The L’ Italo-Americano, the #1 source for all things Italian since 1908 is reporting that among the many ancient bridges that have populated European cities and hamlets during the past millennium, a few of them appeared so mysterious and perfect to their contemporaries that they soon became known as “Devil’s Bridge”. In most cases, this nickname referred to masonry arch bridges built during Roman or Medieval times, some of which were associated with uncanny reveries and picturesque local legends. In Italy, one of the finest surviving examples of this kind of old bridge – the famous Ponte della Maddalena (Mary Magdalene’s Bridge) – is to be found in Borgo a Mozzano, a small Tuscan town located on the road between the city of Lucca and the Garfagnana Valley. Let’s unveil the long history of this peculiar local landmark whose construction, according to folklore, is ascribed to none other than the Devil itself!
First of all, it should be said that the Bridge’s origins are literally lost in the mists of time and that they don’t know the exact date of its construction. However, most historians seem to agree that it probably dates back to the era of Matilda of Canossa (1046-1115), the powerful Countess who ruled Tuscany and Northern Italy for several decades during the Middle Ages: as such, the Devil’s Bridge is often described as an exemplary masterpiece of Medieval engineering, especially because of its ever so peculiar humpback and asymmetrical arches.
The reason for the Bridge’s realization, in any case, was the need to provide a safe crossing over the Serchio River to the many pilgrims and wayfarers who wanted to reach Rome through the Via Francigena: as a matter of fact, for centuries the Garfagnana Valley had been a crucial point in that ancient route.
The first reliable information about the Devil’s Bridge seems to be that it was restored by the condottiero Castruccio Castracani, Duke of Lucca, during the early 14th century. At the same time, just a few decades later a description of the Bridge figured in a novella by the local author and chronicler Giovanni Sercambi.
As for the name Ponte della Maddalena, it was only starting from the year 1500 that the Bridge was called with such denomination, because of an oratory dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene which once stood there on the left bank of the river: in fact, a fine statue of the Saint – credited to the famous Renaissance sculptor Andrea Della Robbia – can still be found in the near church of San Jacopo in Borgo a Mozzano.
During the last centuries, a series of measures have been taken by the local authorities in order to preserve the original structure of this unique landmark. In 1670, for example, it was established by the Republic of Lucca’s Great Council that nobody could pass over the Bridge with millstones and sacks of flour; alternatively, after a flood had severely damaged the whole area in 1836, the Devil’s Bridge had to be restored once again to prevent it from falling. However, the original architecture of Ponte della Maddalena was not always respected: the major alteration in its design took place during the early 1900s, when a new arch – the little one on the right bank of the river – was opened to make room for the railway connecting Lucca to Aulla, a town in the historical region of Lunigiana. The most dramatic event in the long history of the Devil’s Bridge, though, undoubtedly occurred in more recent times, during the WWII as the place was very near to the Linea Gotica fortification: as part of their bloody retreat, the Nazis had decided to mine the Bridge and they were already preparing to destruct it, but eventually and fortunately – we don’t know the actual reason why – Ponte della Maddalena was spared just as it happened to Florence’s Ponte Vecchio.
Nowadays, despite the ravages of time, the Bridge is still walkable for all of its length (about 93 meters, or about 100 yards) and you still can admire the dizzy effect created by the reflection of the arches on the water underneath: the 18-meter-high (60ft.) central arch, in particular, seems either like a challenge to gravity or a portal to another world, especially in the dead of night or when the winter mists surround it. But most of all, the Devil’s Bridge continues to be so evocative because of the well-known legend that gave it this nickname.
It is said that when the master builder realized he could not possibly complete this complex bridge by the proposed deadline, the Devil appeared to him offering a bargain: its completion in exchange for the soul of the first one who crosses it. The man accepted and that night the Devil lifted the bridge span with his pitchfork. Full of regret, however, the master builder confessed what he had done to a local priest, who proposed that a pig, not a man, be the first to cross over. When this was done, the Devil appeared once again, but – realizing he had been fooled – he threw himself off the bridge into the river and disappeared forever from this land. Quite a fairytale . . . or is it!?
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.