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Building Bridges: The Story of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

“It has lived many lives and it has been a silent and steadfast observer of pivotal moments in Florence’s illustrious and chequered history.”

No two views of the Ponte Vecchio are the same as the Florentine sky changes them by the  second. With altering light, the tones of this age-old bridge shift from mustard yellows to  creamy greys and at sunset a dazzling gold. On calm, clear days when the River Arno hardly stirs, Ponte Vecchio is flawlessly mirrored in the water. In rough, tempestuous weather, its reflected image is swallowed up by the murky waters below. But it is always suspended there, in that same spot for centuries. This is the magic of the Ponte Vecchio. 

First and foremost a bridge, uniting the two halves of the city at the narrowest point of the river, its cobbled path leads directly to major landmarks such as the Duomo, Piazza della Repubblica on the north, and the Pitti Palace on the south side of the Arno. But Ponte Vecchio is so much more than a river crossing. It is a glittering  marketplace, a handy meeting point, a place for lovers, photographers and buskers to linger. It is an art gallery, a terrace, a viewing platform, and a vital organ in the city’s anatomy; as the Arno flows under it, the city flows ceaselessly through it. 

Over centuries of change and progress, the Ponte Vecchio (literally, the ‘Old Bridge’) in its  various incarnations has remained a constant component in the city’s fabric, playing an  important role in its continual development. It is said that from 972 AD, a wooden bridge  stood in its place, eventually modernised in the twelfth century, and then again in 1345 after a  flood wrecked its erstwhile structure. The bridge’s materials and engineering evolved into  sturdier stone and was soon lined on either side by a row of shops where Florentine butchers, fishmongers and grocers plied.

A veritable frenzy of medieval marketplace antics, the bridge was not only the city’s beating heart, but also its eyes, ears and nose. Unruly scenes, rowdy sounds, and outrageous smells spilled over into the surrounding streets. Fed up with the multi-sensorial chaos emanating from the Ponte Vecchio and permeating his residence at the Palazzo Pitti, the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici (1587-1609) took ruthless action, cutting off the problem at its source. He sent the market vendors packing, and instead ordered the shops to be filled with more aesthetically pleasing and less aromatically challenging businesses. Before long, the butchers were replaced by goldsmiths and jewellers whose sparkling ornaments competed with the shimmering waters of the Arno below. To this day, the Ponte Vecchio’s 48 shops are exclusively inhabited by jewellers and their glittering trinkets.

Although the bridge’s current structure has remained firmly in place since its fourteenth century upgrade, it has nonetheless been subject to gradual modification. One of the most eye-catching alterations would be the sixteenth-century addition of the Vasari Corridor which doubled the height of the Ponte Vecchio. It was visible to all but only accessible to a select few. This passageway, stacked like lego on top of the blocks of shops, was commissioned by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and designed by the painter, writer, architect Giorgio Vasari. It functioned as a private corridor for the Florentine ruler, and connected the city’s government building — the Palazzo Vecchio — on one side of the river, with the duke’s private residence — the Palazzo Pitti — on the other. As Cosimo made his daily private commute, he would pass by paintings and busts of significant figures from Florentine history, whose portraits lining the walls flattered his sense of power. The corridor-cum-art-gallery was not only a highly convenient passage, giving privacy to the Tuscan nobility, but it was also a very literal indication of Medicean power looming over the townsfolk who crossed the river directly underneath the Grand Duke’s feet.

Over time, and especially in recent history, Florence has faced destructive hardships which have left indelible marks on the city and its people. In 1944, as the Allied Forces were advancing northwards, the Nazis decided to blow up the Arno bridges to inhibit the movement of the invading troops at the heels of the retreating German army. Whilst the surrounding area was razed to the ground and all the other bridges were reduced to rubble, the Ponte Vecchio emerged from the smoke and ashes unscathed. This is largely thanks to Gerhard Wolf, the German consul to Florence at the time, whose actions to preserve the bridge resulted in its almost unbelievable survival. Instead of destruction, Wolf rallied for obstruction: its access points were blockaded by piles of debris to impede the allies’ progression without causing irreversible damage to the only bridge which was deemed worth saving. A marble plaque on the bridge commemorates Wolf’s decisive role. This impassioned rescue mission is testament to the lasting impression which the Ponte Vecchio makes on all who behold it; it is simply too beautiful, too important, too steeped in history to destroy.

Just over 20 years later, the city was making steady recovery from the affliction and destitution of the Second World War, when disaster struck again. In the early hours of 4th November 1966, the bulging Arno breached its banks. The worst flood for many centuries shook the city to its very core all over again. As the river rampaged through the streets, paintings and statues from the greatest masters were soaked, sodden and spoiled; centuries old books and the words within them were drowned and forever gone; immaculate buildings which had stood for hundreds of years were steeped in sludgy water. Once more, the Ponte Vecchio stood strong and seemingly indestructible. Cars swept away in the swirl, chunks of debris and trunks of trees crashed through and against the bridge, hurled by the immense force of the usually docile Arno River, but the Ponte Vecchio stood firm. 

It has lived many lives and it has been a silent and steadfast observer of pivotal moments in Florence’s illustrious and chequered history. Having survived the calamities of war and natural disaster, it continues to function as the city’s main artery with everyday life streaming endlessly through it. 

This symbol of Florentine resilience not only links the two halves of the city but also acts as the bridge between the past and the present.