Pont du Gard’s second life
A superlative ancient work of art
Unique among aqueducts in Nîmes, the Pont du Gard is without doubt the most important construction project of them all. It required hundreds of workers (both skilled and unskilled) over many years. Its completion also demanded the efforts of specialists including stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths, lime-burners and loggers.
The Pont du Gard, a masterpiece of Roman ingenuity
The Pont du Gard is a Roman monument built halfway through the 1st century AD. It is the principal construction in a 50 km long aqueduct that supplied the city of Nîmes, formerly known as Nemausus, with water.
Built as a three-level aqueduct standing 50 m high, it allowed water to flow across the Gardon river.
In essence, the bridge is constructed out of soft yellow limestone blocks, taken from a nearby quarry that borders the river. The highest part of the structure is made out of breeze blocks joined together with mortar. It is topped by a device designed to bear the water channel, whose stone slabs are covered with calcium deposits.
In designing this three-storey bridge, which measures 360 m at its longest point along the top, the Roman architects and hydraulic engineers created a technical masterpiece that stands today as a work of art.
As a result of numerous scientific studies, we now know that an impressive volume of rock was needed to complete the construction. The figures are impressive: over 21,000 cubic metres of rock, weighing 50,400 tonnes ! Moreover, archaeologists also uncovered evidence of how well organized the project was. They found numbering on the stones, points of support for scaffolding, and evidence of the use of hoists.
The quarrymen’s labour
Materials used in the construction of the Pont du Gard were obtained from the Estel quarry, situated roughly 600 m away from the monument on the Gardon’s left bank. The rock found there is a soft coarse yellow limestone, referred to locally today as « pierre de Vers ».
The blocks of limestone were extracted using picks and sharp metal corners. Around 120,000 cubic metres of cut stone were extracted, not only to build the Pont du Gard, but also to construct the various bridges and culvert supports that went into making the aqueduct that stands downstream on the right bank.
Another advantage of the stone quarry's location on the edge of the Gardon river was that the rock could be transported by boat to the building site on the river’s right bank.
When architecture combines complex design with artistic flair
Standing 49 metres above the Gardon river, the Pont du Gard clearly constitutes the main construction in the Nîmes aqueduct. Described as the highest Roman construction in the world, it is principally noted for its imposing stature, its excellent condition and its huge arches, the largest of which measures 24.52 metres.
Built into the rock itself, the wide stone piles on the first level are equipped with solid pier-heads. These are necessary for ensuring that the bridge can withstand the flooding of the Gardon river.
Despite much research into the subject by archaeologists and local historians, no written evidence has been uncovered that clearly reveals the name of the architect who designed this masterpiece. The only message we have from its designer is written in Latin, engraved on one of the lower stone piles. It refers to a stage of progress in the building’s construction. It says simply « mens totum corium », which means the entirety of the work has been measured. It would seem that this master engineer will forever remain in the shadow of his great work, the Pont du Gard.
A model for architects and a source of inspiration for artists
« Pons admirabilis Romani operis olim aquaeductus », « Amazing bridge, work of the Romans, aqueduct of old » Charles de l’Ecluse, 1565
As an object of wonder, the Pont du Gard has been visited by many illustrious guests. In 1610, the King of England’s own architect drew the bridge in a sketch. The various peculiarities of its architecture became an inspiration for bridges built on the Rhône river (such as the Pont d’Avignon in the 14th century and the Pont Saint-Esprit in the 13th and 14th centuries). From the 17th century onwards, the Pont du Gard became a model site for master stonemasons, who came to engrave their corporate emblems into the rock.
French author Rabelais, in his book « Pantagruel » (1532), credits his hero with building the Pont du Gard in under three hours.
Among the many travellers who visited this site to glean some wisdom from the ancients were famous painters such as Hubert Robert. He painted a number of works inspired by the poetry he saw in Roman ruins found in France and Italy. Among these is an oil painting showing the Pont du Gard placed within a fantasy landscape. Painted in 1787 for a salon in the Palace of Fontainebleau, this work today belongs to the collection known as the « Principal Monuments of France » (displayed at the Louvre museum in Paris).
Various literary works can claim inspiration from the Pont du Gard, with its dreamy allusions to times gone by. It is here that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had his vision of Roman ingenuity, which transported him into imagining the « stone giant ». uThese few words transmit the symbolic weight of an era with the sweep of a quill… (Confessions)
« The resounding impact of my steps as I walk beneath these mighty arches made me think I could almost hear the voices of those who built them. I was lost, like an insect, in its immensity. I felt, though small and insignificant, that something unknown was lifting my soul and I said to myself, « Am I not a Roman ! ».
Let us also remember Stendhal's emotions upon discovering the monument: « As I turn to face the Gard bridge, my soul is thrown into a deep and prolonged sense of astonishment. The Coliseum in Rome never saw me plunge so deeply into such a state of reverie. » (1838).