Ponte Vecchio Bridge
The Ponte Vecchio is the symbol of the city of Florence, erected in the 14th century over the Arno River. Having survived dozens of floods and miraculously survived World War II, when the retreating German army blew up all the other bridges in the city, Ponte Vecchio attracts tourists like a magnet. Tightly built on both sides with expensive jewelry and souvenir stores, Florence’s oldest bridge is constantly packed with people. Ponte Vecchio looks especially spectacular in the holiday lighting at night, when hundreds of lights and the bridge’s three openings are reflected in the waters of the Arno.
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Video: Walking the Ponte Vecchio Bridge
History of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge.
The first bridge in the narrowest part of the Arno River, in the ford area, was built back in Roman times, roughly in the first century B.C. During work on the river bed soon after World War II, concrete foundations laid at an angle to the banks so that the bridge could withstand frequent destructive floods. Before 123 the width of the bridge had increased to 3 m because the Cassius road, intended to connect Rome with the northern provinces, was built across it. Imperfect Roman architectural cunning did not save the bridge: in the 6th and 7th centuries, it was destroyed by the combined efforts of the elements and the barbarian crowds that swept through Italy. In the Middle Ages, the rebuilt bridge was swept away at least twice by floods. The penultimate version was built in 1177 on oak beams left over from its predecessor. The flood of 1333, the most violent in the history of the Arno, destroyed it as well.
Ponte Vecchio photographed by Carlo Broggi (pre-1925)
In 1345 the city authorities got tired of paying for regular reconstructions and commissioned an architect to design a stone bridge. Giorgio Vasari, painter and art historian, claims that this master was Thaddeo Gaddi; modern scholars doubt this and attribute the authorship to Neri di Fioravanti. In any case, the new stone bridge, later named Vecchio, i.e. “old”, quickly became a bustling commercial spot. For sanitary reasons beyond our comprehension, the butchers’ shops were moved here so that they would not leave their waste in the street near the palaces of the nobility, but dump it in the river. Soon the portable tables became too small for the merchants and the bridge became overgrown with constructions on corbels over the water. This did not add to its beauty, but it had a lot of visitors.
The Ponte Vecchio Bridge nowadays
In this form, the bridge, supplemented in the 16th century by the Vasari corridor with a second tier laid above it, survives to this day. During World War II, it was undamaged, unlike other bridges in the city, but the buildings adjacent to it were destroyed. They had to be restored in a hurry in the 50s, so the reconstruction of the quarter is not entirely accurate. Two mutually exclusive legends explain why the Germans spared the bridge. According to the first, it was Hitler personally who was sensitive. Before the war, he came to Italy to form an alliance with Mussolini, and was driven to the most important cities in the country. The Ponte Vecchio bridge made a lasting impression on him, and on his orders in 1944 the landmark was not blown up.
Proponents of the second legend do not believe in the Führer’s sentimentality. It is believed that a semi-paralyzed jeweler, owner of one of the shops, accidentally witnessed the laying of the explosives on the night of August 3 to 4. The polio-stricken man was considered a feeble-minded lunatic and ignored him, while he retained a clear mind and managed to explain to his assistants how to cut the wires. Be that as it may, the Ponte Vecchio Bridge survived, and even a massive flood of the 1960s failed to destroy it.
Trading on the bridge
The butchers on the Ponte Vecchio stayed for two and a half centuries, but then because of the perpetual dirt and smells they were moved to the outskirts of the city. The butchers were replaced by respectable jewelers. A legend about the origin of the word “bankrupt” is connected with them. Each merchant would take his goods out of the store and spread them out on a table, a “banco”. If he went bankrupt and could not pay his creditors, the soldiers, who played the role of bailiffs, would break, i.e. “rotto”, the bench, and he would have nothing to trade on. Today the stores retain their original appearance, even the showcases with decorations rest on ancient wooden bases. Prices in them are clearly overpriced – the owners take a percentage for the promotion of the place. In less-publicized areas of Florence you can find gold much cheaper and of higher quality.
