Who invented the name “The Bridge of Sighs” (Ponte dei Sospiri)? Well, the Tate Britain seems to believe Byron did. The last time I visited and looked at this wonderful painting by Turner there was an explanatory note beside it that read:
“One of the most famous landmarks in Venice, the Bridge of Sighs connects the Doge’s Palace on the left with the prisons of the Palazzo dei Prigioni to the right. When Turner exhibited the painting in 1840, he accompanied it with lines based on Byron’s poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
‘I stood upon a bridge, a palace and
A prison on each hand.’
Indeed it was Byron who allegedly coined the name of the bridge, deriving its title from the mournful image of convicts taking their last glimpse of the city before being led down to the darkness of the cells.”
No, it wasn’t Byron, “allegedly” or not. There is plenty of evidence that the name was in use long before Byron’s stay in the city (1816-1819). To remain with British visitors, William Beckford, author of Vathek (a novel Byron adored, incidentally), says in his provocatively titled travel account, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, that the bridge was known to the Venetians as “Ponte dei Sospiri”; this book came out in 1783, five years before Byron was born. This has led Margaret Doody, in her otherwise excellent book, Tropic of Venice, to suggest that Beckford was the inventor of the name. However, if we pass to the Venetians themselves, we find that Casanova himself, in his famous account of his escape from the Prisons, refers to the bridge “qu’on nomme le pont des Soupirs”. His escape took place in 1755, even though he didn’t write about it until 1787.
I don’t know when the name first came into use. Giuseppe Tassini, in his monumental book Curiosità Veneziane, which professes to give an explanation of every street-name in Venice, refers to the city’s second-most famous bridge only in passing, giving the standard explanation that those who crossed it had good reasons to sigh. If anyone has more information on the name I’d be happy to hear it.
However, it’s fair enough to say that if Byron didn’t invent the name, he certainly made it famous, with the opening lines of Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – even if, as has often been pointed out, he certainly couldn’t have seen the view he goes on to describe if he had actually been standing on the bridge itself. But that’s a whole other story…