Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is the first bridge ever built in Florence.
Historical sources indicate that Ponte Vecchio has been in place since at least the twelfth century, and we know that for a long time the Arno River was crossable only at this point.
Throughout its history, Ponte Vecchio has been renovated several times because of frequent floods, such as the one in 1333 that completely destroyed it.
The present aspect of the Ponte Vecchio dates back to 1345. Giorgio Vasari in his The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects says that reconstruction of the bridge after the flood of 1333 was entrusted to Taddeo Gaddi.
In commemoration of the flood, a sundial was placed on the bridge, and it is still present on the roof of a shop next to the monument of Cellini. An inscription on the base of the sundial remembers that terrible event that shocked the Florentines as much as the awful 1966 flood.
The 1333 flood knocked down the Roman statue of Mars—known as the stupid stone—which had been placed on Ponte Vecchio. The statue came from the Roman ruins on which the Baptistry of San Giovanni was built.
Dante Alighieri refers to it in his The Divine Comedy, and a plaque on Ponte Vecchio commemorates both the statue and Dante’s verses.
Originally, four towers surrounded the bridge, but now just one original tower remains: the Mannelli Tower.
The arches, the first example of this type in Europe, as well as the goldsmith shops, are the most important features of the Ponte Vecchio. Its architecture was ahead of its time and served as an example for other famous bridges, such as the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
Writing about Ponte Vecchio, Dan Brown in his Inferno mentions an act of violence that shocked Florence for many years:
In 1216, a young nobleman named Buondelmonte had rejected his family’s arranged marriage for the sake of his true love, and for that decision he was brutally killed on this very bridge.
His death, long considered “Florence’s bloodiest murder,” was so named because it had triggered a rift between two powerful political factions—the Guelphs and Ghibellines—who had then waged war ruthlessly for centuries against each other. Because the ensuing political feud had brought about Dante’s exile from Florence, the poet had bitterly immortalized the event in his Divine Comedy: O Buondelmonte, through another’s counsel, you fled your wedding pledge, and brought such evil!
To this day, three separate plaques—each quoting a different line from Canto 16 of Dante’s Paradiso—could be found near the murder site. One of them was situated at the mouth of the Ponte Vecchio and ominously declared:
BUT FLORENCE, IN HER FINAL PEACE, WAS FATED TO OFFER UP UNTO THAT MUTILATED STONE GUARDIAN UPON HER BRIDGE … A VICTIM.
Over the past centuries, the shops on the bridge were owned by the City of Florence, which rented them to merchants and artisans.
Since the middle of the fifteenth century, in these shops were placed butchers and tanners, to reduce the annoying problem of the dross that used to be left on the street.
Butchers and tanners added to the workshops the small rooms protruding over the river Arno and which are still visible.
In 1565, Giorgio Vasari created for the Medici family the Vasari Corridor, the raised, enclosed passageway connecting Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Vecchio.
The Vasari Corridor passes directly over the shops of Ponte Vecchio, and the Medici family could not suffer the smell coming from there.
For this reason, in 1593 Ferdinand I decreed that butchers and tanners were to be replaced by goldsmiths, to make Ponte Vecchio a decent and respectable place.
A curious anecdote about the Vasari Corridor is also worthy of mention.
Giorgio Vasari’s project involved the destruction or modification of several private buildings located along the route of the Vasari Corridor, which included Via della Ninna, Uffizi Gallery, Lungarno Archibusieri, Ponte Vecchio, Via de’ Bardi, and Via Guicciardini all the way to the Boboli Gardens at the end.
The Mannelli family, owners of the last original tower of Ponte Vecchio, strongly opposed the destruction of their building and turned to the Grand Duke Cosimo I.
All citizens of Florence were involved in the protest, so Cosimo I and Giorgio Vasari agreed to circumvent the tower during construction of the Vasari Corridor.
At the center of the bridge is the bust of Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), the most famous Florentine goldsmith. The bust was placed here in 1901. As with many Florentine artists, including Dante, Cellini was fuming and passionate: he was involved in brawls and multiple murders and prosecuted by the justice system.
His most famous works, in addition to gold art works, are the statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa (Perseo con la testa di Medusa) guarded in the Loggia dei Lanzi and his autobiography, The Life (Vita di Benvenuto di Maestro Giovanni Cellini fiorentino, scritta, per lui medesimo, in Firenze).
Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge in Florence that was not destroyed during the Second World War.
Ponte Vecchio is probably the world’s most famous ancient bridge. It is a masterpiece of architecture and beauty. Today, many visitors crowd the bridge, fascinated by its magnificence, the marvelous jewelry stores, and to enjoy the unique view.
Ponte Vecchio has survived the butchers, the floods, and the wars . . .
The City of Florence has recently banned the recent custom of attaching padlocks to the fence surrounding the monument of Cellini. This habit had become very common, especially by couples, and threatened to deface the bridge.
We think that Ponte Vecchio will survive this too!
This guide can be very useful to learn more about that:
Travelers and History Buffs by Damien Peters
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Picture by Wikipedia