Article Index

A) The origins
B) The Middle Ages and the first restorations
C) Floods and reconstructions
D) The drawing of G.A.Dosio

E) The final fall and the end of the bridge
F) Bibliography


During the first centuries of the story of Rome there was only one connecting way between the city and the Etrurian lands: the road that, crossing the Tiber on the pons Sublicius, cut the plain beyond the Tiber near St. Cosimato and steeply climbed the Janiculum hill (green marked in pict.1); the pons Sublicius was moreover the only stable Tiber crossing.
The new needs of traffic and transport that the old bridge, wooden built for religious reasons, could no more sustain made necessary, around the VI century of Rome (II b.C.) a new solid bridge to better face the Tiber floods too.
The new bridge was built just upstream the pons Sublicius. According to tradition the construction of the pons Aemilius is attributed to the censors Marcus Aemilius Lepidu and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior that, within 181 and 179 b.C., built the stone piers to sustain a wooden footbridge, at the same time of the restoring of the portus Tiberinus that was located in place of the present Registry Office.
However at present it is considered more probable that the building of the bridge was already begun in 241 b.C. by a former member of the Aemilii Lepidi family (perhaps Manius Aemilius Lepidus Numida), in combination with the construction of the Via Aurelia (yellow marked in pict.1) by the censor Caius Aurelius Cotta. Consequently the structure completed in 179 b.C. should have been only a restoring of the damages caused by the flood.
In 142 b.C. the censors Publius Cornelius Scipio Emilianus (or Africanus Minor) (185 b.C. –129 b.C.) and Lucius Mummius Acaicus removed the wooden walkway and finally built six masonry arches on the five piers already existing across the river.
In the description of Aeticus in the Cosmographia Oceanus Occidentalis written in the century V the bridge is called Lepidi – that is "of Aemilius Lepidus", the manufacturer – and just after mangled by the people in the more concrete Lapideus, that is "built of stone".

No further news about the bridge until the century XIII, other than a mention in the Mirabilia (1144) where for the first tine it is named Pons Senatorum, probably due to a restoration at the expense of the Town Council and sponsored by the Senators.
The Tiber flood of February 1230 seriously damaged the bridge forcing the pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241) to carry out a quick restoration.
Owing to the damages caused by the flood of November 30th 1422 the pope Martinus V (1417-1431) carried out new works to strengthen the baseplates of the piers, the piers themselves and the arches they supported. Further works, probably a completion of the previous ones, were carried out just afterwards by Nicolò V (1447-1455) in sight of the 1450 Jubilee. Also if there is a previous mention of Bernardo Guidoni, biographer of the pope Gregorius IX at the beginning of the century XIII, only in the second half of the century XV the bridge appears in the maps of Rome with the name of S.Maria bridge (the first maps are by Piero del Massaio -1469 and Alessandro Strozzi -1474 in pict.2); this name probably is originated from the temple of Portunus, located at the left head of the bridge, already adapted as Christian church by Ioannes VIII (872-882) with the name of Santa Maria Secundicerio and around the middle of century XV titled to S. Maria Egiziaca.

Further floods, among which the 1476 and 1495 ones have been the most devastating, made necessary, after only one century, a new and deep work of strengthening of the bridge: at first the pope Paulus III assigned the job to Michelangelo, that carried out the works too slowly, then in 1551 the next pope Iulius III passed it to Giovanni Lippi, known as Nanni di Baccio Bigio: it had been necessary a real rebuilding of one pier and the two arches weighting on it. In this occasion a small chapel dedicated to the Virgo was built in the middle of the bridge; it is represented at least in four maps published within 1555 and 1569 (pict.3); unfortunately it lasted only five years.
Lippi quickly completed the works in 1552 but not carefully; on the contrary he weakened the structure of the bridge removing some marble material and selling it out. In fact only five years after the completion of the restoration the flood of September 1557 made to collapse the pier just rebuilt and the two arches weighting on it "insieme con quella bella cappelletta di Giulio III che vi era nel mezzo con tanta arte e spesa fabricata" [together that nice small chapel of Iulius III that has been built in the middle with so great skill and expense], as indicated in a Notice of Rome printed in occasion of the disastrous flood.
After a poor attempt carried out in 1561 to restore the connection between the bank and the remaining part of the bridge by means of a rudimentary wooden structure supported by ropes, the pope Gregorius XIII decided to face the economic effort for a final masonry rebuilding of the fallen structures. It was rejected the project of Luca Peto that proposed to build a single arch instead of the original two, finally eliminating the fallen pier and giving more room to the water flow, and the bridge was rebuilt within 1573 and 1575 by Matteo Bartolani from Città di Castello according to the original arrangement.

