Ponte Vecchio (Old bridge)
Ponte Vecchio Bridge - “Old Bridge” in Italian - is the most famous bridge in Florence and undoubtedly one of the city’s most illustrious landmarks. It is an incredibly breathtaking sight when seen from afar, and even more so when you walk across it!
It spans the narrowest point of the Arno River, and doesn’t really look like a bridge at all for the numerous overhanging shops, whose glittering treasures delight the visitors’ gaze as they pass by. The bridge - entrance point to the city of Florence from the Cassia road - is made of wood and stone and probably dates back to the Roman era. But the river continued to prevail, and until the 1300s the bridge underwent at least two reconstructions due to the floods.
The last transformation was revolutionary because, unlike the Roman technique, it was held up by segmental arches that prevent the road surface from bowing excessively. It is thanks to this architectural feat that the bridge has been preserved in all its splendor to the present day!
Ponte Vecchio’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it is not only a functional structure for crossing the river, but is also a road, a market place and piazza that is developed in a chaotic fashion over the centuries, defying the impetuous river and even the laws of physics!
But what great transformation did Ponte Vecchio undergo?
Reconstruction work in 1345 saw the creation of 43 shops along its flanks, which were rented to artisans and merchants. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the shops were sold to private owners and further changes were made, which included superelevations and terraces. However, the laws of the time did not allow owners to build on the pavement, so the buildings were extended over the river and held up by slender wooden stakes, making them appear as if they were suspended in mid-air. This gave a rather jumbled but incredibly fascinating appearance to the original structure.
In the 1400s, the bridge was populated by a lively throng of rowdy grocers, butchers and fishmongers, all activities that produced a lot of noise and unpleasant odors. In order to make the bridge cleaner and more elegant, Grand Duke Ferdinand I decided to evict the merchants and substitute them with goldsmiths and silversmiths. This was also because Florence was becoming the great centre of Renaissance culture that was to make it famous all over the world, and therefore, it was an obligatory destination for nobility and foreign visitors. This final change totally transformed Ponte Vecchio, with its characteristic wooden doorways and shop windows brimming with jewels and gold, into the bridge that we know today.
As you walk across the bridge, the tiny shops are suddenly interrupted by two wide terraces which open out on to an incredible view of the river. In 1900, a fountain with a statue of Benvenuto Cellini, an homage to the important sculptor, but above all to one of Florence’s most illustrious goldsmiths, was built on the forecourt facing the Santa Trinita bridge.
There is a relatively recent custom, in which couples declare their “eternal love” by placing a lock on Cellini’s monument. The keys must then be thrown into the river Arno, who will become the custodian of their love for eternity. Much to the delusion of sweethearts, this tradition has forced the local administrative powers to impose heavy fines on anyone attaching a lock on the monument.
But the most ingenious and incredible development of Ponte Vecchio bridge was the Vasari Corridor: another wonder of the Renaissance period. This covered passageway, which took its name from its inventor Giorgio Vasari, runs above the shops. The corridor was commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici in order to embellish the area surrounding the Palace of the Signoria, and at the same time was a novel way of connecting the Uffizi with the Pitti Palace, his residence across the river.
The Florentines are very fond of Ponte Vecchio bridge and its corridor. It is probably not by chance that it was the only bridge that was spared by the retreating German troops in 1944. Instead of destroying it, they simply isolated it by blowing up the bridge’s access points to the city. In fact, in those days, the Vasari Corridor was the only way to cross from one side of the river to the other!
The flood that devastated Florence in 1966 left an indelible memory. The waters of the relentless river flooded Ponte Vecchio and its shops. But once more, the bridge stood defiant against the force of the elements, becoming a symbol of the splendid city of Florence, that has arrived intact, in all its unique beauty, to the present day.