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Ponte dei Sospiri…the Bridge of Sighs…just saying the name evokes emotions.
This bridge is one of many such structures that spans Venice’s canals. There are, in fact, 400 plus bridges crossing more than 150 canals in this unique city. Venice, Italy is a collection of tiny islands, connected by canals.
The oft photographed Bridge of Sighs draws a multitude of visitors each year. I enjoyed experiencing the beautiful and sorrowful covered bridge on a visit to Venice in 2017.
Discover the history of this iconic structure and learn how it received its name.
The History of the Bridge of Sighs
Built by Antonio Contin between 1600 and 1603, the Bridge of Sighs spans Rio di Palazzo. This baroque style, marble and Istrian stone bridge connects the inquisitor’s offices in the Doge’s Palace to the “New Prison”, a building designed specifically for detention.
Doge (Italian word for duke) Marino Grimani, whose family coat-of-arms occupies the center of the facade, commissioned the bridge.
While Ponte dei Sospiri attracts couples, who enjoy sharing a kiss near the covered bridge, it’s not romantic sighs that begat the name.
The name arose because prisoners stopped on the bridge and sighed at their last glimpse of beautiful Venice before entering the prison. The damp, cold, challenging conditions of the small cells often resulted in the deaths of the prisoners.
Peering out through the stone lattice windows, those escaping sighs surely carried regret, fear and grief.
Stories About the Bridge of Sighs
Back to those romantic couples. The tale told is that if a couple kisses beneath the bridge, while riding in a gondola, their love will endure throughout eternity and they will know happiness. Some versions add that the couple must kiss at sunset, while drifting under the bridge, as the bells of St Mark’s Campanile ring out. As you can imagine, this is a busy route for gondolas.
The exterior of the bridge’s arch is adorned with faces on each side. A Venetian lion graces the middle, while ten other faces express anger or sadness. These grim faces supposedly scare evil spirits away. One happy face stands out. It is thought to represent the bridge’s guardian.
The bridge design is intentional, matching the style of the two buildings it connects. The Doge’s Palace, a huge, elegant palace overlooking St Mark’s Square, was the primary residence of the supreme authority of the former Republic of Venice, and the location of the city prison. The palace occupies the site of a former fortress that burned in the 10th century.
The Bridge of Sighs remains the only covered bridge in the entire city. Its passageway is topped by stone, with four windows looking out toward the San Giorgio Maggiore Island and the Lagoon. Very little light passes through the windows to brighten the dim, cool interior.
Visiting the Bridge of Sighs
Views of the bridge are limited. See one of Venice’s most famous landmarks from these vantage points.
- Admire the bridge from one of two nearby bridges. The Ponte della Paglia is located near the Doge’s Palace, as you stand with your back to the lagoon. The other bridge is the Ponte della Canonica at the other end of the canal.
- Enjoy a gondola ride that travels beneath the Bridge of Sighs.
- Take a tour of the Doge’s Palace. The Bridge of Sighs is included in the tour and you get to walk across it and view the prison located on the other side.
Otherwise, the bridge is not open to the public. While it can be viewed from gondolas and the above mentioned bridges, the only opportunity to step inside the bridge is via the palace tour.
The Doge’s Palace is gorgeous and well worth a visit.
My Experience Crossing the Bridge
My daughter, grandson and I were part of a travel group touring Italy. Our group enjoyed wandering through the Doge’s Palace with a guide. From an interior room, I got my first up close peek at the covered bridge and snapped a photo.
As we quietly entered the Bridge of Sighs, the energy within settled thickly around my head, shoulders and upper back, sending tingles down my spine.
It’s difficult to see much through the windows, however I paused there to reflect. Over the centuries, many, many prisoners walked this bridge and paused to sigh with despair. The bridge interior is actually divided by a wall down its middle, creating two corridors. That way, prisoners coming into the prison or going back to the courtroom for trial did not meet.
The atmosphere within the bridge felt very heavy to me, weighed down by those breathy final sighs. Sadness tinged with the fear of uncertainty surrounded me. The prison cells in the attached building were just as gloomy.
I’m grateful for the redemption of the bridge through its exterior beauty and the promise of romance beneath its splendid arch.
Have you visited the Bridge of Sighs in Venice? I intend to explore this unique city again one day!
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