Pont du Gard (#5)

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

Today we continue examining the list of 52 Ancient Roman Monuments which had been claimed as a “must see” by Touropia Travel Experts. The last location we had checked out was #6 – Amphitheater of El Jem.

Today we’re headed to the South of France as we explore #5 – Pont du Gard!

Side view of the Pont du Gard showing the 2rows of arches.

The Pont du Gard (Bridge of the Gard) is an Ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the Gardon River near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard. Constructed by the Roman Empire, Pont du Gard is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts.

The Pont du Gard, along with the Aqueduct of Segovia, is one of the best preserved. Its construction, historical importance, and preservation helped it to be added to UNESCO‘s list of World Heritage Sites in 1985.

The Roman aqueduct from Fontaine d’Eure near Uzès to Nemausus (Nîmes) passes over the Pont du Gard, and many other significant bridges.

The aqueduct bridge is part of a 31 mile-long system built in the 1st Century AD to carry fresh water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes). Because of the uneven terrain between its starting and ending points, the mostly underground aqueduct followed a long, winding route that called for a bridge across the gorge of the Gardon River.

The bridge has 3 tiers of arches, standing 160 feet high, and descends a mere 1 inch (a gradient of only 1 in 18,241), while the whole aqueduct descends in height by only 56 feet over its entire length. This is quite indicative of the great precision that Roman engineers were able to achieve, using simple technology.

The aqueduct formerly carried an estimated 44,000,000 gallons of water per day to the fountains, baths and homes of the citizens of Nîmes. It may have been in use as late as the 6th Century, with some parts used for significantly longer.

Early 19th Century Marble Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

The construction of the aqueduct has long been credited to Augustus‘ son-in-law and aide, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, around the year 19 BC. At the time, he was serving as Aedile, the Senior Magistrate responsible for managing the water supply of Rome and its colonies.

Historians linked the construction of the aqueduct with Agrippa’s visit to Narbonensis in that year. Newer excavations suggest the construction may have taken place between 40 and 60 AD.

Tunnels dating from the time of Emperor Augustus had to be bypassed by the builders of the Nîmes aqueduct. Coins discovered in the outflow in Nîmes, however, are no older than the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41–54 AD).

On this basis, a team led by Guilhem Fabre has argued that the aqueduct must have been completed around the middle of the 1st Century AD. Either way, it is believed to have taken about 15 years to build, employing between 800 and 1,000 workers.

Stonework on the Pont du Gard, showing the protruding blocks that were used to support the scaffolding.

The aqueduct was constructed entirely without the use of mortar. The aqueduct’s stones (some of which weigh up to 6 tons) were precisely cut to fit perfectly together eliminating the need for mortar.

From the 4th Century onwards, the aqueduct’s maintenance was neglected as successive waves of invaders disrupted the region. It became clogged with debris, encrustations and plant roots, greatly reducing the flow of the water.

Interior of the water conduit of the Pont du Gard.

The resulting deposits in the conduit, consisting of layers of dirt and organic material, are up to 20 inches thick on each wall. An analysis of the deposits originally suggested that it had continued to supply water to Nîmes until as late as the 9th Century, but more recent investigations suggest that it had gone out of use by about the 6th Century.

After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the aqueduct fell into disuse. Although some of its stones were plundered for use elsewhere, Pont du Gard remained largely intact.

Its survival was due to its use as a toll bridge across the valley. In the 13th Century the French king granted the seigneurs of Uzès the right to levy tolls on those using the bridge.

The right later passed to the Bishops of Uzès, who then became responsible for maintaining the bridge and keeping it in good repair. However, Pont du Gard suffered serious damage during the 1620s when Henri, Duke of Rohan made use of the bridge to transport his artillery during the wars between the French royalists and the Huguenots, whom he led.

The underside of an arch on the second tier of the Pont du Gard.

To make space for his artillery to cross the bridge, the duke had one side of the 2nd row of arches cut away to a depth of about one-third of their original thickness. This left a gap on the lowest deck wide enough to accommodate carts and cannons, but severely weakened the bridge in the process.

In 1703 the local authorities renovated Pont du Gard to repair cracks, fill in ruts, and replace the stones lost in the previous century. A new bridge was built by the engineer Henri Pitot in 1743–47 next to the arches of the lower level, so that the road traffic could cross on a purpose-built bridge.

The novelist Alexandre Dumas was strongly critical of the construction of the new bridge, commenting that “it was reserved for the eighteenth century to dishonor a monument which the barbarians of the fifth had not dared to destroy.” The Pont du Gard continued to deteriorate and by the time Prosper Mérimée saw it in 1835 it was at serious risk of collapse from erosion and the loss of stonework.