Architecture of Ponte Vecchio bridge
Ponte Vecchio consists of three segments, the length of the central one is 30 meters, the side ones are 27 meters, the maximum height of the construction is 4.4 meters. The author of the project rejected the standard Roman model, which prescribed placing the bridge on short arches. This increased the stability of the bridge for pedestrians and riders, but was dangerous in case of flooding, when the small arches got clogged with silt and branches carried by the river, while the ones left empty could not bear the load. The stores that appeared on the Ponte Vecchio without the architects’ involvement turned it into an ordinary city street, and only the three open arches in the center of the bridge remind us of the proximity of the river. Above the eastern edge of the bridge is the Vasari corridor, on the other side is a bust of Cellini.
In 1565, the corridor between Palazzo Pitti, where the Uffizi Gallery now stands, and Palazzo Vecchio, Florentine town hall, was built over the bridge by Giorgio Vasari, commissioned by Cosimo I. The structure, about a kilometer long, was completed in only five months – a record time for the 16th century – and was named after the architect in gratitude to customers. The nobility could now move freely from their residence in the Palazzo Pitti to their workplace – the Town Hall – without encountering the common people. Their presence was only reminded by the pungent smells of raw meat coming from the Ponte Vecchio. This annoyed the aristocracy, and in 1593 the butchers were dispersed despite the treaties they had with the city.
After World War II, when the coastal buildings lay in ruins, the passage remained the only way to connect the southern and northern parts of the city. Now the Vasari corridor is partially open for viewing, but can only be visited with a guide. It contains works of Italian artists of different periods, a collection of self-portraits of world-famous authors, including Kustodiev and Kiprensky. In 1993 a car exploded near the Uffizi, the crime was attributed to the Mafia. Some of the paintings in the Vasari Gallery were damaged by shrapnel so that they could not be restored. The mutilated canvases were left hanging in the hallway to commemorate the terrible explosion.
Bust of Cellini.
In the middle of the eastern part of the Ponte Vecchio bridge in 1900, for the 400th anniversary of the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, a bronze bust by Raffaello Romanelli was placed. A few decades ago a rumor swirled among tourists and locals that padlocks on the bars around Cellini would keep love forever, and immediately hundreds of dubious decorations appeared on the fence. In 2006, the Florentine administration, tired of repairing the lattice, which was not designed for the additional load, adopted a decree on a fine of 50 euros for damaging the city’s property. However, the tradition is not dead: now the locks are hung nearby, in the area of Via Arquibusieri on the side of City Hall.
Information for tourists
Entrance to the bridge is free around the clock. The Ponte Vecchio is always crowded: both organized tours and individual tourists consider it their duty to visit one of Florence’s main attractions. There is nothing to photograph in the side aisles except jewelry storefronts, the open central part is usually crowded, and it is difficult to choose a place for a photo. The best photos of the bridge are taken from the side, especially in the evening, when Ponte Vecchio is generously illuminated and you cannot see the stores, cluttering its walls.
Ponte Vecchio Bridge
How to get there
The address of the bridge is: Ponte Vecchio, Lungarno degli Archibusieri, 8/r, 50122, Firenze.
The easiest way to get to Ponte Vecchio is by cab. You can also take public transportation: there are Vola in Bus buses around the city, get off at Piazza della Signoria. Next to the bridge is also the Ponte Vecchio bus stop, where the C3 and D bus routes go.
Ponte Vecchio Bridge
The Ponte Vecchio bridge is among the top most famous sights in Florence. Ponte Vecchio was built in the XIV century, it connects the two banks of the Arno River at its narrowest point. The crossing has been here for centuries. The first to erect a wooden bridge on stone piles were the ancient Romans. The structure was destroyed by a flood in 1117. The bridge was rebuilt using only stone. A new flood in 1333 destroyed it as well. Ponte Vecchio got the familiar look we know today in 1345. The architect Neri di Fioravanti designed a sturdy but elegant three-arch construction.
