The Ponte Vecchio in Bassano

In the Italian tongue, everything has a gender, either masculine or feminine. And it’s often the case that, when it comes to determining what’s masculine and what’s feminine, the codified national language tends to follow the local dialects whence it sprang. The river Brenta, for example, is usually identified as the feminine "la Brenta", even though fiume (river) is masculine. So for the sake of custom, we’ll stick to "la" rather than “il” Brenta, as we follow its course from the source to the Adriatic, some 200km of stories and histories.

La Brenta, indeed, has been a theatre of so many turbulent events over the centuries that it could fill an almanack of several cubic metres: battles, wars, floods… But the Brenta also represents life and beauty: at the oldest stretch of its course, on the approach to Venice, the so-called Brenta Riviera boasts some of the most sumptuous treasures of aristocratic Italian architecture. It is here that you find the most famous Palladian Villas, named after the architect Andrea Palladio, one of the great inspirational figures of the sixteenth century and the centuries thereafter. More on him later.

So the Brenta sticks a middle finger up at the grammar books and ploughs its own furrow. But it is not alone in this, up here in northern Italy. There remains a question mark over whether we should say "il" Grappa or "la" grappa. We don’t really need to talk about the “holy” mountain that is Massiccio del Grappa, some 6000 feet of imposing beauty, nor do we need to linger on the famous Italian spirit of the same name. Both il Grappa and la Grappa give us a nice lead-in to the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) of Bassano del Grappa, which stands between two of the oldest and most celebrated distilleries in Italy: Nardini and Poli. But we’ll focus on the Ponte Vecchio itself, which is a sight for sore eyes.

In the 1200s, the need arose for a way of crossing the Brenta around Bassano, in order to open up the Vicenza valley. It was a rather futuristic (for the time) wooden bridge that they built, which endured fire, damage and general ill-treatment and established itself so deeply in the hearts and minds of the people of Bassano that when Andrea Palladio – him again – was commissioned to design a new, modern crossing in the 1500s, his first drafts were rejected by the townsfolk. They wanted a bridge that resembled what they knew. In 1569, the architect came back with another proposal: a revolutionary design for its time, but still made from wood, which has proved to be the endoskeleton of numerous reconstructions over the centuries.

The most recent of these took place after the Second World War. The bridge had been spared the ravages of the First: it had been “saved” as a crossing point for Italian troops coming to and from the Asiago Plateau. In the Second World War, however, it was blown up by a group of Partisans, who pulled it from under the feet of the Axis Powers. After the war, demobilized military engineers from the Alpine Corps were employed in its rebuilding, working in their traditional headgear. This – and the inevitable fortifying presence of grappa – earned the bridge the nickname of "ponte degli Alpini".

Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi inaugurated the new bridge in 1948: thus the Ponte Vecchio is ancient in form but contemporary in substance. Wood, of course, doesn’t do too well with water and humidity, so the structure has been reinforced and strengthened and buttressed on countless occasions, not without the usual controversies that are more important to some than to others. The bridge’s road surface, for example.

Today the Ponte Vecchio is closed to traffic, even if some elderly driver always manages to find their way up onto the narrow walkway. Thank God that the wooden supports have been consolidated with other materials and modern techniques, to ensure a greater degree of safety. So maybe one day we shall meet on the Ponte di Bassano, with a glass of fine grappa in hand. Il grappa, of course.