For French kids growing up, le Pont d’Avignon might be the most famous bridge in France. Why is it famous? Just like London’s Tower Bridge, there is a popular children’s song about the bridge. But songs aside, le Pont d’Avignon represents a very interesting piece of French history. One of its most peculiar traits is that it’s just a ruin of a once complete Medieval bridge, and that it’s slow demise was captured by various artists over the centuries. It’s official name is the Pont Saint-Bénézet, and as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also one of the country’s beloved cultural landmarks.
What is the Pont d’Avignon?
Located in the commune of Avignon in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure region, the Pont d’Avignon (Bridge of Avignon) is a 13th-century ruined bridge over the river Rhône. The shape of the bridge is unmistakable, with four arches remaining of a total of 22 when it was first constructed.
History of the Pont d’Avignon
The original bridge that stood in the place of the Pont d’Avignon was made of wood, completed in 1185CE. It was of great strategic importance, being the only river crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean. Some historians suggest that it might have had stone foundations, later used in the stone bridge. Just 37 years later, the bridge was destroyed during the siege of Avignon in the Albigensian Crusade.
In 1234, construction of a new stone bridge began between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. It scale was extraordinary for its time; 900 metres (2,952 ft) long, 4.9 metres (16 ft) wide, and with 22 grand arches stretching across the Rhône. It crossed over small islands that stood in the middle of the river, and had two gatehouses, one at each end.
The relatively narrow width of the bridge (including parapets) proved to be problematic to the structure of the Pont d’Avignon. Frequent floods over the centuries caused the collapse of some of the arches. They were replaced with temporary wooden structures, but by the 17th century efforts to rebuilt and upkeep the bridge were abandoned. Over the subsequent centuries, various artworks have depicted the bridge with fewer and fewer standing arches – a fascinating time capsule for the Pont d’Avignon.
The Art that Documents the Collapse of Pont d’Avignon
The Pont d’Avignon was painted with its first damage in 1470, in the Pérussis Altarpiece by French Renaissance painter Nicholas Froment. One arch has collapsed, around 230 years after it was built. However, repairs were done, and a manuscript print from 1565 shoes the Pont d’Avignon in all it’s 22-arch glory.
In 1608, the French architect Étienne Martellange sketched the bridge, with a broken arch 7. One year later in 1609, Martellange again sketched the bridge, now with arches 7 and 14 collapsed. In 1669, a catastrophic flood caused further damage and no further repairs were made to the bridge. A map from 1685 shows 10 arches missing.
In 1700, Robert Bonnart painted the bridge, showing a collapse of arches 5, 6, and 7. In 1756, the state of the bridge was dire, as seen in Joseph Vernet’s painting that shows the entire centre collapsed, with just arches 11 and 9 intact.
When French landscape painter Isidore Dagnan arrived in Avignon in 1833 with his oil paints, only the four surviving arches remained. 18 arches were lost to time.
After the Collapse of Pont d’Avignon
With no functional bridge after the 17th century, crossing the Rhône was done by ferry. A wooden bridge was built between 1806 and 1818 that crossed both branches of the Rhône. A new suspension bridge replaced the bridge on the Avignon branch in 1843, which in turn was replaced with the present day Pont Edouard Daladier. On the Villeneuve branch of the Rhône, the wooden bridge remained until 1909. A stone bridge called the Nouveau Pont was raised, but it was damaged by bombing in WW2 and replaced with the Pont du Royaume in 1972.
The bridge was listed in 1995 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site together with monuments of Avignon, as ‘Historic Centre of Avignon: Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble and Avignon Bridge’. The city was the seat of the Papacy in the 14th century, and the listing recognises the cultural importance the sites.
Who was Saint Bénézet?
The Pont d’Avignon is officially named Pont Saint-Bénézet, after Bénézet, the patron saint of bridge building. As a young shepherd boy, it is said that he was guided to build a bridge over the Rhône after experiencing a vision in 1177.
As the legend goes, he was refused help by the city and the church. With angels looking after his flock, he lifted the first stone over his shoulder – an impossible feat – which would become the foundation for the bridge. It was cried out to be the first miracle during the project. 18 further miracles occurred as the bridge was being built, such as healing of blind and crippled townsfolk.
When Saint Bénézet died, his remains were interred in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, which was built into the bridge. However, a flood in 1669 washed part of the bridge away, and the bridge was declared abandoned. To protect the relic, the coffin was translated to Avignon Cathedral.
Sur le Pont d’Avignon – A Children’s Song
The song about le Pont d’Avignon is called ‘sur let Pont d’Avignon’, which means ‘on the bridge of Avignon’. It has roots in the 15th century, and has an accompanying dance routine. While it is not known who wrote the song, it is believed to have become popularised when composer Adolphe Adam incorporated the tune into his opera Le Sourd ou l’Auberge plein.
Traditionally, the dance was performed on the banks of the Rhône, and is sometimes referred to as ‘sous let Pont d’Avignon’, or under the bridge of Avignon’.
The lyrics for ‘sur let Pont d’Avignon’ are:
Sur le pont d’Avignon / On the bridge of Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse / We all dance there, we all dance there
Sur le pont d’Avignon / On the bridge of Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond / We all dance there in a ring
Visiting the Pont d’Avignon
The Pont d’Avignon is open for visitors throughout the year. Entrance and tickets (5€) are through the gate tower, which provided access atop the bridge, as well as the chapel, a museum, audio guide, and video on the history of the bridge.
The Pont d’Avignon, despite its greatly deteriorated condition, is one of France’s national treasures. From it’s early days as an important strategic transport route, to it’s slow collapse after floods, and even it’s own children’s song, the Pont d’Avignon is an important and interesting piece of French history.
3 thoughts on “Sur le Pont d’Avignon – France’s Most Famous Half Bridge”
We do like Avignon and it’s famous bridge.
Definitely one of France’s most beautiful!
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