Among several imposing bridges in Venice, Italy, admired for their finest baroque architecture, the Bridge of Sighs or Ponte dei Sospiri is perhaps the most famous in the world. It is neither as long as the great Golden Bridge in San Francisco nor as magnificent as the Tower Bridge in London. It is rather a small bridge and is the only bridge in the world that connects a palace, the halls of the courts of Pałaso Dogal and the Prigioni Nuove, the new prison that was built across the canal in the late 16th century.
Spanning the Rio di Palazzo, also known as the Palace River, the enclosed bridge was designed by Antonio Contino and was constructed in the style of the Italian Renaissance. The 36 feet (11 m) wide highly ornamented bridge was built with white limestone and consists of lattice-like screens, covering the two small rectangular windows at the two ends. The external decoration of the bridge consists of a number of sculptured faces on the bottom arch of the bridge. Since the bridge was intended to be used by the prisoners, most of the faces indicate emotions of fear and sadness, while only one face seems to have a happy expression and it is believed that this particular sculpture is the bridge’s guardian. The construction of the bridge started in 1600 and it took two years to complete it.
Initially, the Bridge of Sighs served as an enclosed corridor to take the prisoners from the halls of the courts to the jail. However, despite the sad history, the picture-perfect bridge is a beautiful sight and one of the main tourist attractions in Venice.
It is interesting to note that, Casanova, the renowned Italian womanizer, is believed to be the most famous prisoner who walked through the bridge and escaped from the prison cell with the help of a monk, as he did not like his cell.
The famous name of the bridge is supposed to refer to the deep sighs of the prisoners, who while crossing the bridge on the way to their prison cells or the execution chambers would sigh as they caught their last glimpses of the lagoon of Venice through the tiny windows and their sighs of despair and depression are the ones credited with the famous name of the bridge. However, the legend regarding the name of the bridge, while well known, is not correct. In reality, the days of inquisitions, torture and summary executions were over by the time the bridge was built. Apart from that, most historical accounts suggest that only crooks or low-level criminals were kept in the Prigioni and the bridge was not even built before 1600, which was well after inquisitions had become a thing of the past.
The unique bridge and its unforgettable romantic name became more famous with the wonderful description of Lord Byron: ‘I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs, a palace and prison on each hand’, in his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’.
Slowly but steadily, the Bridge of Sighs has become the symbol of love and romance in a city, which is completely doused with romance. The bridge can be seen from Canonica Bridge and Ponte Della Paglia or simply by sailing beneath it in a gondola. The tourists mainly prefer a smooth sailing by a gondola, as it gives them a better opportunity to observe the infrastructure and the decoration of the bridge. However, the young lovers always go for the gondola ride, as they yearn to sail beneath the bridge due to another timeless legend. It is believed by many that, if a couple in a gondola kisses while drifting under the bridge at sunset as the bells of San Marco toll, they will be blessed with eternal love.
The Bridge of Sighs, stretched high above Rio di Palazzo, is really a beautiful sight and is generally known as one of the finest examples of bridge architecture in the world. It inspired several other covered bridges of other countries to adopt the same name, like the bridge of sighs in Oxford, Cambridge, Chester, Frankfurt, Nevada, Pittsburg etc. However, the original Bridge of Sigh is the most popular among all. It is considered as one of the most beautiful landmarks of Venice and one of the most popular attractions among the tourists, especially the young couples.
After decades and centuries of attracting dirt and decay, the famous Bridge of Sighs was completely restored after three years of continuous work. The restoration was commissioned after parts of the bridge started falling off into the murky water of Rio di Palazzo, one even narrowly missing the leg of the passing tourist on the gondola below it. The restoration process lasted for three years and with the cost of 2.8 million Euros, much of which was controversially covered through commercial advertising hoardings that were placed on the scaffolding gear around the bridge during the work.