They figure largely in the stories I know and love, from the Billy Goats Gruff through Horatius at the Sublician Bridge. Concord, Kwai, Remagen, and Khazad-Dum. Almost always at a moment of reckoning, in a crucial juncture in some history.
Of course, we wouldn’t know these bridges were it not for what happened on or across them. But they are a transitional structure, liminal and also rhetorical in their insistence that they are the one and only way across a stream, a river, a gorge or chasm. Perhaps we make them beautiful because they embody a language of connection—of links between what we know and what we have yet to discover.
Among its Roman ruins, the Aosta Valley contains three notable bridges: the Pont de Pierre in the town of Aosta itself, the Pont-Saint-Martin, and the Pont d'Aël. All are remarkably preserved—the Pont de Pierre a bit occluded and domesticated by the late medieval buildings that surround it—but each suggests at more than a simple overpass or viaduct. They are part of the Roman language of conquest, if you look at them carefully and consider what you see.
Of the three bridges, the Pont-Saint-Martin (built probably sometime in the 1st century BCE) is the most famous. A medieval legend has attached itself, and it goes something like this: Saint Martin, the Bishop of Tours, was returning to France, but found his way blocked by the river Lys, which had swept away the only crossing passage during a flood. The resourceful saint cuts a deal with the Devil, who promises to build a bridge over the river in exchange for the soul of the first one to cross it. Martin accepts the proposal, but in a nice reversal of the “devil in the details” stories we all have heard, triumphs on a technicality: he throws a piece of bread across the river, enticing a hungry dog to cross, thereby foiling (and infuriating) the devil, who vanishes in the river with a sulfurous explosion, leaving the bridge behind. The carnival at Pont-Saint-Martin celebrates this confrontation, and concludes by burning an effigy of the devil under the bridge.
A fanciful story, its rhetoric evident. The Romans and their culture translated into devils and demons, the bridge baptized in a display of Christian ingenuity. Christ supplants Caesar in the clear-cut dynamic of good and evil, the burning effigy a fire ignited early, not long after the great transition of Constantine and Rome’s official embrace of the Faith (both Constantine and St. Martin are 4th century figures). The Pont-Saint-Martin spans an historical era, the passage from one world to the next. Of the three bridges, this one has the clearest argument: you have to look closer to read the others. ©2014 Michael Williams