The Bridge of Sighs, arching above the Rio Palazzo Canal in Venice, is considered one of the finest examples of baroque bridge architecture in the world. Tourists flock to take its picture, and lovers often kiss in a gondola as they pass under it.
But the history of the bridge is more closely linked to crime than to romance. The covered bridge connects the magnificent Doge’s Palace, home to the city’s ruler and the courts of justice, with the dark, dreary prison across the canal. Criminals were sentenced in the Doge’s Palace before crossing the bridge to prison where their lives usually ended in misery, illness, and death.
The poet Lord Byron translated the 17th century Italian name into English giving it a romantic allure. In reality, the sighs were said to be those of prisoners as they crossed the bridge, perhaps because they would never see their beautiful Venice again.
The bridge was designed by architect Antonio Contino. His uncle, Antonio da Ponte was the architect of another iconic sight in Venice…the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal. Da Ponte began work on the prison. After his death in 1595, the nephew finished the work, including the decorative Bridge of Sighs around 1602.
The bridge is made of white limestone and spans 11 meters. The design includes more than 20 faces, or mascarons, carved along the bridge’s lower arch. The word “mascaron” comes from the Arabic word “mascara,” which means buffoonery. Italians in the 17th century began to affix these carvings to their houses and other structures to scare away evil spirits. On the Bridge of Sighs you will see sad faces, angry faces, and one smiling face—all to guard the bridge. Inside the bridge the corridor from the courts to the jail is actually split into 2 parallel passages to keep prisoners separate.
One legend does link the bridge with love. According to the story, if lovers kiss under the bridge at sunset while sitting in a Venetian gondola as the bells of St. Mark’s ring out, they will be granted eternal love and happiness. This is hard to plan because the bells don’t ring every hour.
The Bridge of Sighs has inspired many other international cities to create their own versions, from covered bridges in the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge to the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Even Santa Barbara has its Bridge of Sighs in the county courthouse.