Manfredo Romeo of General Engineering of Florence, Italy worked on the rebuilding of the Mostar Bridge in the early 2000s. In this interview, he reflects about Bridge building over the centuries and the precise work of piecing together a bridge’s history.
What is your background? What made you become an engineer?
I’m not an engineer. I’m an architect even if I was supposed to be an engineer. In my family architects and engineers switched with each geneeration: after an architect, an engineer should come and my father was the architect! Those who know me say that I am more an engineering. The Old Bridge in Mostar needeed an architect and so that was me.
What other projects have you worked on? Was Mostar your first Ottoman-era bridge?
I worked on the project of the Old Bridge in Mostar when I was just 29 years old. It was my first bridge, and my first Ottoman monument. I do not think there are not so many people in the world that have more than once rebuilt an ancient Ottoman bridge. My work experience is now wide and quite varied. I haven’t undertaken the same type of project twice. I have worked in Italy and abroad on both ancient buildings and modern constructions.
What were some of the unexpected challenges with regards to the Mostar Bridge?
The whole project was an unexpected challenge. I was scared of the difficulties and I felt alone when I realized there was no one I could ask for help. There was absolutely no know-how available in that field.The three largest challenges for me were: -surveying a monument that is no longer on site (the geometry had to be determined stone by stone); -understanding the peculiarities of assembly techniques with metal cramps, dowels and melted lead; -determining the stone cut for 45.000 stones.
What were you able to learn from the materials recovered from the floor of the Neretva River?
We learnt all the secrets of the bridge from the recovered ruins. It wouldn’t have been possible to perform again all the peculiarities of the assembling techniques without a study of the ruins. The way that the bridge was constructed was unique and not the standard Ottoman way of building bridges.
Was there a specific technology which assisted you in understanding how it was built? No. we used no technology in that phase. We followed a traditional approach closer to the archeological way of researching.
How did archives assist you in piecing together the bridge’s history?
We had very little archival assistance. We had some important pictures and two metric surveys in poor condition. Many archives were lost during civil war.
How does the reconstruction of an Ottoman bridge compare with a new bridge?
It is a completely different matter. There is no relationship between the two projects. Moreover, in a new bridge the role of the architect is only in the concept stage. In the 1500s, the architect’s role was from the beginning to the end.
We now have access to so much technology with the assistance of computers. Do you think that the bridge was easier to rebuild now than it was to build in the mid 1500s?
In the 1500s to build a bridge of that size was really a challenge. There were no computers. At that time it was not known how and why materials could fail. They knew only what may or may not work through trial and error. They didn’t understand the reasons of things, and they could not foresee the behavior of the structure in the presence of variables. All loads in the yard posed a large problem. The wooden centering (falsework) was always too weak to bear the loads of the stone arch. A flood during construction could mean the destruction of all the work done.
Building the stone bridge today was not a problem of that kind. Our problem was to rebuild it identical to the previous one, including with its peculiarities and imperfections.