All that remains of this key medieval crossing are four arches and a famous folk song.
Legend has it that in 1178 a total eclipse of the sun occurred at Avignon. Frightened citizens gathered in the marketplace, where a bishop addressed them. He was interrupted by a young shepherd, Benezet, who said the eclipse was a sign from God that he should build a bridge. In response to the bishop’s demand for proof, Benezet lifted a massive stone and carried it to the place where the crossing was to be built. Benezet was commissioned to build the bridge and, on the basis of this miracle, the Catholic Church later canonized him. His bridge is also known as the Pont Saint Benezet.
Given the strength of the Saint Benezet legend, the bridge was thought until recently to have been built between 1177 and 1185. However, multidisciplinary research published in 2015 in the Journal of Archaeological Science revealed that the bridge’s wooden foundations could be far older and its masonry much newer, dating to about 1250.
PONT D’AVIGNON BRIDGE MAP Photo Gallery
What is indisputable is that rapidly expanding infrastructure in the Middle Ages demanded new bridges. Typically this work was overseen by monks who were enjoined to “build bridges and streets and thus prepare your way to heaven.” Their charitable duties included the protection of travelers, both merchants and pilgrims, of which there were thousands. Hospitals and shelters built by such brotherhoods proliferated, especially at river crossings. Their construction, along with that of bridges, was financed by the donations of the faithful, who were promised a spiritual reward in the afterlife.
The Pont d’Avignon crossed the Rhone where the river is split by Barthelasse Island; to reduce the effects of flooding, the bridge’s western branch, now destroyed, was bent at a 30-degree angle. It was composed of twenty-two elliptical arches, each with a span greater than 100 feet (30 meters) and rising on piers 25 feet (7.6 meters) thick. To protect the town from invaders, the bridge was built with an extremely narrow roadwaya mere 6.6 feet (2.0 meters) wide on the Avignon sidethat could be defended easily.
In 1226 Louis VIII seized the city and ordered the bridge destroyed. The Avignonnais later repaired what remained, though less skillfully this time. The structure became more vulnerable andwith the exception of the four arches that still stand todaywas destroyed by a series of violent floods during the seventeenth century. In the Middle Ages the hope of a spiritual reward in the afterlife was a powerful motivating force behind gifts to endow churches, to build bridges, and to relieve the indigent and ill.
MARJORIE NICE BOYER, MEDIEVAL FRENCH BRIDGE MAPS: A HISTORY, 1976
Many bridges had chapels, some more than one. For five hundred years Benezet was buried at the chapel on his bridge; his body is now interred at the church of Saint-Didier in Avignon. Monks administered the construction of medieval bridges, which were considered pious works. They encouraged bridge bequests by rewarding donors with indulgences, or pardons of sin.
The Vasari Corridor, with its red-tiled roof, runs from the Uffizi across the Ponte Vecchio on its way toward the Palazzo Pitti.