It is extremely important the drawing of the architect Giovanni Antonio Dosio that shows in the lower part the fallen pier and arches and the sentence "Vestigie del Ponte S.Maria Ruinato p. la inondatione del Tevere l'anno 1557" [remains of the Bridge S.Maria fallen down due to the Tiber flood of 1557] (pict.4) and in the upper part the bridge at the end of the complete restoration dated 1575 in which it is visible the new pier with the base reinforced by means of a stepped breakwater and the two new arches with the sign of the pope Gregorius XIII (the dragons of the Boncompagni family) in the lunettes of the arches and at the top of them.
The Dosio's drawing represents the main proof that the bridge section fallen and rebuilt again and again was that one on Trastevere side instead of the opposite one as believed by many authors, misled also by the iconography, commonly k
nown and represented in all the images and pictures of the bridge, showing it without the arches of the eastern side.
  The restoration, that had been final as that part of the bridge has arrived intact until nowadays throughout more than three hundred years till the erection of the embankments, was commemorated by means of two plaques located in opposite sides on the internal parapets of the second arch starting from the right bank; the one on the downstream side remained at it place until the demolition of the two arches on Trastevere side at the end of century XIX (pict.5). This was the text of the epigraph:


 [According to the will of pope Gregorius XIII the Rome Town Council in the jubilee year 1575 returned to the original soundness and beauty the Senatorius bridge whose arches, fallen down due to the old age and already previously restored, had been again knocked down by the river impetus]
In 1596, according to the will of the previous pope Sixtus V, Giacomo della Porta put under the cobbled surface of the bridge the aqueduct of the Felice water, that at last led the running water to Trastevere feeding, in particular, the fountain of S.Maria.

Unfortunately the restored operability of the bridge lasted shortly: on December 24th 1598, being pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605), one of the greatest and most disastrous flood ever recorded in Rome damaged again the bridge. But this time the arches that felt down were those one toward the left bank: practically half bridge was destroyed and dragged away definitively together with the aqueduct.
The piers and the arches destroyed by the flood were no more rebuilt and the bridge get finally the name of Ponte Rotto [Broken bridge], that has been kept until nowadays.
The rest of the bridge, by now neglected, was used as a sort of hanging yard and an area for craft activities. Considered useless as a bridge itself, on the first arch at Trastevere side it was even erected a building that actually blocked the access to the bridge; the cut off end of the bridge was closed by mean of an aedicule with a cross on its top that bounded a sort of private yard at disposal of the building owners (pict.6).
The building and the aedicule were then demolished in 1852 during the works for the restoration of the bridge.
In fact, in 1853, being pope Pius IX, the bridge became passable again thanks to a new project of the architect Pietro Lanciani, who substituted the missing arches with a single suspended iron walkway, similar to that one of the Fiorentini bridge, constructed by a French company. In the map of the Direzione Generale del Censo dated 1866 are indicated the names "Ponte Rotto" for the masonry part, "Ponte di Ferro" [Iron Bridge] for the iron walkway and "Ponte Palatino" for the overall bridge.
But also the walkway lasted shortly: the construction of the new Palatino bridge (carried out within 1886 and 1891 by Angelo Vescovali) within the project for the improvement of the Tiber area with the construction of the "embankments" caused the final end of the Aemilius bridge (1884) with the demolition of the two arches towards Trastevere and subsequently of the iron walkway (1887) leaving the central arch only (pict.7 "Rome in 1890" di H. E. Tidmarsh e H. W. Brewer, in which is shown the town as it was in 1885).
The only remaining arch of the Aemilius bridge among the six original arches, the third one from Trastevere, is now rightly known as Ponte Rotto. In the internal side of the arch, under the travertine covering, are still visible the peperino blocks of the original construction, while outside, in the lunettes at the top of the arches, stands out the dragon, the heraldic symbol of the Boncompagni family of pope Gregorius XIII, author of the last great restoration.

--- Pictures and text from: BRUNO LEONI - Il Ponte Emilio - Ed. - © July 2008