The Pont du Gard is a famous ancient structure with three levels, located in the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, in the Occitanie region. Built during the first century, it is intended for the passage of a Roman aqueduct which led the water of Uzès to Nimes and this, until the sixth century. Turned into a road bridge in the Middle Ages, the Pont du Gard has also undergone major restorations over the centuries to preserve its formidable Roman architecture. Classified as a historical monument since 1840, the Pont du Gard welcomes more than a million visitors each year to the south of France. Located about thirty kilometers from Nîmes and its famous Roman arena, the work is also listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985. In this article, we will look at the architecture and construction of this emblematic bridge, while tracing, beforehand, the history of the largest ancient aqueduct built by the Romans.
The Roman aqueduct of Nîmes
The construction of an aqueduct linking Uzès to the Roman city of Nemausus (formerly Nîmes) dates back to the first century, after Jesus Christ. The work, which crosses the Gardon river, is intended to supply the city of Nîmes with drinking water, by conveying the ten or so springs of the Eure fountain located at the foot of Uzès. The main source waters come from the river d’Alzon and from the Mont Bouquet, located near Alès. An engineering masterpiece, the aqueduct, whose difference in level between the starting and ending points is only 12.6 meters, extends over more than 52 kilometers, with an overall average slope of 24.8 cm per kilometer! The mountainous relief of the site forces the work to wind between the valleys of the Garrigues of Uzès and Nîmes. The construction of the aqueduct is made of ceramics, which seems to confirm that it was built between the years 40 and 50 AD. The work on the aqueduct lasted nearly 15 years and it remains the largest Roman aqueduct ever built. Its construction was not, however, carried out with the aim of supplying the city of Nîmes with drinking water (the latter had numerous wells and springs), but to supply the thermal baths, baths, gardens and other fountains of the city. As for the Pont du Gard, it symbolizes the Roman scientific genius, as it had to resist the formidable floods of the Gardon. Alas, the lack of maintenance and the increasingly important limestone deposits will result in the aqueduct stopping functioning at the beginning of the sixth century.
The construction of the Pont du Gard
One of the major characteristics of the Pont du Gard is that it was built largely in the dry and without mortar. The stones of the monument, some of which weigh nearly 6 tons, are interlocked and held together with oak tenons. Only the highest part of the structure (at the height of the canal) is made of rubble (limestone) bound with mortar. The Gard bridge is made of “coquillier” limestone from the Estel quarry located 700 meters downstream, on the banks of the Gardon. The pipes located on the third and last floor of the building are 1.80 m high, allowing men to easily perform maintenance. The waterproofing of the upper channel is made of a Roman concrete based on lime and covered with a reddish paint to avoid degradation due to the limestone. The construction of the Gard bridge seems to have lasted between three and five years and the construction of the Nîmes aqueduct about fifteen years.
The ancient architecture of the work
The Pont du Gard is a stone building built on three levels of superimposed arches, whose top culminates at 48.77 meters. Today 275 m long, the Pont du Gard was once 360 m long. The lower floor is composed of 6 arches and is 142.35 m long and 6.36 m wide. The height of the second floor of the building is 21.87 meters. The middle floor is composed of 11 arches distributed over a length of 242.55 m and a width of 4.56 m. The height of the second floor is 19.50 m. Finally, the upper floor is now composed of 35 arches (47 in the past) and is 275 meters long (360 in the past). Its width is 3.06 m for a height of 7.40 m. The canal, located at the top of the third floor of the monument, is 1.80 m high by 1.20 m wide. The channel also has a slope of 0.4%. The Pont du Gard spans the Gardon River, whose current generally flows under the second floor. However, during the great historical floods, the height of the Gardon could reach the second floor of the building.
The aqueduct bridge and its facilities
During the Middle Ages and up to the 18th century, the Pont du Gard underwent significant damage: 12 arches of the upper bridge were destroyed and stones were recovered as building material. The building was then used as a passageway to cross the Gardon river and the piers of the second level were widened to cope with the increasing traffic, dangerously destabilizing the whole ancient structure. In 1647, the bishop of Nîmes alerted the States of Languedoc to the state of the bridge and its potential danger of ruin. On January 10, 1660, King Louis XIV, visiting the south of France, went to the Pont du Gard. Finally, in 1696, an estimate for repairs was made and restoration work was launched until 1704. The pillars of the building are reinforced and the traffic lanes on the second level are widened. Between 1743 and 1747, the engineer Henri Pitot added a solid road bridge to the arches of the lower level. During the 19th century, new restoration work was undertaken, including the creation of a staircase inside the last pile of the top floor, allowing access to the canal. But the most important restorations in the history of the Pont du Gard remain those carried out under the reign of Napoleon III, between 1855 and 1859. In 2000, the French government as well as UNESCO and the European Union financed a project to develop the site in order to preserve it from the influx of tourists. The site then became accessible only to pedestrians and infrastructures for visitors were created, including a museum. At the same time, invisible buildings integrated into the rock are being built.
The Pont du Gard site and its infrastructures
High French tourist place near the cities of Nimes and Avignon, the site of the Pont du Gard welcomes each year more than one million tourists from all over the world. A 2500 m² museum located a few meters from the monument retraces the history of the famous ancient aqueduct of Nîmes. Models, full-scale reconstructions, virtual tours … immerse visitors in the history and multidisciplinary genius of Rome. On the left bank, 200 meters from the Pont du Gard, a 1.4 kilometer walk is proposed to discover the history of the Mediterranean landscape, as well as the remains of the Roman aqueduct. A cinema with a capacity of 300 seats, mixing documentary and fiction, is available to tourists on the Pont du Gard site. Ludo is the museum space dedicated to children aged 5 to 12. Temporary exhibitions dedicated to art, history or science are also available to the public each year. A permanent exhibition on the themes of world heritage and the great sites of France can be seen all year round on the square in front of the Left Bank building. Finally, guided tours of the bridge allow you to visit the top of the aqueduct and its historic canal.
All year round, the Pont du Gard site offers events for the whole family. Sound and light shows are organized every summer and workshops, circuses, theaters, conferences and guided tours are scheduled to offer an unforgettable experience. If you wish to discover other Roman sites in the vicinity, we recommend you to visit the arena of Nîmes (30 km) as well as the arena of Arles (40 km) located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
Schedules, access, events, ticketing… all information is available on the website www.pontdugard.fr