In the middle of the XV century the Ponte Vecchio bridge gained notoriety as the most foul-smelling place in Florence. The fact is that the city authorities ordered to move here the butchers’ shops, far away from the city center and from the houses of noble Florentine citizens. There were no refrigerators in the Middle Ages, and meat spoiled quickly in the hot Italian climate. Traders threw the rotting carcasses into the Arno River so that the current would carry the waste away from the city. This did not help the situation. Patrick Suskind describes the stench of the place in his novel Perfumer.
In addition, there were far more meat vendors in the city than the Ponte Vecchio’s rows of shops could accommodate. So enterprising vendors began to build their stores on the sides of the bridge. The protruding structures overhanging the water are still there today.
In 1938, for the visit of Adolf Hitler to Florence, a panoramic platform with large windows was built in the central part of the Ponte Vecchio from which you could enjoy views of the bridges and the surrounding Arno River. It is not known whether that visit played a historical role, but the Ponte Vecchio Bridge was the only bridge to survive in Florence during World War II. According to one version, Hitler himself ordered it not to be destroyed.
Ponte Vecchio came under threat again in 1966. The Florence water disaster caused severe damage to the bridge. Glass was broken and store windows were washed away.
In 1901, a sculpture of Benvenuto Cellini, the famous artist and goldsmith by Rafael Romanelli, was installed on the Ponte Vecchio bridge. It soon became a tradition to hang locks on the fence of the sculpture. Lovers would close the lock and throw the key into the water as a sign of their eternal love. So many wished to cement their union in this way that Florence authorities had to cut thousands of locks from the fence. To preserve the structure of the bridge, this tradition was prohibited. Violation of the ban is punishable by a fine of 50 euros.
In 1556 the Duke of Tuscany ordered the construction of a passage over the bridge connecting Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, that is, the place of work and residence of the Duke. The project was carried out by Giorgio Vasari and the corridor was subsequently named after him. The corridor has many small windows. Through them the duke could always listen to what his subjects were saying, what mood prevailed in the city.
After the opening of the gallery in the Vasari Corridor, the butchers in the commercial rows were replaced by jewelers, so that the bad smell did not prevent the noble visitors to enjoy the art. Since the beginning of the 17th century Ponte Vecchio has been called the “golden bridge”.
The Vasari corridor is decorated with works by Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto di Bondone, Vechellio Titian. Altogether there are more than 700 original works of art. There is also a large collection of one and a half thousand self-portraits of artists from all over the world. And the gallery is still expanding. Artists are honored to donate their self-portraits to the Vasari Gallery. Also in the Vasari Corridor are stored fragments of paintings, victims of the bombing of the Uffizi Gallery in 1993.
For a long time this place was closed to the public, and the keys were kept by a single person. But in recent years the Vasari Gallery is open to tourists, but on special schedule and by appointment. To find out about the possibility of a tour of the Vasari corridor, visit the official website of the Uffizi Gallery.
Ponte Vecchio today
The Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge in Florence that has retained its medieval appearance. Today there are many jewelers’ shops open here. By the way, the prices here are quite high. At the Ponte Vecchio Bridge must be admired from the shore. The best view is from the promenade or from Piazza Michelangelo.
Ponte Vecchio is opposite the Uffizi Gallery, and the bridge is flanked by residential buildings. These buildings were damaged during World War II, but have been restored and can now be admired in their restored medieval appearance.
Another interesting fact about the Ponte Vecchio Bridge is that the word “bankrupt” first came into use here. In Italian, a merchant’s shop sounds like “banco” and “smash” sounds like “rotto”. When a merchant could not pay his debts, soldiers would smash up his store. Since then, literally “bancorotto” means broken shop, that is, the inability to continue trading.
How to get there
The Ponte Vecchio Bridge is within walking distance of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence’s main tourist magnet.
By public transportation
Take the C3 or D bus routes to the Ponte Vecchio stop.
The easiest way is to use the Uber app and call the nearest car to you.