What did the Pont d’Avignon originally look like?

Written by on June 16, 2019 in Guest Blogs

Arched stone bridge over the calm river Avignon, trees and wild flowers along its banks

Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond

Many of us learned that song as kids, about the famous Pont d’Avignon in Provence (real name: Pont Saint-Bénézet). For those of us lucky enough to visit Avignon and see the bridge in all its glory, hoping perhaps to dance on it ourselves, we are often surprised because it’s rather short—only about 100 meters long and ending partway across the Rhone River.

It was built between 1175 and 1185  and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the original Pont d’Avignon tumbled into the Rhone centuries ago, a victim of inadequate construction and poor maintenance. Today it’s hard to imagine what it looked like when it was a full kilometer long and spanned the entire river. Was it straight or curved? Was it fortified? Did it have a drawbridge in the middle?

To answer this question, a team of French scientists and historians has joined together with digital artists to create a complete, three-dimensional model of the bridge. The result is impressive, and may surprise you.

How did this team of experts recreate the bridge? Some parts of their research were easy, like examining the remnants that still remain. Other parts were harder, like reviewing historical records such as paintings. What they found was that these weren’t always consistent. Did the bridge have 19 arches or 22? Did it pass only over water or did part of it stand on the island in the river? It depends on the artist!

One thing the team realized is that there was no “one” Pont d’Avignon. Instead, it was like a living thing, changing over the centuries. Sections would collapse and be rebuilt, or be replaced with wooden parts because it was cheaper and faster to do so. The team finally picked a point in time and recreated the bridge as it looked then.

The final result is a short video, taking you across the bridge as it looked in the year 1550. You cross from Avignon to the other side of the river, where the Tower of Philip the Fair still stands, and then back again. The “camera” moves through the air as you go, from above the bridge to below, allowing you to see it from different angles. And there are nice sound effects—hoof beats, running water, church bells ringing—to make you feel like you are really there.

One of the fascinating aspects of the video is that you see not only the bridge but also the surrounding area: the city of Avignon, the palaces in Villeneuve-les-Avignon, and mostly bare countryside elsewhere. It’s a lovely step back in time!

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence.  He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in ProvenceRead more at Life in Provence.

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