Bridges: Constructions Above, On and Below the Water

Bridges linking two sides of the river were symbols of cultural integration of regions, of lively trade and of the might of a state. Building bridges would mark a human victory against the major obstacles impeding the communication between people. In the Middle Ages, when the world population was not numerous and people rarely travelled, there were almost no bridges across big rivers. Only strong countries, situated at the crossroads of the main merchant routes, could afford large bridges. It is not a coincidence that rulers were particularly interested in bridges. It was bridges that enabled easier travel for court officials delivering their ruler’s orders from a capital city to remote areas of the country, thus adding to the control of lands and subjects. Once a bridge is built, it immediately becomes a custom checkpoint that profits the ruler’s coffers.

The 13th and 14th century was not a favourable period for bridge building in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The expansion of the state, which usually meant warfare with all neighbours and a dwindling exchange of goods, could not encourage building bridges that were substituted by wades and rafts. Wades were particularly important, because they served as extensions of the main roads. The most archaic Lithuanian type of wades is kūlgrinda (meaning a stone pavement), a secret underwater stony path across swamps. Lithuanians used the same technology to reinforce the bottom of wades. Historians suggest that “the stone bridge of Vytautas” the 16th-century source refers to might have been a wade of similar kind.

Bridges across endless waters

In the 13th and 14th century, some bridges were built even across small rivers. We know nothing about their construction. It could not be sophisticated, because even as late as in the 18th century it was peasants rather than professional engineers who were in charge of building and maintaining bridges. It is unlikely that the old bridges in Lithuania, especially those built before the 16th century, featured piles hammered into riverbed. Pole bridges were more stable but also more complicated to build. Meanwhile, the benefits of building that type of bridges were temporary, because each spring ice floating down the river would almost inevitably destroy all bridges.

Travellers usually knew that a particular road leads to a bridge, but he could never be sure he would find the bridge intact.

This has prompted the search for a simpler technical solution, the one rooted in the old tradition of road building and which takes into account local climate and relief. That technology was different from the one employed in the Western Europe.

Hubert Vautrin (1742–1822), a Jesuit from Lotharingia and a mentor of Kazimierz Nestor Sapieha, who observed the last years of existence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, wrote about that in somewhat thickened colours: “Lithuania is the plainest province distinguished by the broadest and most numerous swamps […]. I spent four years in the area surrounded by the swamp more than six thousand toises (one toise = 1,949 m) in breadth and of immeasurable length, the major part of which would dry out in summer.”

Vautrin was right, because all inhabited areas in Lithuania represented smaller or larger islands surrounded by wider or narrower swamps.

The excess water in the soil posed an even more serious problem for communication than that of building bridges across rivers – the problem of relentless maintenance and repair of roads across swamps by laying bunches of interweaved switches. In addition to that, people needed to build bridges even in cities, because abundant rains would turn their streets into channels full of water. Most of the city dwellers throughout the GDL had the responsibility of maintaining the bridge, or the wooden sidewalk, (medgrinda in Lithuanian) beside their own homes. In the 16th century, almost all districts of the GDL employed bridge supervisors, the officials in charge of collecting special taxes from city visitors and of controlling the condition of wooden sidewalks in the city rather than supervising the bridges across rivers. At later times, the properly-managed towns began building wooden sidewalks even well before the town entrances.

The tradition of laying wooden sidewalks on unstable surfaces apparently had a major influence on people who had built early bridges. They would float on the water like pontoon bridges without supporting piles. Builders would “assemble” bridges using a number of floating boats (or rafts) with bulky two-side-dressed planks over them across big rivers. That semi-military technology has not really evolved between then and the early 20th century. Therefore, we can imagine them more or less precisely while looking at plentiful drawings and photographs of the similar constructions from the 19th and the early 20th century. The floating bridge, if properly maintained, served longer but people had to disassemble it in the beginning of winter and to put it together again in spring, after the river ice has floated away. Many Lithuanian cities situated by larger rivers had temporary bridges. For instance, the historical sources refer to the bridge across the River Nemunas next to Kaunas built by barčiai or bartai, the specialists in pontoon bridges.

Banks and shores linked together

The progress of bridge building technology was slow yet noticeable. The construction of pile bridges intensified since the 15th century.

Archaeologists have discovered 15th-century piles that supported the bridge linking the City of Trakai with the Island Castle at the bed of the Lake Galvė.

There was no necessity to build pile bridges in lakes where the danger of floating ice was absent. It looks like the old bridge was roughly in the same place it is now. We can guess about that while looking at the engraving by Tomasz Makowski from around 1600 offering a panoramic view of Trakai. The construction of the so-called Green Bridge across the River Neris in Vilnius was yet another step forward. In fact, the bridge became “Green” only in the middle of the 18th century, after it was painted green. Its predecessor, which stood closer to the castle, appears in the historical sources of the late 14th century. Ulrich Hosius (ca. 1455–1535), a German head of the mint and the master of Vilnius castle, built a new bridge between 1532 and 1534 after receiving a permission from the grand duke Sigismund I the Old. The bridge had to serve primarily the merchants from Moscow and Riga who would arrive in Vilnius via Smolensk and Ukmergė respectively. This is why the bridge featured stone gates at both ends and second-storey premises for custom officers and bridge wards. The bridge was made of wood but built on stone supports (or wooden piles covered with stone). A number of small shops operated on the bridge. In 1655, the ill-fated year for Vilnius, the bridge burned down and was rebuilt several times later. The painting by Józef Peszka (1767–1831) from the early 19th century depicts the bridge of a more sophisticated construction with massive ice-breaking installations. The Green Bridge was not actually green in the 16th and 17th century. Although the bridge is included in the view of Vilnius in the Georg Braun’s atlas, the drawing does not reveal the constructions of the bridge, but several buildings on the bridge are clearly visible. In terms of architecture, the “Green” bridge must have been similar to that across the River Nemunas in Hrodna. The latter bridge was supported by a number of wooden piles, some of them covered with stone (as can be seen in the panoramic engraving of Grodno by Hans Adelhauser).

The construction of the stone bridge, probably the one with arcs, across the River Vilnia in Vilnius crowned the wave of bridge building in the early 16th century.

In 1529, the grand duke Sigismund I the Old issued a privilege to Albertas Goštautas, the Voivode of Vilnius and the chancellor of the GDL. The document said that the chancellor had a right to build a stone bridge across the River Vilnia between the gates of the Lower Castle and the City of Vilnius. Moreover, the chancellor was granted a right to open shops on the bridge in order to cover his construction-related expenses. At that time, the River Vilnia embraced the territory of the Lower Castle running approximately where the present-day streets of Šventaragis and Vrublevskis are; it seems like the bridge was somewhere in the beginning of the present-day Castle Street. We have no description of the bridge, but we do know that Goštautas hired Jan Dylia, an Italian master, to build the bridge. We can guess that Dylia built a stone bridge with arcs, the one that was common in Mediterranean countries. Unfortunately, the bridge collapsed and fell into the river three times before 1536 and Goštautas had to hire another Italian master to repair the bridge. Even the most meagre progress has its cost.

Literature: Karalius L., Tiltai, pervažiuojamieji perkolai, kamšos, pagrandos, mediniai grindiniai, pylimai Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės sausumos keliuose XVI amžiuje, Lietuvos istorijos metraštis. 2008 metai, 1, Vilnius, 2009, p. 5–25.

Eugenijus Saviščevas