23 August 2023

The Bridge of Sighs
and the length of
canals link Venice and
Victorian Birmingham

The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ in Birmingham … older than the bridges in Oxford and Barcelona, younger than the bridges in Cambridge and Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I have been told that there are more canals per kilometre or per mile in Birmingham than in Venice.

You might think that the comparisons end there when it comes to Venice and Birmingham. But I also found out last week that Birmingham has its own ‘Bridge of Sighs’ and that there are more works than I expected by the mosaic and glass artist Salviati of Venice and Murano.

Indeed, I wondered, could ‘Big Brum’ been inspired the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square, Venice? After all, the city’s other clock tower, the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, or ‘Old Joe’ at the University of Birmingham in Edgbaston, is modelled on the Torre del Mangia in Siena.

Big Brum is the local name for the clock tower on the Council House. It was built in 1885 as part of the first extension to the original Council House of 1879 and stands above the Museum Art Gallery.

The clock tower, the Museum and Art Gallery and the Council House form a single block and were designed by the architect Yeoville Thomason. When it opened, the clock-tower and the lofty entrance portico were considered the ‘most conspicuous features.’

The clock on ‘Old Brum’ was donated by Follett Osler, a local pioneer in measuring meteorological and chronological data, while the clock mechanism was supplied by Gillett & Co of Croydon.

Perhaps my mental searches for links with Venice were too fanciful. The nickname of ‘Big Brum’ is, after all, an allusion to ‘Big Ben’ and the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster, both ring out the Westminster Chimes.

But there is certainly Venetian inspiration in the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ the bridge that links the original Art Gallery facing Chamberlain Square and the Art Gallery Extension, built in 1911-1919 and containing the Feeney Art Galleries.

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice was given its name by the poet Lord Byron in the 1812 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The original 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. 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, Dublin, Birmingham, Oxford and Barcelona.

The oldest of these five is the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge. This covered bridge in Saint John’s College was built in 1831. 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 a major tourist attraction.

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.

These bridges in Venice, Cambridge, Dublin and Birmingham 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. It is often called the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ although Hertford Bridge was never intended to be a replica of the bridge in Venice and has a closer resemblance to the Rialto Bridge.

The Hertford 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 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.

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.

So the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ in Birmingham may be younger than its counterparts in Cambridge and Dublin, but it predates the equivalent bridges in both Oxford and Barcelona.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the clock tower ‘Big Brum’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Council House on Victoria Square is one of the fine splendid works of architecture in Birmingham. The side facing Chamberlain Square is the entrance and façade of the Museum and Art Gallery. The site of the Council House and the Museum and Art Gallery was bought in 1853, and included a building where the last tenants were the Suffield family, ancestors of JRR Tolkien.

The building was designed by the Birmingham architect Yeoville Thomason, who also designed the extension for the art gallery and museum.

The main façade faces Victoria Square and the tympanum contains a mosaic by Antonio Salviati of Venice, who revived the mosaic and glass industry in Murano, and in postings last month I have described some of his other works in Tamworth and Birmingham.

However, the Victoria Square façade of the Council Houseis covered in cladding and fenced off at the moment, and I was unable to get close enough last week to photograph the tympanum and mosaic or the pediment the depicts Britannia receiving the manufacturers of Birmingham.

Instead, I had to content myself with exploring the urban myth that Birmingham has more canals than Venice. In fact, Birmingham does not have more canals than Venice, but it certainly has more miles of canals, and has 56 km (35 miles) of waterways, compared to 42 km (26 miles) in Venice – and it also has more trees than Paris.

Does Birmingham have more canals than Venice? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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