Shopping Over Water: Bridges That Carry Markets

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Back in the old days, one of the easiest way to raise money for a bridge’s maintenance was to rent space over the bridge to merchants and shopkeepers. Today, only four such bridges exist in the world. Update: Apparently, there are a few more. Pont des Marchands in Narbonne, France, is one example.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

The Ponte Vecchio or the “Old Bridge” over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, is one of the most iconic medieval bridges. The bridge has been home to shops across its span since the 13th century. Merchants would sell their goods on tables after receiving approval to do so from the proper authorities. When a merchant couldn’t pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the "banco") was physically broken ("rotto") by soldiers, effectively shutting down their business. This practice was called "bancorotto" and is believed that the economic concept of bankruptcy originated here.


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The shops belonged to the Commune and were rented out, originally to butchers, fishmongers, and tanners. But these merchants produced so much garbage and foul stench, that Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici threw them out and replaced them with goldsmiths. The problem was that the Vasari Corridor that connects Florence's town hall with the palace of the ruling family, passes over the Ponte Vecchio and had to bear the foul smell. So the duke decided that the new occupants of the bridge should be goldsmiths. Jewelers still make up a majority of the Ponte Vecchio shops today. In fact, some of Florence’s best jewelers sell their creations on this medieval bridge. There are also some art studios and souvenir shops. Read more of Ponte Vecchio’s history.


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Krämerbrücke, Erfurt

The Krämerbrücke or the Merchant’s Bridge in the German city of Erfurt spans the Breitstrom, a branch of Gera River. The bridge is lined on both sides by tightly packed half timbered houses and a narrow alley runs along the center. The houses are occupied by shops selling all kinds of traditional crafts and fabrics, hand-painted ceramics, hand-blown glassware, jewellery, wood carvings, and antiques. There are also cafes and eateries offering delicious Thuringian specialties.

The Krämerbrücke was originally built from wood in 1117 as part of the trade route Via Regia, but after repeated fires, the city council decided to rebuild the bridge with stone. The stone bridge was completed in 1325. It was provided with half-timbered houses and two stone churches on each end. The city suffered from another devastating fire in 1472 which destroyed nearly half of the city along with nearly all the houses on the bridge. The bridge was reconstructed in its current form with 62 buildings, but subsequent redevelopment have left just 32 now. Out of the two bridgehead churches, only one — the Church of St. Aegidius remains at the eastern end of the bridge today.


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Rialto Bridge, Venice

The Rialto Bridge or “Ponte di Rialto” in Italian, is the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal in Venice. The bridge was originally made of wood and was built in 1255, replacing an earlier pontoon bridge that gave people access to the Rialto market on the eastern bank. The bridge had two inclined ramps meeting at a movable central section, that could be raised to allow the passage of tall ships. The shops were added only during the first half of the 15th century to generate revenue for the State Treasury.

Because the timber bridge was difficult to maintain (the bridge had already collapsed twice and once burnt during a revolt), a stone bridge was proposed. Famous architects offered their plans but all involved a Classical approach with several arches. Finally, the original inclined ramp design of the wooden bridge was chosen. The current stone bridge was built in 1591. It has two inclined ramps leading up to a central portico. On either side of the portico, the covered ramps carry rows of shops.


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Pulteney Bridge, Bath

The Pulteney Bridge across River Avon in Bath, England, was designed by architect Robert Adam who was inspired by the shop-lined bridges of Ponte Vecchio and Ponte di Rialto. The Pulteney Bridge was commissioned by William Johnstone, a wealthy Scottish lawyer and Member of Parliament, who had inherited a substantial fortune and estate close to Bath by his marriage to Frances Pulteney, after whom the bridge is named. The Pulteney’s estate was across the river from the city and could only be reached by ferry. William wanted to have a bridge so that he could transform his massive 600-acre estate into a new town and suburb of the city of Bath.

The bridge was completed in 1774, but so many alterations were made to the bridge over the last three centuries that the current bridge bears scarce resemblance to the original structure as envisioned by Robert Adam. Today, the bridge features two ranges of shops designed in the Palladian style between them forming a narrow street over the bridge. The shops on the north side have cantilevered rear extensions that ruins the bridge’s symmetry. But the southern external side clearly shows the hand of Robert Adam.

The bridge is now designated as a Grade I listed building.


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1 comment:

  1. I would always be carefull when saying "today only ... exist". For instance there is a bridge in Narbonne (Southern France) which could be added here:

    And I'm sure there are quite a few more.


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