Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Ponte Vecchio

Florence’s Ponte Vecchio is certainly one of the city’s architectural symbols. The name means “Old Bridge”, which indeed it is. The first one was constructed during Roman times from wood and stone, but during the centuries it was destroyed repeatedly by the flooding of the Arno River and in 1333 it was washed away to be replaced finally by a new type of construction in 1345.

This bridge, built by Taddeo Gaddi, was the first to use segmental arches and it is still the same one you see today. The new design reduced the number of arches, and widened the space between them to allow the rising water (and any debris associated with the flooding) to pass under it more easily. Over the centuries the bridge has been repaired and reinforced many times, but it has remained standing – even after the terrible flood of 1966.

photo credits: Enrico Villani
The history of the bridge is rather interesting. Since the 14th century it was seen as a continuation of the main road that runs through the heart of Florence’s center, from the Duomo past the Piazza della Signoria (where the Palazzo Vecchio is), and across the river to the Pitti Palace, thereby linking the two banks of the city. 

Initially the bridge was a marketplace, primarily for butchers and vegetable grocers who would use the river to dispose of their waste. However, in 1565, when Cosimo de’Medici decided to commission Giorgio Vasari to build a secret elevated passageway that was to connect the Palazzo Vecchio (the seat of the government) and the Pitti Palace (the Medici residence), the need to cross over the Ponte Vecchio made the presence of the unsightly market with its acrid odors unacceptable to the nobles. 

Subsequently, these merchants were forced to relocate and the bridge was taken over by goldsmiths and jewelers whose shops were much more pleasing to the eye (and nose).

The monumental importance of the Ponte Vecchio was even recognized by Mussolini, who had larger windows built along the passageway above the bridge so that he could show Hitler the impressive views from this vantage point. It is said that thanks to this visit in 1938 by the German dictator, the Ponte Vecchio was spared during the Nazi's retreat from the occupied city in 1944, when they blew up all of Florence’s bridges and reduced the entire area around the Ponte Vecchio, including a part of the Vasari Corridor to rubble. 

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