Napoleon III, who had a great admiration for all things Roman, visited Pont du Gard in 1850 and took a close interest in it. He approved plans by the architect Charles Laisné, with funding provided by the Ministry of State, to repair the bridge in a project which was carried out between 1855–58.

Cross section of the Pont du Gard (right) and the 18th Century road bridge (left) (Alfred Léger, 1875).

The work involved substantial renovations that included replacing the eroded stone, infilling some of the piers with concrete to aid stability and improving drainage by separating the bridge from the aqueduct. Stairs were installed at one end and the conduit walls were repaired, allowing visitors to walk along the conduit itself in reasonable safety.

There have been a number of subsequent projects to consolidate the piers and arches of the Pont du Gard. It has survived 3 serious floods over the last century.

In 1958 the whole of the lower tier was submerged by a giant flood that washed away other bridges. In  1998 another major flood affected the area, with a further flood in 2002 badly damaging nearby installations.

For centuries, Pont du Gard has been France’s most popular tourist attractions. It has a long association with French monarchs seeking to associate themselves with a symbol of Roman imperial power, as well as attracting the attention of a succession of literary and artistic visitors.

King Charles IX of France visited in 1564 during his Grand Tour of France and was greeted with a grand entertainment laid on by the Duc d’Uzès. Twelve young girls dressed as nymphs came out of a cave by the riverside near the aqueduct and presented the king with pastry and preserved fruits.

Le Pont du Gard, painted by Hubert Robert for King Louis XVI in 1787.

A century later, Louis XIV and his court visited the Pont du Gard during a visit to Nîmes in January 1660 shortly after the signature of the Treaty of the Pyrenees. In 1786 his great-great-great-grandson Louis XVI commissioned the artist Hubert Robert to produce a set of paintings of Roman ruins of southern France to hang in the king’s new dining room at the Palace of Fontainebleau, including a picture depicting the Pont du Gard in an idealized landscape.

The outstanding quality of the bridge’s masonry led to it becoming an obligatory stop for French journeymen masons on their traditional tour around the country, many of whom have left their names on the stonework. From the 18th Century onwards, particularly after the construction of the new road bridge, it became a famous staging-post for travelers on the Grand Tour and became increasingly renowned as an object of historical importance and French national pride.

In 1985 when Pont du Gard was added to the list of World Heritage Sites on the criteria of “Human creative genius; testimony to cultural tradition; significance to human history”. The description on the list states:

The hydraulic engineers and … architects who conceived this bridge created a technical as well as artistic masterpiece.

Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct) – Unesco’s World Heritage Collection.

By the 1990s the Pont du Gard had become a hugely popular tourist attraction but was congested with traffic since vehicles were still allowed to drive over the 1743 road bridge. It was also cluttered with illegally built structures and tourist shops lining the river banks.

As the architect Jean-Paul Viguier put it, the “appetite for gain” had transformed the Pont du Gard into “a fairground attraction”. In 1996 the General Council of the Gard département began a major 4-year project to improve the area, sponsored by the French government, in conjunction with local sources, UNESCO and the EU.

The road bridge adjacent to the aqueduct.

The entire area around the bridge was pedestrianized and a new visitor center was built on the north bank to a design by Jean-Paul Viguier. The redevelopment has ensured that the area around the Pont du Gard is now much quieter due to the removal of vehicle traffic, and the new museum provides a much improved historical context for visitors.

Today Pont du Gard is one of France’s top five tourist attractions, with 1.4 million visitors reported in 2001. Hopefully we all can visit, or revisit, this impressive testament to Roman engineering.

Visitors Center

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Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

Bromwich, James. Roman Remains of Southern France: A Guide Book. Routledge, 2006. ISBN 978-0-415-14358-5.

Deming, David. Science and Technology in World History, Volume 1: The Ancient World and Classical Civilization. McFarland, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7864-3932-4.

Fabre, Guilhem. The Pont du Gard: Water and the Roman town. Caisse nationale des monuments historiques et des sites, 1992. ISBN 2-87682-079-X.

Hodge, A. Trevor. Roman aqueducts & water supply (2 ed). Duckworth, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7156-3171-3.

Lewis, Michael Jonathan Taunton. Surveying instruments of Greece and Rome. Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-521-79297-4.

Magnusson, Roberta J. Water Technology in the Middle Ages: Cities, Monasteries, and Waterworks after the Roman Empire. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0801866265.

O’Connor, Colin (1993). Roman Bridges. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-39326-4.

“Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct) – UNESCO World Heritage Centre”. whc.unesco.org. 2012.

“Map of the Roman Aqueduct to Nîmes”. Athena Review Image Archive. Athena Review.

Official Pont du Gard museum website

Pont du Gard at Structurae

600 Roman aqueducts with 35 descriptions in detail among which is the Pont du Gard