The Old Bridge

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, ItalyThe Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is located on what was once the narrowest point of the Arno River in Florence, Italy.

During Roman times a single wooden bridge was all there was to cross the river into Florence. The bridge was continually collapsing into the raging waters of the Arno, yet each time the bridge was patiently rebuilt.

In 1218 the Romans finally built another bridge, the Ponte alla Carraia, known as the “new” bridge, to help cope with the growing traffic. The old bridge was eventually rebuilt in stone, but that too was swallowed up by the rising floodwaters in 1333. Again the stone bridge was rebuilt, but this time with a new design.

The new-look bridge was constructed in 1345 by either Taddeo Gaddi or Neri di Fioravanti and it featured three segmented arches. The main structure of the design remains today and is the oldest segmented arch bridge in Europe. It even survived its greatest test during the Florence Floods of 1966. The main arch has a span of 30m, whilst the arches on either side both span 27m. The total length of the bridge is 100m (330ft).

Following its construction fishmongers, butchers and tanners began to occupy the bridge, as it was close to a much-needed water supply and had a great deal of traffic. The butchers, however, began to spread out across the bridge, eventually taking total control. The boteghe (shops), suspended along the spans of the bridge, originally arranged symmetrically on either side, but in 1495 things changed. The owner and leaser of the shops found himself in financial trouble and was forced to sell them. Following his departure the shops took on a life of their own, springing up everywhere.

Vasari Corridor

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, ItalyIn 1564, during the wedding between Francesco I de’ Medici and Giovanna of Austria, not only was Bartolomeo Ammannati busily carving the Fountain of Neptune, Giorgio Vasari was busy designing a secret corridor for Cosimo I de’ Medici.

The corridor (Corridoio Vasariano) was designed to link the Pitti Palace (his Residence) with the now Uffizi (his place of work). The covered walkway was almost a kilometre long and ran across the top of the shops at Ponte Vecchio. It guaranteed the Duke the utmost privacy as he wandered in peace to and from his palace. The only problem Medici encountered was the tremendously horrid smell coming from the meat markets on the bridge. The waste products from the stalls were often disposed of in the river, adding to the bad odours.

This undoubtedly spoilt Medici’s walk, so in 1593 he signed a decree banning the butchers from the bridge. The butchers, who had monopolised the bridge for over 150 years, were removed and quickly replaced by goldsmiths and jewellers. Today you can take tours of the corridor, which had previously stopped, following the 1993 Mafia bomb attack.

So the Story Goes

Rumour has it, that the concept of bankruptcy originated from Florence and specifically from incidents on the bridge. In the early years, merchants using the bridge were only allowed to display their goods on tables. To have a table they needed approval from the local authorities, for which I assume, a fee was also needed. If the merchant was unable to pay his debts, the table (known as “bancus”) was smashed to pieces (“ruptus”). Thus it became known as “Bancus ruptus” when a merchant lost his livelihood. A more likely version of the word’s origin is that in early times bankers operated in public places and business was carried out from a table or bench. Unhappy clients sometimes showed their disapproval by breaking the banker’s table or bench, making the banker “bancus ruptus”.

Did Hitler Say No?

Interestingly, during World War II, when the German army retreated from Florence, all the bridges except for the Ponte Vecchio were destroyed. Some say this was due to a direct order from Hitler but others think, more probably, it was due to a disobedient German officer. Access to the bridge was, however, obstructed by the German soldiers who blew up buildings on either side, making it impossible to cross.

The Locks of Love

If you wander across the bridge you may notice a number of padlocks locked onto railings or gates. This is a relatively new custom, believed to have been started by the lock shop owner located at the end of the bridge. Lovers or friends lock the padlock onto the bridge and then throw the key into the Arno River, in the hope of making each other eternally connected. Unfortunately, the local authorities don’t see the romance in the tradition, as they are the ones left to bolt-cut the locks off the bridge. Today there are a number of large signs warning people that a fine will be given for anyone caught locking on the bridge.

Interesting Facts About the Ponte Vecchio

In the 1900s a bronze bust in honour of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), the city’s most famous goldsmith, was placed in the middle on the bridge. The bust was the work of Raffaele Romanelli. Amongst Cellini’s greatest achievements was the bronze figure of Perseus holding the Head of Medusa.

During the great flood of Florence in 1966, water gushed right through the bridge, taking with it many of the shops and the shop’s jewellery and gold.