Bridging Byzantium

The bridge is a structure built to overcome natural obstacles for the purpose of providing safe passage over them. Throughout history, bridges have been associated with all areas of human life: as an integral part of the infrastructure they have enormous economic, military and social significance; as architectural structures they incorporate achievements of engineering and are considerable works of public art. Like other representational buildings, bridges also demonstrate the political and economic power of their builders and are perceived as cultural symbols. As places of transition bridges also embody sacred and mythological power: these monuments of liminality symbolically define a space between life and death, the sacred and the profane, the world of gods and of humans.

Despite their fundamental importance for our understanding of the societies that created and used them, it is astonishing that a comprehensive study of bridges built by the Byzantines on the extensive territories under their rule between the 4th and the 15th centuries has been until now a desideratum in architectural and cultural research of the Byzantine Empire and of the entire medieval period. “Byzantine Stone Bridges: Material Evidence and Cultural Meaning”, a project directed by Dr. Galina Fingarova that is generously funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) Elise-Richter-Program (V546) and based at the Department of Art History, aims to fill this gap.

As part of this continuing project, the present poster exhibition presents selected examples from the main territories of the Byzantine Empire including the Balkan Peninsula (esp. modern Greece) and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The monuments are arranged chronologically starting with the 5th and ending with the 15th century and are subdivided into three groups corresponding to the modern classification of Early (5th to 8th centuries), Middle (9th century to 1204), and Late (1204-1453) Byzantine periods. The imbalance in the presented monuments – with more from the Early Byzantine period than from later times – is intentional and reflects the limited number of examples from the 9th to 15th centuries; this is in part due to diminishing building activity, but also to the state of research and preservation of the monuments. As the posters show, preservation is one of the major problems of the investigation: many monuments have continuously fallen victim to natural dangers and man-made destruction, others have been heavily restored without proper documentation. The selected examples broach the issue of dating as well. A wide range of dating criteria such as inscriptions, written sources, building materials and techniques, comparison to adjacent structures, and historical events are used in order to determine the time of original construction or reconstruction of the monuments.

Last but not least, the exhibition visualizes the building and structural peculiarities of Byzantine bridges and highlights their achievements. The building materials and masonry techniques used by the Byzantines for the construction of bridges are similar to those of other contemporary monumental buildings; in the majority of cases these correspond with the construction practices of their particular period and geographic region. More significant are the structural innovations found in the presented monuments. Long before their colleagues in Western Europe and the Islamic world, Byzantine engineers and architects made use of the advantages of the segmental and two-centered arches for bridge construction; a hollow chamber system was used to conserve building material and reduce the load on the arches and on the piers. In this way, the Byzantines developed structures that initiated the transition to modern bridge constructions.