7/15/11 - europe's beautiful bridges

In today's excerpt - some of Europe's most beautiful bridges—the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Old London Bridge, the Rialto Bridge in Venice—were evidence of the trade and wealth that was pulling Europe out of its feudal past and toward a market economy, a transition known as the Commercial Revolution. Trade was most pronounced on rivers, especially where those rivers were near the sea, and new bridges were built throughout the continent. Houses, shops, and marketplaces were built on top of these bridges, and the lenders who set up their shops on the river banks adjacent to these bridges—the "banchieri" in Italian—gave us the modern word "bank":

"Urban hubs throbbing with new market activity rose to prominence starting in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Wherever navigable waterways converged or where key river crossing or favorable harbors were established, influential urban commercial centers arose. The most vibrant cluster in northern Europe was in the Low Countries, where the navigable Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt rivers flowed near one another. It included the ports of Ghent, the largest city with 50,000 inhabitants in the fourteenth century, Bruges, Antwerp, and later Amsterdam; other big centers included Lubeck, London, and Paris. This was mirrored in Mediterranean Europe by a cluster of large northern Italian city-states, above all Venice, Genoa, Milan, and Florence, with populations surpassing 100,000. 

"Due to the overriding importance of water navigation, it was no accident that the central marketplaces of Europe's Commercial Revolution developed literally on top of and alongside the bridges and quays of the leading medieval towns and city-states. Like towns, bridges underwent a major building boom from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, often becoming each town's pulsing central marketplace. Shops and houses located around the bridges enjoyed the further medieval privilege of having at hand a common drinking water and sewage disposal source in the river below. Crowded with shops and markets were the late twelfth-century Old London Bridge across the Thames, the Grand Pont across the Seine, also featuring 13 floating water mills moored below its arches where the river flowed fastest to produce fourteenth-century Paris's daily bread flour, and the stone bridge that still crosses the Arno at Florence, the Ponte Vecchio. 

"Many pioneering early bridges were built by monastic orders, including the famous, 20-arched, Pont d'Avignon across the notoriously flooding Rhone in southern France that was erected in the late twelfth century by the Fréres Pontifes, (Brothers of the Bridge). As bridges became a practical amenity that enhanced town trade and commerce, civic authorities undertook the responsibility for building many of them. This helped revive the Roman practice of public infrastructure investment, which became a mainstay of the West's liberal, democratizing marriage of convenience between governments and private markets.

"Few bridges were at the center of so much important medieval commerce as Venice's Rialto Bridge, the lone crossing over the Grand Canal at the heart of the greatest Mediterranean sea trading power of the age. The first wooden Rialto Bridge was built in 1264, replacing an old pontoon crossing. Several wooden iterations later, the late sixteenth-century stone bridge was erected, crammed then as today with two arcades of noisy shops and businesses bustling along its banks. Bakers, butchers, fishmongers, fruit and vegetable sellers, acrobats and other entertainers, and even the infirm in their beds at the hospice were conspicuous daily sights. 

"Upon closer look, the hierarchical skeleton structure of early market capitalism itself was physically visible beneath the manifold relationships of the merchants of Venice crowded around the Rialto: the small merchants haggling over price and exchanging goods for money on the bridge within earshot of the larger wholesale suppliers who bought, sold, and signed trade and shipping contracts every morning nearby in their loggia, or meeting room—an early commodities exchange—and who then later in the day walked a few paces to the narrow bank counter stalls of the banchieri—the 'bankers'— who settled their transactions by book entry account fund transfers and reinvested the accumulated capital profits of the marketplace in a new circuit of loans and ownership stakes in fresh speculative ventures."


Steven Solomon


Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2010 by Steven Solomon


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