A bridge to India

Deirdre Pirro
October 7, 2010

Unique in Europe for the dimensions of its structure, the most recent bridge to cross the Arno river in Florence was opened in 1978. It links the suburbs of Peretola to the north of the river to Isolotto to the south. Constructed on two levels, one for motor vehicles and the other for pedestrians, the Ponte all'Indiano, or the Bridge of the Indian, was built with a single iron span measuring about 200 metres.


However, most people are more curious about the bridge's name than the engineering it represents. Why name it after an Indian when all the other bridges in the city have very Italian names, like Ponte Santa Trinità or Ponte alla Carraia? The answer is an unusual and melancholy story.


In October 1870, Prince Rajaram Chuttraputti, Maharaja of Kolhapur, a young man with modern and progressive ideas, decided it was time for him to better his English and become up to date on the very latest in Victorian educational ideas and medical facilities, which he hoped to use to the benefit of his people in the Kolhapur state. After the necessary preparations, he left for England accompanied by his three wives and an entourage of numerous members of his court. On arrival, he had hoped to meet Queen Victoria, but she was not in London at the time. He was, however, received with all the ceremony that his rank required by the government of then prime minister William Ewart Gladstone.

Knowing that the prince was an admirer of the arts, when the time came for him to leave, Gladstone suggested he might enjoy a visit to the Continent before he returned to India. He suggested Paris, Nice, Genoa and then Florence. Taking the prime minister's advice, the maharaja arranged for his party to lodge in Florence at the elegant Grand Hotel, still housed in Palazzo Giuntini in Piazza Ognissanti. Unexpectedly, almost as soon as he arrived at the hotel, Chuttraputti fell seriously ill. Although there is some dispute about what actually caused his death, he was most probably suffering from a lung infection he had picked up in England and had failed to cure properly. Only 21 years old and far from home, he died on November 30, 1870.


In keeping with Brahmin tradition, the maharaja had to be cremated and his ashes scattered in the waters where two rivers converge. There is only one place in Florence where this occurs: where the Arno river meets the Mugnone torrent. And so it was the place for the ceremony. Although it was not an easy task to obtain the special permission necessary for the ceremony because many in the city believed it was a pagan rite, the mayor of Florence at the time, Ubaldino Peruzzi de' Medici, allowed the funeral pyre to be erected but stipulated that the cremation be carried out late at night.


Four years later, on June 17, 1874, a monument to Chuttraputti was erected on the spot at the far end of the city's 160-hectare Cascine Park where his body had been burned, not far from where the bridge now named in his honour stands. The cenotaph was designed by the British royal engineer and well-known architect and pioneer of the Indo-Saracenic style, Major ‘Mad' Charles Mant, whom the prince had commissioned to construct several public buildings in Kolhapur before he left India. Built in the form of a canopy, it rests on four columns and shelters a bust of the prince sculpted by Charles Francis Fuller, the British sculptor who died in Florence in 1875. Each side of the base supporting the bust bears an inscription in one of four languages: Italian, English, Hindi and Punjabi.


Today, India is Italy's fifth-largest trading partner with a volume of bilateral trade that during 2009 reached 5,657.1 million euro (a 15 percent drop since 2008, reflecting the worldwide economic recession). Nonetheless, Italy is also the 13th largest foreign investor in India. Furthermore, according to the Italian statistics institute, ISTAT, Italy's Indian community of 92,000 is now the second largest in Europe, behind that of the United Kingdom. Many come from the Punjab region and work on dairy farms and in agriculture, especially in northern Italy. Others are active in business, often in the restaurant and retail trades. Thus, even without being maharajas, they are now helping to create another and lasting bridge of friendship and goodwill between India and Italy.

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