So much for the romance of Florence’s bridges, so much for strolling honeymooning couples after destination weddings, and so much for lovers attaching locks and tossing away the keys. We’ve done that. That was the other day.
Something different now. Bridges have a dark side. We’ve heard the diabolical histories of trolls, suicides, executions and assassinations. Take for example, Ponte alla Carraia. This bridge spans Florence’s Arno River two bridges downstream form the more famously picturesque Ponte Vecchio.
It’s the year 1304, May Day. Dante has been exiled from Florence for the past two years, so he has nothing directly to do with this story, except he would have heard the news of the disastrous outcome. Perhaps it’s at this point Dante begins thinking up some lines from the forthcoming Inferno If so, he would could be thinking about them as he wanders a dark Tuscan woods. He imagines coming across those gates of Hell, and he composes the first a of the lines.
Midway through the journey of life, I found myself ln a dark forest, lost to the straight path
Meanwhile, word goes out on the narrow and cobbled streets of Florence that the Devil can be met at the Ponte alla Carraia. The “Carriage Bridge”. The streets on each side of the bridge become tributaries to the human stream flowing toward the river. Creative works and performance art depicting Hell and the Devil’s rule over his realm seems to be in vogue on these days.
…and after it came so long a stream of people…”
What they discover is that players have floated a barge toward the bridge. This is the stage, complete with elaborate scenery and scaffolding depicting the different levels for that City of Woe, as Dante called it. He made them rings. Far from abandoning hope, this a festive affair for the Florentine spectators looking for a good time.
Still, this bridge’s dark history would not be lost on the audience.
There was a medieval belief that the Devil expected his due once a bridge was completed. The expectation was that the Devil would take the first soul to cross the completed bridge. The sly Florentines devised a plan for tricking the Devil. The plan entailed running a goat across the bridge. The plan worked. Everyone said so. There were no reports of missing human souls.
It was not as simple as that. According to accounts collected by 19th Century folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland in Legends of Florence, on many nights an apparition in the form of a goat appeared on the bridge, running and casting flames in its wake, running and then inexplicably vanishing in a flash of fire.
Back to the May Day performance.
A significant portion of the city’s 30,000 population must have joined that human stream flowing toward the river and the Ponte alla Carraia. They way it turns out is not good. So many people came to see the Devil and his woeful souls that the bridge collapses under the weight of the spectators. Hundreds drown, maybe more than that. News of the disaster would spread throughout Tuscany, and surely make it to an exiled poet.
…I never would have believed that Death so many would have undone… Dante Alighieri, Inferno.
…A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many… T.S. Elliot, The Waste Land