’s most famous-ever libertine – a seducer, con man, gambler and dandy – was viewed as an outright danger to the sanctity of the Venetian Republic. Casanova was only 30 years old when he was sentenced to five years’ solitary confinement in 1755 for ‘public outrages against the Holy Religion’. Casanova’s cell was in the Piombi, right in the rafters of the Doge’s Palace. Late at night on the 31st of October 1756, after cutting a hole in the lead roof, the daring duo escaped and descended into the lower part of the Palazzo Ducale. The story goes that on coming across a guard as they made their way out, they convinced him that they had been accidentally locked in all night after attending an official function. Strolling onto the Piazza San Marco, the pair stopped for coffee before escaping Venice by gondola.

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