Romans used and maintained the aqueduct for a few centuries after its construction, but after barbarian hordes scattered much of the local population, the structure fell into neglect and disuse. Farmers and other locals availed themselves of the water supply until it became unreliable, at which point they then availed themselves of the stones making up the waterway itself. Much of the aqueduct met this fate, becoming a cheap and convenient quarry of sorts, but the height and solidity of the Pont du Gard itself spared it much of this indignity.
Between 1150 and 1200, monks and their builders regularly stripped stones around the area for monasteries and cathedrals. In fact, many buildings in surrounding towns completed in the Middle Ages were built with these Roman-made blocks. Around 1295, fully half the width of the middle-level pillars was amputated to create a toll road wide enough for carts. Prior to that, travelers had squeezed around the pillars or used the dry canal atop the span to traverse the Gardon. The missing capstones are attributed to people prying them off to create skylights in the upper passage. For four centuries, the Pont du Gard stood fast in this compromised state, even withstanding an earthquake in 1448.
Around 1700, fearing the structure would collapse, the state ordered the repair of the compromised pillars and added a lane alongside supported by corbels that stood for about 40 years until it was decided to add a dedicated bridge separate from the middle level of the Pont du Gard. Major building works began at the site for the first time in 17 centuries. The original quarry was reopened and even though newer techniques were used to remove the stone, it was of the same vein. A roadway bridge was built just off the side of the middle level, supported by full-size arches attached to the original bottom arches, effectively doubling the width of the base. At the same time, the damaged pillars were adequately repaired. Based on the evidence presented by the seams, it is likely that the masons restoring the work salvaged the original pieces out of the riverbed below.
In 1840, the Pont du Gard was included in the first list of major monuments in France by the country's Historical Monuments Committee, effectively putting it on the minds of those who eventually ordered major restorations that lasted from 1855 to 1878. Since that historical rehabilitation work, the Pont du Gard has been treasured and protected by the French. In 1985 it received the honor of being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
During the times of building and restoration, countless craftsmen were employed from all around the nation. Undoubtedly, many of the tradesmen involved were on a Tour de France and were probably thrilled to be working and learning at such a prestigious site. Through the years, many of these itinerant craftsmen left their mark on this magnificent structure in both their skilled workmanship and in cryptic engravings peeking out from somewhere among the endless stones.
–Senior editor Michael Springer was one of 1.2 million visitors enthralled by the Pont du Gard last year.
–A special thanks to Domnine Reynert at Pont du Gard for her gracious hospitality.
Rite of Passage
The beginning of the 17th century saw the first known pilgrimages to the Pont du Gard by compagnons, journeymen in the trades making their way across France while working for different masters in different cities on a trip known as a "Tour de France." While in a region shared with impressive antiquities, it was obligatory for a compagnon to study these great works for professional growth and personal inspiration. He must learn enough about the landmark that if quizzed by a future master, he would know the remarque, the specific piece of information or nature of the work that a journeyman properly immersed would have implicitly understood. This information was often used as proof of his passage through a city on his Tour de France.
An important rite of passage for a compagnon was the inscription of his symbolic name, the emblem of his craft and its symbolic tools, and the year of his passage onto such an antiquity. Having communed with and gained new knowledge from those in the past through the exemplary work they left behind, a compagnon could justifiably carve his mark in their stone. Leaving such an inscription made him a link in a chain of proud craftsmen going both backward and forward in time.
The earliest journeyman's mark found on the Pont du Gard is dated 1611 and is accompanied by the locksmiths' symbol of a key. Located on the side of a capstone above the waterway, the centuries of exposure to sun and rain that have not diminished it bear witness to the care and permanence with which he engraved himself into history. There are 320 different inscriptions from journeymen found on the Pont du Gard, half of them by masons. Being a marvel of ancient stonework, the Pont du Gard is considered an obligatory stop of France's emblematic monuments for all workers in stone on their Tour de France. The last inscription was made in 1989, shortly before the site became supervised, near but not on the original structure. These days, this once proud tradition of paying homage to those who have come before you is now considered vandalism.
Such 20th century marks are rare. The most popular time for this practice was the 18th and 19th centuries, when scores of journeymen left their marks etched in stone.