Rounding the corner of the road on the Vespa, the striking form of the Ponte del Diavolo appears stretching across the wide river Serchio. The largest central arch rises up gracefully, and the apex is remarkably thin. It’s no wonder that a decree in 1670 prohibited the crossing of the bridge with millstones or sacks of flour. I’m not surprised by the epithet ‘del diavolo’, of the devil. The bridge’s theatrical engineering seems beyond human powers. Later named the Ponte della Maddalena, its satanic origins are the subject of varying versions of local legend.
The Ponte della Maddalena formed a key river crossing on the Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage route to Rome. It was likely commissioned in 1080-1100 by the Countess Matilda of Tuscany, and underwent renovations in the 14th century and in 1836 following a flood. In the early 1900s an additional arch was added to the right-hand side which sadly alters its majestic silhouette. Even so, the modern visitor wonders what supernatural forces were used to conjure up such unerring form.
Ponte del Diavolo: The Legend
Aside from minor variations in details, the Ponte del Diavolo legend tells of a master-builder desperately behind schedule to finish the bridge. One evening he is sitting by the side of the river musing over the shame that will be brought upon his reputation when he fails to finish the project. Suddenly the Devil appears, and proposes a deal. He will finish the bridge in one night, but on the condition that he receives the first soul to cross the bridge. The pact is signed and the bridge finished, but the builder feels immediate remorse and goes to the priest to confess. The cunning priest says to keep the pact, but to send a pig across the bridge before anyone else can. The Devil, receiving the soul of the pig, is so infuriated he throws himself into the river, never to be seen again.
Occasionally the pig is substituted by a white dog whose ghostly figure can sometimes be seen at night near the end of October (convenient for Halloween), and represents the Devil still searching for the soul of the master-builder.
While legend may tell us little about the structural prowess of the bridge, the methods of construction or the materials used, it is just as important for understanding the bridge’s place in local history and culture. Italy has a history so long that fact and legend are frequently intertwined, with stories being used to explain architectural feats as astonishing as the Ponte della Maddalena. In fact, dozens of medieval bridges throughout Europe bear the appellation ‘Devil’s bridge’, often to explain technological or aesthetic triumphs beyond average human capacities. Such legends affect the way we see these constructions, making them closer to exalted art works than practical building solutions.
Local tourist information for Ponte del Diavolo Mozzano
Address: Via del Brennero, 55023 Borgo a Mozzano LU