Sunday, 2 February 2014

Romantic tales link Venice
with Dublin, Cambridge and
Oxford’s ‘Dreaming Spires’

The spires of All Souls’ College ... Matthew Arnold first named Oxford the “city of dreaming spires” in 1865 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Oxford is known as the “city of dreaming spires,” a term coined by the English poet Matthew Arnold in 1865. In his poem Thyrsis, Arnold describes the view of Oxford from Boars Hill:

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening
Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!


Ralph Vaughan Williams later drew on portions of the poem for An Oxford Elegy. However, Arnold is often misquoted so that Oxford is also known as the “city of glittering spires.”

Merton College, Oxford ... TS Eliot was a postgraduate student for a short time (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I revisited the spires and towers, the domes and bridges of Oxford shortly before Christmas while I was visiting some of Oxford’s theological colleges, including Ripon College Cuddesdon and Wycliffe Hall.

Oxford has so many literary associations that it was impossible not to want to visit Merton College, where TS Eliot was a postgraduate student briefly, and Magdalen College, with its close associations with Irish poets and writers such as Oscar Wilde, who was a student, CS Lewis who was a don, and Seamus Heaney, who was a fellow of Magdalen while he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Magdalen was also the college of the poet John Betjeman, who later blamed CS Lewis for the fact that he left Oxford without a degree having failed his divinity examination.

There was time too to visit the Eagle and Child, the pub where CS Lewis, Charles Williams, JRR Tolkien and the other ‘Inklings’ met regularly.

The University Church of Saint Mary’s ... birthplace of the Oxford Movement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I first visited Oxford in 1970, and family connections kept me in touch with Oxford throughout the 1970s. Oxford has many intimate connections with the Church of Ireland, and the Oxford Movement traces its origins to 1833, when John Keble preached his Assize Sermon in the University Church of Saint Mary’s on “national apostasy” and government intervention in the affairs of the Church of Ireland.

The University Museum in Oxford was designed by the Irish architects Deane and Woodward and decorated by the O’Shea brothers from Callan, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The University Museum is an exceptional and stunning example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture. It was designed by the Irish architects Thomas Newenham Deane from Cork and Benjamin Woodward from Tullamore, who were strongly influenced by John Ruskin. Most of the Gothic carvings in the museum are by James and John O’Shea from Callan, Co Kilkenny, and their nephew Edward Whelan.

Tracing architectural inspiration

The new prize-winning chapel in Ripon College Cuddesdon has attracted acclaim throughout the architectural world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It was six years since I had visited Oxford, and because I have long felt comfortable in Cambridge it was good to renew my acquaintances with the “city of dreaming spires.” One of the great architectural pleasures of this latest visit was to experience the new Bishop Edward King Chapel in Ripon College Cuddesdon, a prize-winning design that has attracted worldwide media attention.

The older Gothic revival college buildings at Cuddesdon were designed by the architect George Edmund Street in the 1850s. In 2012, the last five sisters from two Anglican religious orders – Saint John Baptist and The Good Shepherd – moved to Cuddesdon. The Community of Saint John Baptist, also known as the Sisters of Mercy or the Clewer Sisters, was founded by Mother Harrier Monsell (1811-1883), from Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, a sister of the Irish patriot William Smith O’Brien. With their move to Cuddesdon, the sisters endowed the new, elliptical Bishop Edward King Chapel.

In Oxford, the dreaming spires associated with Matthew Arnold’s description include the pinnacles of All Souls’ College, the unique round Radcliffe Camera, and the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at Hertford College.

It seems obvious to many that the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford was inspired by the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.

But was it?

I even began to wonder whether there were any architectural connections with similar bridges, including the bridge at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, and the bridge at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

A city of 400 bridges

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice ... received its name from Lord Byron in 1812 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice is an enclosed bridge built of white limestone, with two pairs of small, rectangular windows with stone bars. It is 11 metres wide and crosses the Rio di Palazzo, linking the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace.

Venice has over 400 bridges crossing 100 or so canals and connecting 117 islands.

The Bridge of Sighs, built between 1600 and 1602, was designed by Antoni Contino, whose uncle Antonio da Ponte designed the equally well-known Rialto Bridge.

Rialto Bridge, Venice ... the more likely inspiration for bridges in Cambridge, Dublin and Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Legend says convicted prisoners snatched their last sight of Venice from the Bridge of Sighs, sighing at the scene through the windows before being taken to cells, or sighing stifled claims to innocence. Casanova once escaped from the bridge, and, in reality, the days of inquisitions and summary executions were over when the bridge was built and the cells below were used mainly for small-time criminals.

This is the only covered bridge in Venice. Unlike the Rialto Bridge which is open and lined with arcades of shops, the Bridge of Sighs is entirely closed, its narrow windows letting in little light through their stony wire netting, and providing only snatched glimpses of the Church of San Giorgio and the Lagoon.

