Ponte Vecchio which translates as “Old Bridge” in Italian is undoubtedly one of Florence’s most well-known landmarks. It definitely has its photograph taken more than any other bridge in the city. It is quite spectacular when seen from a distance and even more stunning when you walk over it!
Built at the narrowest point of the River Arno, the bridge is unique in that it has houses and shops built on it. In fact, it doesn’t really look like a bridge at all.
This has been an important crossing point for hundreds of years, a bridge has stood here since Roman times. One of the most important Roman roads, the via Cassia, crossed the river here. A number of bridges have been built on the site, the current bridge was built in 1345 after the previous structure was damaged by floods. The bridge is built of wood and stone.
History of Ponte Vecchio
The bridge crosses the River Arno at its narrowest point. It has three shallow segmental arches, a design which requires fewer piers. Ponte Vecchio is unique in that as well as a bridge across the river, it is also a market place and a piazza. The whole structure has defied the river and its floods for hundreds of years and has grown somewhat chaotically over the centuries.
When the bridge was rebuilt in 1345, 43 shops were also built along its sides. These were rented to various merchants and later sold to private owners at the end of the 15th century. Many of these shops were then developed and extended. However, it was not allowed to build over the pavement so many of the buildings were extended out over the river. This makes the buildings appear as if they are suspended in mid-air. This is how the rather jumbled appearance of the bridge came about.
The early shopkeepers were mostly butchers, fishmongers and grocers. Tanners also operated on the bridge. These all produced a lot of noise, industrial waste and unpleasant odours. Grand Duke Ferdinand 1 wanted to clean up the bridge and make it more elegant. At this time Florence was becoming the centre of Renaissance culture and attracting many foreign visitors and nobility. So in 1593 the shopkeepers and tanners were evicted. Goldsmiths and silversmiths, which still remain today, were substituted in their place. The look of the bridge was transformed into something resembling how it looks today. That is… rows of shops with wooden shutters and doorways selling gold and silver jewellery.
In the middle of the bridge, the shops end and there are two wide terraces which open out to views of the river. A fountain topped by a statue of Benvenuto Cellini, a famous 16th-century goldsmith, was erected here in 1900. This faces the Santa Trinita Bridge.
The bridge has a covered passageway running its full length above the shops, this is the famous Vasari Corridor. This was built in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari. Connecting the Uffizi with the Pitti Palace, this wonder of the Rennaissance is nearly a kilometre in length. The idea of a private, enclosed passageway was driven by the Grand Duke wanting to be able to move freely between his residence and the government palace, as he didn’t feel safe in public. At the time of writing it is closed for renovation work.
In 1944 all the bridges in Florence except the Ponte Vecchio were destroyed by the retreating German army. They blocked access to the Ponte Vecchio by demolishing the medieval buildings on each side. These have since been renovated and re-built.
The devastating floods of 1966 actually flooded the bridge and its shops. However, the bridge somehow managed to withstand the enormous weight of silt and water. A testimony to the quality of its construction.
Visiting the Ponte Vecchio
The bridge is always open and is part of the pedestrian zone to the south of Piazza della Repubblica towards the Palazzo Pitti.
Ponte Vecchio is a very popular place to take an evening walk or passeggiata, the art of taking a stroll in the evening, a social event which takes place all over Italy. If you want some stunning photos this is a great place for night time shots.
Like some other famous bridges, a recent custom has started where couples declare their “everlasting love” by securing a padlock on Cellini’s monument. The keys must then be tossed into the River Arno, which becomes their love’s custodian for all eternity. The local authority takes a dim view of this and now imposes heavy fines on anyone declaring their love in this fashion, you have been warned!!
It is possible to see the bridge from underneath by taking a boat ride in a traditional “barchetta”, offered by the Renaioli (Florence’s rowing association). The 45-minute trips along the Arno are available from May until September. Trips start from the pier near the Piazza Mentana not far from the Ponte alle Grazie.
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