Pont Saint-Bénezet

The Pont Saint-Bénezet (French pronunciation: ), also known as the Pont d'Avignon (IPA: ), is a famous medieval bridge in the town of Avignon, in southern France.

The bridge originally spanned the Rhône River between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the left bank. It was built between 1171 and 1185, with an original length of some 900 m (2950 ft), but it suffered frequent collapses during floods and had to be reconstructed several times. Over the centuries, it became increasingly perilous as arches collapsed and were replaced by rickety wooden sections.

The bridge was finally put out of use by a catastrophic flood in 1668, which swept away much of the structure. It was subsequently abandoned and no more attempts were made to repair it. Since then, its surviving arches have successively collapsed or been demolished, and only four of the initial 22 arches remain intact today.

The arches are elliptical, with the long axis vertical. This innovation in bridge building allowed spans of up to 35 meters, longer than any Roman arch spans. This, along with the novel use of cutwaters that are pointed in both the upstream and the downstream direction, reduced scour around the pilings, one of the main threats to the stability of stone bridges. The bridge's construction was inspired by Saint Bénézet, a local shepherd boy who (according to tradition) was commanded by angels to build a bridge across the river. Although he was ridiculed at first, he dramatically "proved" his divine inspiration by miraculously lifting a huge block of stone. He won support for his project from wealthy sponsors who formed themselves into a Bridge Brotherhood to fund its construction. After his death, he was interred on the bridge itself, in a small chapel standing on one of the bridge's surviving piers on the Avignon side.

The bridge was also the site of devotion by the Rhône boatmen, whose patron saint was Saint Nicholas. They initially worshipped in the Chapel of Saint Nicholas on the bridge itself (where Saint Bénézet's body was also interred) but the increasing dilapidation of the bridge led to the clergy refusing to preside over services for fear of a total collapse. A new chapel was erected on dry land in the 18th century at the foot of the bridge, on the Avignon side.

The bridge had great strategic importance as the only fixed river crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea. It also formed the only river crossing between the Comtat Venaissin, an enclave controlled by the Pope, and France proper under the authority of the Kings of France. As such, it was closely guarded on both sides of the river. The left bank, which was controlled by the French crown, was overlooked by the formidable fortress of the Tour Phillippe le Bel and the citadel at Villeneuve-les-Avignon. On the Avignon side, the bridge passed through a large gatehouse erected in the 14th century (with major modifications in the 15th century), passing through and over the city wall and exiting via a ramp (now destroyed) which led into the city.

The song "Sur le pont d'Avignon"

The bridge has achieved worldwide fame through its commemoration by the song "Sur le pont d'Avignon" ("On the bridge of Avignon"), the lyrics of which are as follows:

In fact, people probably would have danced beneath the bridge (sous le pont) where it crossed a river island (the Ile de Barthelasse) on its way to Villeneuve. The island was (and still is) a popular recreation spot, where pleasure gardens once stood and folk dancing was a popular pastime for many years. The bridge itself is far too narrow to have accommodated dancers.

The song was originally composed by the 16th century composer Pierre Certon, though with a very different melody from its present version and under the more accurate title of "Sus le Pont d'Avignon". The modern version only dates from the mid-19th century, when Adolphe Adam included it in an 1853 operetta entitled l'Auberge Pleine. It was popularised by an 1876 operetta which renamed the song, as currently, "Sur le Pont d'Avignon."