11 June, 2006

19. Ponte de' Sospiri

The main council chambers of the Doge's Palace are huge and magnificently decorated, and one of their functions would have been to intimidate anyone unfortunate enough to be summoned before the powerful rulers of Venice to account for themselves, and to be judged.

Leading from the 'piano nobile', the noble floor of the Palazzo, across the adjoining canal to the prison of St Mark is this covered walkway, known as the 'Ponte de' Sospiri', or 'The Bridge of Sighs', supposedly a reference to the despairing groans of the condemned prisoners on their way to the cells.

On one side, palatial grandeur, wealth and power; on the other, grim squalor and a powerless fate too horrible to contemplate. To be judged in the former means your crime would be serious, and against the state. To then be dragged across this bridge to the dungeons, or to execution, would be to feel abandoned and utterly hopeless.

Lord Byron brought this Bridge, and Venice itself, to the popular awareness of 19th century England with this first verse of Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:

"I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Look'd to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, thron'd on her hundred isles!"

John Ruskin, later in the same century, was impressed neither with the bridge nor the poet:

"The well-known 'Bridge of Sighs', is a work of no merit, and of a late period, owing the interest it possesses chiefly to its pretty name, and to the ignorant sentimentalism of Byron."

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