The Devil's Bridge: the legend of the medieval Salerno aqueduct

by Federico Quagliuolo

In the middle of the heart of the Salerno capital they suddenly pop up the arches of the devil's bridge, the medieval aqueduct of Salerno. It is a real surprise it seems sprout from a wall and breaks the regularity of the roads and of the buildings of the 70s between Via Cassese and Via Arce (which is called so precisely for the strings, not surprisingly).

It is an antique aqueduct built around the 9th century, when Salerno era capital of a Principality which extended from Basilicata to the gates of Naples.

The people, however, have always been terrified of this construction and the superstitions locals claim that it hurts to stay after sunset under its arches. The reason? It was built by the devil. And it remained in business for more than 1000 years.

Il ponte del Diavolo acquedotto medievale Salerno
The Devil's Bridge today

History of the medieval aqueduct of Salerno

First let's tell the serious story of these arches which, in fact, once were much longer than what we see today. If we could go back in time "only" of 100 years, in fact, we would find the 650 meters of aqueduct are intact, moreover still fully functional (the last testimony on the operation is dated 1950: practically 1100 years after construction!).

It was built for serve the monastery of San Benedetto, which was located in correspondence with the eastern walls of the city. Today the monastery still exists and is used as a barracks.

Ponte del Diavolo nel '700
The Devil's Bridge in the 1700s

The Devil's Bridge and the dark rituals of the magician Pietro Barilario

Other than a religious structure! The aqueduct is cursed by the devil himself and from Pietro Barilario, one of the strangest and most fascinating characters in Salerno history.

The people saw him as a kind of sorcerer who lived in the city around the 11th century, actually he was an alchemist and scholar of oriental magic and esoteric texts, given the very strong Saracen influence on the Salerno coast during the Middle Ages. The people, intrigued and worried by their own unconventional ways of doing things passed down all sorts of legend on his behalf, treating him as a kind of Munaciello. The most famous of his "misdeeds"Is precisely what concerns the construction of this aqueduct, which it happened in one night.

In fact, Barilario asked for help. Probably this suggestion came from unusual shape of the aqueduct which, with his pointed arches, anticipated the fashion of Gothic style typical of the Middle Ages. Before then, in fact, the aqueducts par excellence they were the classics Roman "red bridges".

Ponti del Diavolo anni 50
The Devil's Bridge in the 1950s

This is a very interesting note: it is one of the first uses of this architecture in Italy!

The Devil, accomplice and enemy at the same time, he then decided to play a joke on hers mate: while the magician was around Salerno doing his usual rituals, the devil he invited Barilario's grandchildren to play in his laboratory left unattended. On the way back the wizard found the kids dead, after having ingested who knows what poisonous substance.

Thus it was that man, desperate and grief-stricken decided to convert e ask God for mercy: in church of San Benedetto (where the aqueduct arrived) he prayed for three days until, it is said, the Wooden Jesus on the crucifix he opened his eyes and said "pardon“. The magician became a monk and died in the grace of God.

This miracle was a well-known story in Campania until the 16th century.

An equivalent of the legend of the Devil's bridge there is also in Naples with the Palazzo Penne, nicknamed, not surprisingly, "the palace of the Devil".

Crocifisso Pietro Barilario
The crucifix that spoke to Pietro Barilario

The Salerno medical school and the Devil's bridge

This medieval aqueduct was located in one completely uninhabited area at the time of its construction. Yet many stories have passed under this Devil's bridge. According to another legend, on a night of storm, would have gathered under these arches i four mythical founders from the Salerno Medical School. Abdela was of Arab-African origin, Garioponto was Greek, Isaac jew and Alfano was the Salerno.

These men they really existed (the books of Garioponto are also cited by other authors), but they were not the true founders of the most important medical school in Europe at that time. Most likely this legend is an allegory to indicate the cultural ferment in the principality of Salerno which in the early Middle Ages was one of the more lively and active regions of Italy, meeting point for all the cultures of the Mediterranean.

12 centuries have passed and under the Devil's bridge shepherds, armies, wagons and today cars and mopeds have passed, whizzing among the buildings built where before there was a green hill overlooking the sea.

But the devil's bridge, or the medieval aqueduct of Salerno for those who do not want to be fascinated, have remained there for 1200 years, a collect new stories under the arches.

-Federico Quagliuolo

Antonio Giardullo, Pietro Barilario: A wizard from Salerno between history and legend, Lavegliacarlone, Salerno, 2005

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