Saturday, 2 April 2016

The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ in Barcelona: is it
Gothic heritage or architectural imitation?

‘The Bridge of Sighs’ in Barcelona … neo-gothic architecture in the narrow streets of the old city in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

When I was writing about Josefina de Comerford yesterday and her revolutionary or fanatical adventures in 19th century Barcelona, I used a photograph I had taken earlier this week of a neo-gothic bridge in the old Gothic Quarter of the city.

This is Barcelona’s own “Bridge of Sighs” and the Pont dels Sospirs is a popular subject for postcards in Barcelona, bridging Carrer Bisbe (the Street of the Bishop) and with gothic gargoyles on either side looking down on the people thronging this narrow street.

Although it is not original gothic bridge, it is similar to the Gothic bridges built in Barcelona in the 15th century. It is modelled on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, and has become one of the most photographed bridges in Barcelona.

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

In Venice, the original Bridge of Sighs 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. It was built in 1600-1602, was designed by Antoni Contino, whose uncle Antonio da Ponte designed the equally famed Rialto Bridge.

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. 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.

Since Byron’s poem was published, the Bridge of Sighs in Venice has inspired or given its name to similar bridges in Cambridge, Oxford, Dublin and Barcelona.

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

The Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge, built in 1831, is a covered bridge in Saint John’s College. It 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 and both are covered, the two have little in common architecturally. 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.

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.

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 of the cathedral.

The Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College, Oxford ... celebrated its centenary two years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The bridges in Venice, Cambridge and Dublin long pre-date 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. The bridge 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 those objections it was completed in 1913-1914.

It features in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and today 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.

The neo-gothic Pont dels Sospirs in Barcelona is modelled on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. It connects the eastern wall of the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of provincial government, and the western wall of Casa del Canonges, or the House of Canons of Barcelona Cathedral.

In the past, there were many similar bridges along Carrer del Bisbe but they have been destroyed. These bridges were built so that Barcelona’s civic and ecclesiastic elite could travel between official buildings without interacting with the citizens and so they could avoid any physical contact with the people below.

After other similar bridges had been destroyed in Barcelona, Pont dels Sospirs was rebuilt in the 20th century. The Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter was transformed from a sombre neighbourhood to a tourist attraction through during a major massive restoration project in advance of the 1929 International Exhibition, and the Pont dels Sospirs was built by Joan Rubió in 1928.

Below the bridge today, buskers and street musicians who add to the mystery and charm of this corner. The bridge is now a “must-see” place in Barcelona, and many tourists go home believing it is part of the city’s architectural heritage from the Middle Ages.

Tourists throng the narrow street beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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