Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bridge of Sighs

By Patricia Winton

The grand old department-store-of-yore, Woodward and Lothrop, used to occupy two buildings in downtown Washington, D.C. A pedestrian skyway allowed customers to browse both buildings without facing the weather—somewhat like modern shopping centers. I always found that walkway appealing, and while it wasn’t unique, it was the one I knew. After the store folded its wings and closed its doors, I realized I’d first been fascinated by such a pedestrian bridge in Venice.

The Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) connects the interrogation rooms of the Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace) and the attached Old Prison with the New Prison across the river. Built between 1600 and 1602 by Antoni Cortini, the enclosed bridge provided prisoners no hope of escape as they moved from one side of the river to the other.

Constructed of white limestone, the 36-foot-wide (11 meters) structure features two windows covered with stone grid-work on each side, another feature designed to contain prisoners. The span is comprised of two parallel corridors, one linking the prison with the magistrate’s office (used by visitors today), the other going from prisons to the interrogation rooms. Despite its grim function, the bridge is a monument to Renaissance creativity. A shallow arch supporting the walkway is dotted with sculptures of faces, all but one frowning. The arch is repeated as a design element over the top of the structure and embellished with scrolls.

One legend says the name comes from sighs prisoners leaving the palace interrogation rooms emitted at the bit of light they could see from the stone-clad windows. Once over the bridge, they knew there would be no return, whether they faced execution or imprisonment.

In truth, the name comes from the 19th century poem Childe Harold by Lord Byron:

          I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs,
          A palace and a prison on each hand.

Other lore holds that if lovers kiss under the bridge at dusk, they will be rewarded with eternal love. Promoted by gondoliers, no doubt, this legend sends lover-laden gondolas to the Rio del Palazzo (Palace River) every evening at sunset.

Today, skyways link many buildings throughout the world, offering people respite from heat or cold, rain or wind, as they traverse cities. Few people realize that it all began with a plan to restrict freedom, not provide it.

Please join me on alternate Thursdays at Italian Intrigues where I write about all things Italian. Next week, I talk about a special cheese.


  1. Patricia,

    Thanks for the history on the Bridge of Sighs. When Michael and walked over it on our trip to Venice last summer, I was not immediately aware of where we were until I looked out of one of the windows.

    Emily McCoy

    1. Oh, Emily, I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. I enjoyed our time together in Venice.

  2. I've always loved the name of this bridge - so intriguing. I always thought it had to do with the prisoners, and surely that's what Byron was thinking about when he wrote his poem. I wonder if there's a story behind the legend of kissing under the bridges. Maybe the gondoliers promote it, but it had to have started somewhere, right?

    1. You're probably right, but I don't know the origin.

  3. Love anything Venetian, so thanks for the bridge and the Byronic insight.

    1. Yves, thanks for stopping by. I hope all is going well with your new book.

  4. Patricia,

    What a great insight into the history of the bridge's name. I had always heard of the Bridge of Sighs, but I didn't know what it was.