Indeed, it was never known as the Bridge of Sighs to Venetians – or to anyone else – until the poet Lord Byron named it so in 1812 in his epic poem Childe Harold:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand;
I saw from out the wave of her structure’s rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand...


William Turner’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’ … when it was exhibited in 1840, Turner misquoted Byron

The legend persisted. When William Turner exhibited his painting of the bridge in 1840, he accompanied it with lines that misquoted Byron:

I stood upon a bridge, a palace and
A prison on each hand.


Thomas Hood used The Bridge of Sighs as the title of a poem in 1844 about a homeless young woman who threw herself from Waterloo Bridge in London into the Thames – although the bridge is never named in his poem.

John Ruskin referred to the Bridge of Sighs in The Stones of Venice in 1845, and Byron’s remarks gave rise to another legend that lovers will attain eternal love if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the bridge as the bells toll in Saint Mark’s Campanile. The legend provided a plot line for the movie A Little Romance (1979).

The sighs of students

Punters under the Bridge of Sighs at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge was built in 1831. This covered bridge in Saint John’s College was designed by Henry Hutchinson and crosses the River Cam, linking the college’s Third Court and New Court.

Although it is named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the two have little in common architecturally, although both are covered. Queen Victoria is said to have loved the bridge more than any other place in Cambridge, and the bridge is now one of the main tourist attractions there.

Looking from the Bridge of Sighs towards the Kitchen Bridge at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The bridge was built after New Court was built in Saint John’s, giving rise to the need for a second bridge linking New Court and Third Court, in addition to the Kitchen Bridge designed by Sir Christopher Wren. A common myth claims students named it the “Bridge of Sighs” after the sighs of pre-exam students or students on their way to their tutors’ offices.

A ‘touch of genius’

The bridge linking Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the former Synod Hall was part of George Street’s restoration work in the 1870s.(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The charming covered bridge linking Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the former Synod Hall was built in 1875 during the George Edmund Street’s restoration of the cathedral. At an early stage in his career, Street was influenced by Ruskin and The Stones of Venice, and he had also designed the college buildings at Cuddesdon.

Ripon College Cuddesdon was designed by George Street in the 1850s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This bridge has been compared with the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and the bridges in Cambridge and Oxford. Roger Stalley says it is Street’s “final touch of genius” in the restoration. But the bridge in Oxford was built almost 40 years later, and while the bridge in Cambridge has Perpendicular tracery, Street’s bridge in Dublin is designed in the First Pointed or Early Gothic style, with relatively simple arcades lining the walls.

A view down Winetavern Street and across the River Liffey from Dublin’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Street’s bridge spans Winetavern Street. The old Synod Hall stands on the site of the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels, and now houses the Viking multimedia exhibition “Dublinia.” But few visitors to the cathedral or Dublinia cross the bridge to see its stained glass windows or the views it offers across the River Liffey and the city to the north and of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Dublin Mountains to the south.

Oxford’s aerial corridor

The Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College, Oxford ... celebrated its centenary in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

All three bridges – Venice, Cambridge and Dublin – long predate Hertford Bridge in Oxford, which is also known popularly as the Bridge of Sighs. This bridge, linking two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane, is a distinctive landmark in Oxford.

The bridge is often called the Bridge of Sighs because it is supposedly similar to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. However, Hertford Bridge was never intended to be a replica of the Venetian bridge, and it too has a closer resemblance to the Rialto Bridge.

There is a false legend that a survey of the health of Oxford students many years ago found the students at Hertford College were the heaviest, and the college closed the bridge to force them to use the stairs and get more physical exercise. However, if the bridge is not used, students actually climb fewer stairs than if they use the bridge.

The bridge links the Old Quadrangle and administrative offices on the south side and the New Quadrangle on the north and student accommodation on the north side. It was built after the site on the north side was acquired by Hertford College in 1898 and was designed by Sir Thomas Jackson. The proposals for the bridge were strongly opposed, particularly by neighbouring New College, but despite the objections it was completed in 1913-1914.

It features in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and has been celebrating its centenary in recent weeks. Today, it is one of the most photographed and visited sights in Oxford, partly because it is so close to the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre and the Radcliffe Camera.

Link between bridges

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford ... James Gibbs based his circular plan for the library on Santa Maria della Salute (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Curiously, in Oxford there is more of a Venetian ambiance about the Radcliffe Camera. The circular library building was designed by James Gibbs in 1739-1749, and is his most adventurous and last major work. Gibbs based his circular plan on Santa Maria della Salute, a landmark church on the Grand Canal in Venice, designed in 1681 by Baldassarre Longhena.

There are bridges with similar names in other cities, including Lima, Frankfurt, Pittsburgh, Santa Barbara and Stockholm. But I imagine none is as romantic as any one of these four bridges in Dublin, Cambridge, Oxford or Venice.

Unlike the bridges in Venice and Cambridge, no water flows under the bridges in Dublin and Oxford. But it is worth retelling their romantic stories in these days leading up to Saint Valentine’s Day.

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal in Venice inspired the design of the Radcliffe Camera (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in the February 2014 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

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