Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) connects the city centre to the district of Oltrarno on the south bank of the river Arno. It is the first bridge ever built in Florence, surely one of the great icons of the city and one of the most famous bridges in the world.
It is best known today for the wooden-shuttered goldsmiths’ shops that line both sides of it, and for the Vasari Corridor that runs over it.
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.
The old bridge crosses the river at its narrowest point within the city, and a series of bridges—of which this the fifth version—have stood on or around this spot since the days of the ancient Romans.
History and construction
During its long history, Ponte Vecchio was improved and rebuilt several times (most notably after the flood of 1333, which destroyed it almost completely), and miraculously managed to survive World War II during the retreat of the German army from the city, remaining the only untouched bridge in all of Florence. Many believe that this bridge was not destroyed because of explicit orders that Hitler gave to the retreating army.
The present aspect of the Ponte Vecchio dates back to 1345.
The art history writer, painter and architect 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 (famous for painting and designing several basilicas across Florence), but there is no other evidence to corroborate this.
Another name that has been suggested is that of Neri di Fioravanti, but again supporting evidence is lacking, and modern scholars have begun to look in a different direction.
Further downstream, Ponte alla Carraia also collapsed in the flood of 1333, and Fra Giovanni da Campi, a Dominican friar of Santa Maria Novella, was the architect responsible for rebuilding it between 1334 and 1337.
The Dominicans of Santa Maria Novella were experts in building large vaults, and the first to consistently use the term “architect” (as opposed to master mason) in their documents.
The audacious use of wide, flattened arches for the Ponte Vecchio—like those of the Ponte alla Carraia—strongly suggests the involvement of Giovanni da Campi or another Dominican.
Da Campi could not have seen the construction through to completion as he died just three months after the project was commenced in May 1339, but it could have been built according to his design.
Very little is known about the original bridge: the Romans were very accomplished bridge builders, utilizing new technologies such as mixing strong concrete to easily create large and resilient stone structures.
The construction effort that transformed the old and collapsed Roman bridge into a modern version of Ponte Vecchio began in 1333 when the bridge was almost completely destroyed by a large flood that left only two of its central pillars standing. The new bridge continues to use the three stone arch design, but has a larger pavement area and is constructed to be more resistant to future floods.
The central arch of the bridge is the largest one, spanning the distance of 30 meters (98 feet), while the two side arches that touch the embankments are a bit shorter at 27 meters (89 feet). The side arches are 3.5 meters tall, while the central arch is 4.4 meters in height. This affords smaller ships and barges with enough space to safely travel under the bridge.
Bridge construction was finished in 1345.
The original design of the bridge included the center opening of the bridge with a small little loggia that housed small dedication stone and four towers that were intended to be used as military defense points in the event of a city siege. Today, only one of those defense towers (Torre dei Mannelli) has survived at the southeast corner of the Ponte Vecchio bridge.
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.
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 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
More information »
This post was originally published on June 24, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on 28 January, 2019.