[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail: Bill Thayer 
[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]
Italiano

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home

The Devil's Bridge


[image ALT: A muddy stream about 50 cm wide and maybe only 1 or 2 cm deep flowing under a cylindrically vaulted passage of large square stones. It is a view of the Roman bridge at Cavallara, Umbria (central Italy), from underneath.]

The Torrente Puglia, all of 2 cm deep in this photo, flowing NE towards the camera.

In print sources, the bridge we're peering under in this photo is usually referred to as the "Ponte del Diavolo", and located by them in the central Umbrian town of Bastardo. Like many things we read in books, neither part of that is quite true.

Bastardo, a frazione of Giano dell' Umbria, is indeed the nearest town, about a kilometer away to the W — across the boundary between that comune and that of Gualdo Cattaneo, though: putting our bridge in the hamlet of Cavallara, in a different municipality. It lies on the property of the Cerasoli construction company.

More importantly, this unspectacular bridge is not usually called anything more than "the Roman bridge near Bastardo"; as far as I can tell, the commendatory name is the brainchild of some recent pamphlet-writer. Now there are several bridges thruout Europe that really are called the "Devil's Bridge", usually because they were the devil to build, and loosely speaking, people have said the Devil must have had a hand in them: in Italy, "Ponte del Diavolo" is a recognized name for example of the Ponte della Maddalena at Borgo a Mozzano in Tuscany, the Ponte del Roch at Lanzo in Piemonte, the bridge at Cividale del Friuli, the medieval bridge at Tolentino, — but all of them are large bridges, of daring construction or strikingly sited: our own modest little Roman bridge here, though much older, is none of these. (A possible counter-example — I have not seen it — is a Roman embankment on the Via Salaria, mentioned by Pfeiffer & Ashby, Suppl. Papers, Am. Sch. of Class. Studies, Vol. I, p89, which for all I know may be quite small.)

The Roman bridge at Cavallara is 14.7 meters wide, quite enough for two carriages to cross at the same time; that and its solid, careful, handsome construction show it was clearly on a main road: and the road was the Via Flaminia, or more accurately the western branch of the Flaminia — probably the earlier of the two, though opinions differ.

[image ALT: A muddy stream about 50 cm wide and maybe only 1 or 2 cm deep flowing under a cylindrically vaulted passage of large square stones. It is a view of the Roman bridge at Cavallara, Umbria (central Italy), from underneath.]

The west (upstream) face of the bridge.

As to when the bridge might have been built, stone masonry is notoriously hard to date: my own guess, hardly a stretch, is that it's contemporaneous with the road (late 3c B.C.). An inscription that remains on the underside, but which I failed to see, might give us a clue if only we could figure out what it means:


[image ALT: The inscription, transcribed on this webpage, is to be found inside the Roman bridge at Cavallara, Umbria (central Italy).]

The inscription on the bridge has been published as
M·V·S N C.
but I would read it
V?S IVG or V?S IVC

VIIS IVG is doubly tempting, especially since fragmentary and there might be more (. . .VIIS IVG. . .): but even by itself, that would be the standard abbreviation for "7½ iugera", a land measurement roughly equivalent to 2 hectares (5 acres). Any connection that might have with a bridge, though, is very iffy.

© Jarko Aikens, by kind permission

I've already hinted at the Ponte del Diavolo's most striking characteristic: for an inch of water, that's a lot of bridge. Tell me that creeks are seasonal, and that I photographed it in a dry spell; well, you're on the ball, but unlucky: by sheer happenstance, my visit to the bridge was a day or so after the most protracted wet spring weather seen in these parts in ages! Tell me then — at this point there's no use hiding it, you know something about Roman Umbria — that much of central Umbria was a large lake, that the rivers were less channelled, that earthquakes later changed the hydrography of the area: all of which is true; and therefore this little dribble of water was much more important back then: but your luck has run out again, since the Puglia is a small stream that gets here from not very far away, and well to the south and west of the old Lacus Umber; its total length is about 30 km, and here we see it at about half its course.

We can see here just how small the Puglia is. It enters the frame in the SW, then turns due E before the bridge; the marker sits on the exact center of the bridge. (The large bright white surface is the white gravel lot of the Cerasoli construction company.)

[and if you need it, here's help in using the map,
including my own symbols & added information.]

So why this massive bridge?

I have no better solution than you, just an idea: overkill like this is so very common in Roman bridges that here's what I suspect. Roman bridge-builders, just like those of today, designed their work to stand up against whatever water they thought Mother Nature would throw at it. We do this today by establishing a hydraulic model of the river, based on historical records of gauge readings and the application of statistical methods, then designing the bridge to withstand the forces that would be generated by, say, a "centennial flood", likely to be seen only once in a hundred years: X amount of water at speed Y. The Romans, however, very likely had no adequate readings available to them, understood hydraulics less well than we do, and certainly had no inkling of statistics: so what's an engineer to do, if not design for maximum safety?

By now, twenty centennial floods have come and gone: the Roman bridges that are left were inadvertently designed for bimillennial floods, as it were. In statistical terms, we're seeing a skewed sample, from the right end of the bell curve; your more average bridges have been washed away.

It's not totally useless to point out, especially to anyone just embarking on the world of archaeology, that the careful, sanitized version of a Roman bridge on a relatively formal webpage is very different from the real thing on the hoof. Here then are two fairly frontal views of the bridge; you're looking straight at it in each case. Go ahead, click on them to open the image full-size, I dare you to see it:


[image ALT: A muddy stream about 50 cm wide and maybe only 1 or 2 cm deep flowing under a cylindrically vaulted passage of large square stones. It is a view of the Roman bridge at Cavallara, Umbria (central Italy), from underneath.]
		
[image ALT: A muddy stream about 50 cm wide and maybe only 1 or 2 cm deep flowing under a cylindrically vaulted passage of large square stones. It is a view of the Roman bridge at Cavallara, Umbria (central Italy), from underneath.]

Looking north.

Looking south.

For the actual feel of my visit to the bridge, plus a pulled-back view of the east face of the arch, see my diary entry for Apr. 24, 2004; as you will see, my version of the Devil's Bridge is "Where the devil is it?" 
[image ALT: Link to a help screen on how to use clickmaps of Roman roads on my site.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in a separate window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in a separate window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Links to another part of this page.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in a separate window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in a separate window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in THIS window.]
	
[image ALT: Opens a page in a separate window.]
	An inactive area of this clickmap. If you click here, you will stay exactly where you are.


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 18 Nov 11