~ There Once Was In Rome... ~
- 4 -

Broken Bridge

Just south of the Tiber Island, where the river makes its last bend before leaving the central districts, in the middle of the river stands a large ruin, the only surviving arch of an old bridge. Its upper part still proudly bears reliefs featuring a dragon, the family insignia of pope Gregory XIII (1572-85). Now it is commonly known as Ponte Rotto, i.e. Broken Bridge, but during its long life it has been given no less than ten different names.

two pictures of the ruin, from different viewpoints:
← from the eastern bank and from Cestius Bridge (Tiber Island) ↑

On this rather crucial spot the two sides of the Tiber have been in connection since the 3nd century BC.
Initially, there was a simple wooden bridge, similar to another one built further south, called Sublicius Bridge. At the beginning of the 2nd century BC they were both destroyed by a flood; the two censors Marcus Aemilius Laepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior were then chosen as supervisors for the making of a stone structure, likely the first one of its kind built in Rome. This gives reason for the very long time it took to be completed: over 35 years! However, it was also the longest among Rome's ancient bridges: its span measured over 150 m (165 yards). It was named Pons Aemilius, after one of the two officers.

In those days the western side of the river (Transtiberim, now the district of Trastevere) was already inhabited by a Jewish community, and by occasional dwellers such as foreing merchants and tradesmen who came to Rome for business purposes.

Pons Aemilius (arrow) and its surroundings in ancient Rome

On the other side of the bridge stood Porta Flumentana, one of the gates of the old set of city walls (see Servian Walls). As shown in the simplified map above, for those who entered the city from the west this bridge led to the Capitolium Hill, where Rome's most important temple stood (➀ in the map above right), to the Roman Forum (➁), and to the Circus Maximus (➂), three among ancient Rome's main spots.

Being located next to a river bend, where the water turbulence is stronger, and just past the island, which made the river-bed narrower thus increasing the speed of the current, the bridge was subject to a continuous wear; only two centuries after its making, major restoration works had to be carried out for the first time, under emperor Octavianus Augustus. On this occasion it was renamed Pons Maximus, to remark its length.

It is said that in AD 221 the raging crowd flung into the Tiber the corpse of the hated emperor Helagabalus from this very bridge.

← a 1472 map features it as Pons Sancte Marie;
the channel that flows into the Tiber just past the bridge was
called Marana (or Acqua Mariana), and today is no longer extant

Its name changed again in the 9th century, when one of two ancient temples on the eastern side of the river was turned into a church, called Santa Maria Egiziaca; the people began to use the same name Santa Maria for the bridge, as well. However, during the Middle Ages the names of Rome's landmarks changed quite often, and this bridge made no exception, having been referred to with a variety of other names. One of them was Pons Senatorius ("Senators Bridge"), following a full restoration carried out at the expense of the Senators, Rome's main administrators, in whose memory a large commemorative plaque had been set there as a tribute, similar to the one now found on Cestius Bridge (see The Tiber Island).
Other names too were used, in maps, chronicles, and other reference sources. This is a list of the ones known:

15th century fresco: St.Francesca Romana miraculously heals
the badly severed arm of a man encountered on Santa Maria Bridge
  • Pons Fulvius, after the other roman supervisor;
  • Pons Lepidus, after the second name of the first supervisor;
  • Pons Lapideus, i.e. "Stone Bridge" (probably, a corruption of the previous name);
  • Pons Consularis, i.e. "Consular Bridge";
  • Pons Palatinus, after the nearby Palatine hill.

    Meanwhile, Trastevere district was rapidly growing once again on the western bank of the Tiber, and Santa Maria Bridge represented the main approach to the city for its many inhabitants.
    However, the stone structure kept suffering damages from the water flow; in the 13th century it collapsed. Once rebuilt, probably not too skilfully, it was badly damaged again two centuries later.

    ← map by Pirro Ligorio (c.1570) in which the bridge il labelled Pons Senatorius

    The Renaissance brought no better luck to Santa Maria Bridge, a.k.a. Senators Bridge. After having become unstable due to several floods that took place over the 1400s, in 1552 Julius III commissioned its full restoration to Nanni di Baccio Bigio, who had to entirely rebuild one of the pillars; on the same occasion, the pope had a small shrine added to the centre of the bridge.

    map by Ugo Pinard (1555) in which the bridge (19) is featured after →
    the restoration works of 1552, with the shrine of Julius III in the centre

    Nevertheless, only a few years later, in 1557, Santa Maria Bridge was once again swept away by a flood. This time it took no less than twenty years before pope Gregory XIII decided to rebuild it, including among the works for the Jubilee Year of 1575.

    again Pons Sanctae Mariae, after its reconstruction
    in 1575 (with no shrine), from the map by A.Tempesta (1593)
    By the late 1500s, Trastevere district could be finally provided with running water, thanks to a set of leaden pipes that crossed the river along this bridge.

    But alas! In 1598, on Christmas Eve, the worst flood ever suffered by Rome in its whole history - in some parts of the city the water grew over 5 metres (16 ft) above the street level! - smashed the arches of the bridge's eastern half, facing the central districts. No pope nor administrator dared to restore it, leaving it broken ever since. This was worth the part left standing its ultimate and most popular name, Broken Bridge.

    Over the following years the people kept using it only as a pier for fishing, until a house was built at the mouth of the bridge, actually blocking it (see picture on the right).

    Curiously, in the days of old two more bridges bore the same nickname (or its Latin equivalent, Pons Fractus) after being damaged; but later in time they were either entirely rebuilt (Sixtus Bridge, 1479), or they were completely taken down, what happened to Sublicius Bridge, whose scanty remains were removed from the river bed in c.1890.

    the ruin, already called Broken Bridge, in an etching by Giuseppe Vasi (c.1750);
    note the house at the mouth of the bridge that made it inaccessible

    In 1853, thanks to the new industrial technologies, Pius IX had an iron footbridge built, to fill the missing part of the ruin. After over 300 years, the bridge spanned once again from side to side and could be crossed. The vintage picture on the right shows what it looked like in those days. Very soon, though, its stone structure, which had become too weak to support the heavy metal extension, showed signs of being unsteady.

    ← the bridge with the iron extension (right), around 1870

    For safety reasons, in 1887 the footbridge was removed and a brand new bridge called Palatine Bridge (one of the historical names retrieved) was built on the same spot, so close to the old one, that to enable its making also the western end of Broken Bridge had to be taken down; only its central arch was spared, probably because it would have been too expensive to remove the whole thing.

    Now this ruin, covered by weeds sprung from its crevices, which give it a dramatic look, stands in the middle of the river as a living memory of the tremendous power of the Tiber, whose devastating effects, fortunately, have not been seen for a very long time. In 1994, on the side of Cestius Bridge, a small underwater barrier was also created, in order to reduce the current, which on this side of the island is still considerably strong.
    ↑ Broken Bridge's bay, covered with vegetation

    ←  the coat of arms of Gregory XIII on the surviving archway