In 1992 author Robert James Waller penned the best selling novel The Bridges of Madison County. It tells the story of a lonely Italian war bride (Francesca Johnson) who engages in an adulterous affair with a National Geographic photographer from Bellingham, Washington (Robert Kincaid) who has come to Madison County, Iowa to create a photographic essay on the covered bridges in the area.
The Bridges of Madison County was made into a 1995 film of the same title, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood as Kinkaid and co-starring Meryl Streep as Francesca.
But, Madison County, Iowa is some 5,000 miles away, as the old crow flies, from where we’re standing right now — in the middle of a busy roundabout where Viale Venezia and Vialie Eritenio come together in the Centro Storico (Historical Center) of Vicenza, Italy — and there’s not a row of corn in sight. So, what’s up?
What’s up — actually, what’s ACROSS — is a nice easy stroll around this three-river city to take in all eight of her bridges that dot the Centro Storico — bridges that are very, very far from Madison County, both in distance and time. It’s a Vicenza Walk itinerary I’ve dubbed, Far from Madison County.
Are you up for this? Great.
To know and appreciate the bridges you first have to understand why they’re here. Like the veins on the back of one’s hand, three fiume (rivers) run through and around Vicenza’s Centro Storico: the Astichiello, the Bacchiglione and the Retrone. Each body of water has a different starting point — all outside of Vicenza proper — but eventually they all merge and become one river as the “united” Bacchiglione takes on volume and gains power, flows out of the city due east and eventually empties into the Adriatic Sea’s Golfo di Venezia near Chioggia.
Now that we know why they’re here, what are these eight overpasses that provide easy access to the other side? Well, to quote Igor from the movie Young Frankenstein, “Walk this way” and I’ll point them out.
Built by the Romans, Ponte Furo is a 2nd century double-arch stone bridge that still, today, retains its original abutment and three piers. During the Middle Ages, Ponte Furo was strengthened and enlarged so that it could be inserted into the the existing city walls.
If you’ll look down the river, from this spot on the bridge, you can see one of the most picturesque scenes in Vicenza — the green roof of La Basilica Palladiana and the Torre Bissara casting their reflections across the narrow Retrone.
PONTE SANTA LIBERA
Now, let’s do an “about face” and gaze upon Ponte Santa Libera. This is a double-arched medieval foot bridge built sometime during the late Middle Ages. The left side of the bridge jump-starts your climb up towards Monte Berico — which we’ll do on a future passeggiata (walk) — while to the right of the bridge leads the way to Campo Marzo, Vicenza’s sprawling downtown park.
PONTE SAN PAOLO
A single arch-and-stone bridge built by the Romans between the 1st and 2nd centuries — so wrote master architect Andrea Palladio in his Quattro Libri di Architectura (Four Books of Architecture) — Ponte San Paolo was completely rebuilt in 1875 by architect Luigi Dalla Vecchia. During its heyday — the Middle Ages through the 17th century — the waters around Ponte San Paolo served as Vicenza’s dock area for its waterway commerce with Venice.
PONTE SAN MICHELE
The most attractive and photographed bridge of Vicenza (are you listening Robert Kincaid?), Ponte San Michele (St. Michael’s Bridge) was designed by brother-architects Francesco and Tommaso Contini. Built between 1621-23, it was fashioned after the single-arch bridges of Venice. Constructed of local stone, St. Mike’s has a very impressive, but rough-on-the-feet, cobblestone walkway. Despite that, the bridge still serves as a late-night rendezvous point for young lovers desiring to steal away.
PONTE delle BARCHE
We’re now in Borgo Barche (The Boats Quarter), the medieval neighborhood that served as the entryway for the river boats loaded with commerce coming in from Venice. Appropriately, this six-pier, five-arch, brick-and-stone bridge is named Ponte delle Barche (Bridge of the Boats). Just beyond the bend right behind us, at Ponte San Paolo, is where all the cargo was loaded and unloaded, boats moored and merchant mariners overnighted. The bustling dock area is now quiet, but the Ponte delle Barche continues to get a daily workout from foot, bicycle and motorized traffic.
PONTE degli ANGELI
This bridge, The Bridge of Angels, one of the busiest hubs of the Centro Storico, took its name from an ancient church that once stood on this spot, Santa Maria degli Angeli. Originally a Roman three-arch foot bridge built sometime during the 1st century, it was totally rebuilt in 1889. Angel connects the east side of the city with the downtown area across the Bacchigilione. Unfortunately, not a hint of the original Roman bridge remains, but its existence was validated in the four-volume architectural “bible,” the aforementioned Four Books of Architecture by Palladio.
Roman built between the 1st and 2nd centuries, this three-arch stone bridge stands above the Bacchiglione as it “clears customs” in Vicenza. Connecting the Centro Storico with Borgo San Marco, Ponte Pusterla was reinforced and enhanced in 1231. Originally outfitted with a drawbridge and lofty guard tower, Ponte Pusterla takes its name from the many small escape doors or postern (Latin meaning “back door”) that were part of the masked fortifications employed in the redesign during the Middle Ages.
In the 1600s, young women frequently made their way quietly across this bridge in search of a new life in service to the Lord at a nearby convent. Because of this “religious” foot traffic, the bridge was known then as Ponte delle Convertite (Bridge of the Converts). Recently renovated, this single-arch, brick-and-stone bridge is now known as Ponte Novo (New Bridge).
Well, there you have it. The eight bridges of Vicenza’s Centro Storico. I hope you enjoyed this little passeggiata and that you’ll plan to meet up with me again soon for another informative stroll along the cobblestone to somewhere.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to dash over to the Cinema Odeon. There’s an Alec Guinness film festival and today they’re screening one of my all-time faves: The BRIDGE on the River Kwai.
Ciao for now.
©The Palladian Traveler