The "Devil's Bridge" at Borgo a Mozzano.

Devil's Bridges

After seeing the "Devil's Bridge" at Borgo a Mozzano across the Serchio River north of Lucca, I had fun writing the following story about many "Devil's Bridges."

With all the murder and mayhem going on in the muddled Middle Ages, one might think the devil had better things to do. But instead of keeping traffic-from peasants to popes-moving smoothly through the Gates of Hell, the Prince of Darkness was apparently coming into the light and flitting around all over Europe.

Building bridges.

And if one can believe local legends (and who is to say they are wrong?), there is still evidence of his diabolical work today. There must have been more uses for a pitchfork than pitching coals into fires.

From the northwestern part of England to the southwestern part of Romania, dozens of "Devil's Bridges" dot the landscape. Almost all date from 1000 to 1600, a good time for folklore to flourish. Delicately arched and made of stone, all are technological achievements and some are architectural wonders. Adding a Faustian element to their history certainly enhances their appeal, not to mention helping the tourist industry.

France, according to various accounts, has seven Devil's Bridges, the United Kingdom and Germany each three, Portugal and Switzerland each two, and Bulgaria, Slovenia, Romania and the Netherlands each one. Italy, which would get to know hell well later in Dante's "The Inferno," has nine.

Busy, busy, busy.

I learned of the Devil's Bridges when I encountered one at Borgo a Mozzano, a little town north of Lucca in western Tuscany. Since both my driving and language skills are severely strained in Italy, I had hired a driver/interpreter as I researched my new novel.

We were speeding along (as Italian drivers tend to do) the highway hugging the western bank of the Serchio River when this mammoth stone footbridge came into view.

"Wow! What's that?"

"The Ponte della Maddalena," Marcello said. "But nobody calls it that. It's Ponte del Diavolo."

The Devil's Bridge.

With a straight face, Marcello went on to tell the story.

Sometime in the Middle Ages, he said, a master builder was contracted to build a new bridge across the Serchio, a lovely winding river that stretches into the mountainous region called the Garfagnana. This has now become a favorite place for hikers, but its rugged interior has long fostered mysterious legends.

The builder's work went slowly until he realized he could not make the deadline the villagers had given him. He was desperate. What would his reputation be if he failed to complete the bridge on time?

Suddenly, a tall, well-dressed merchant stood next to him. The man told the bridge builder that he could finish the bridge that night, but there was one condition. The merchant demanded that the builder give him the soul of the first living thing that crossed the bridge when it was completed. The builder agreed, and the next day the villagers had their beautiful bridge.

When they congratulated the builder, he told them that no one should cross the bridge until sunset. The builder then rode his horse to Lucca to seek the bishop's advice.

"Fool the devil," the wise bishop said. "Send a pig across first."

The builder found a pig and let it cross. The devil was furious that he had been tricked, and he threw himself into the Serchio.

Although the Devil's Bridges are hundreds of miles apart and built in different centuries, the stories about them are remarkably similar. The devil promises to build a bridge if he gets the first soul that crosses. After it is built, the devil sometimes is tricked because a goat or a pig or a dog is sent across. Occasionally, it's a rooster, and once it was something called a chamois, a goat-like animal native to the Carpathian Mountains of Romania.

There are so many Devil's Bridge stories that the standard directory by the folklorists Anti Aarne and Stith Thompson gives them their own classification.

One of my favorite stories involves the Sachenhauser Bridge in Frankfurt. The basic story is the same, with the devil finishing the bridge overnight and the overwrought builder delivering a rooster in the morning. But when the devil saw that he had been deceived, he tore the rooster apart and threw it at the bridge, creating two holes. Even today, the story goes, any time someone tries to patch the holes, the mortar falls apart during the night.

The bridge in the village of Ceredigion in Mid Wales is across a narrow gap over the Mynach, a tributary of the Rheidol River. Here, an old woman discovered that her cow was on the other side of a huge boiling cauldron. She wondered how she could get across when a man dressed like a monk approached her. "Give me the first soul to cross and I will build you a bridge," he said. The woman thought there was something fishy, however, because his feet seemed to be facing backward. Nevertheless, she promised to give him the first living thing that crossed the bridge, which he quickly built. The old woman then threw a loaf of bread on the bridge, her little black dog ran after it, and the devil, deceived again, flew off, leaving behind the smell of brimstone.

The bridge, which was built in the late eleventh century, has become such a popular tourist attraction that turnstiles control entry and visitors must pay a fee.

The legend for the Devil's Bridge at Cividale del Friuli in Italy's eastern Alps contains a mother (the devil had a mother?). She came along to carry the final rock in her apron. But both were thwarted when the people of Cividale sent a dog across. Or a cat. The versions vary.

The story is a little different for the bridge at Cahors over the Lot River in southwestern France. Legend has it that the devil asked for the soul of the architect himself, but the devil would help with the building. When the bridge was almost completed, the architect gave the devil a sieve to mix the mortar. But the sieve would not hold water. In revenge, the devil destroyed part of the central tower and it has been impossible to complete ever since. When the bridge was restored in 1879, a carving of the devil was placed on the tower.

As for that bridge at Borgo a Mozzano, Marcello eventually told me the real story. The bridge, he said, was erected by ordinary hard-working builders during the time of Matilde di Canossa, an incredibly wealthy countess who lived in the eleventh century. She was first married to Godfrey the Hunchback and after his death, when she was 43, to a 17-year-old duke, Welf the Fat (Marcello swore he was not making this up).

And the bridge? Marcello said it took years to complete and Satan had nothing to do with it.

Still, there was that faint smell of sulfur when I crossed.