‘Among the four old bridges that span the river, the Ponte Vecchio, that bridge which is covered with the shops of jewellers and goldsmiths, is a most enchanting feature in the scene. […] and that precious glimpse of sky, and water, and rich buildings, shining so quietly among the huddled roofs and gables, is exquisite’. – Charles Dickens.
Charles, I could not agree more! Only that now, there are more than four bridges to cross the river called l‘Arno in Florence. The Arno River is the second most important river in central Italy, and is one of the reasons for Florence’s power in history. In the old days, without planes or trains, the rivers were used extensively to transport goods and merchandise from one city to the other. The fluvial way was much more in favour at that time than now. The Arno, having a link with the Mediterranean Sea, was a direct way to do business with other countries. It meant that Florence could get richer, but could also build a reputation that shone above the Italian borders. We are going to see that a very famous bridge had its role to play there!
I really enjoyed walking along the river on what the Italians call the ‘Lungarno‘, the street parallel to the river. You can observe different types of architecture while wandering. The most significant landmark on the Lungarno is il Ponte Vecchio.
C’mon! You know it! It is everywhere on the internet and on TV. If you open a travel guide on Italy, that may be the first photo you will see. So, time to learn a bit more about it.
The bridge was a Roman idea. They loved building bridges, the Romans! So, upon the foundation of Florence in the first century, a bridge, made of wood was built to be able to cross the Arno River. As you can guess, it did not last. We don’t know if it was the same bridge or a more recent one, but it was destroyed in the 12th century by a flood. It was rebuilt with wood again, but this time solidified by stone archs. It was named Ponte Vecchio in the 13th century when another bridge was constructed. Merchants started settling on the different bridges of the city (four at that time) and created the business heart of Florence. Unfortunately, all the bridges where destroyed in the 14th century when two fires and one flood plagued the City of Arts.
Il Ponte Vecchio was rebuilt, but because of the years and careless management, it started crumbling down. The symmetry of the bridge disappeared, and it became unbalanced. The 16th century saw a real change in the habits of the Ponte Vecchio. Firstly, it was refurbished and rearranged. Then, it was decided that the bridge would only welcome gold and silver merchants and jewellers to bring more glory to the city of Florence, a tradition still alive nowadays. It was an order from the Grand Duke Ferdinand I, who had noticed the chaos and the filth reigning on the bridge. All the butchers, fishmongers and costermongers working on the bridge had created a living hell. And the Grand Duke, you see, wanted it to be a place where gentlemen would meet and deal. Actually, it happened! The goldsmiths gained an international reputation, and people from all Europe came on il Ponte Vecchio to trade. It also served the reputation of Florence, which became the convergent point of merchants and travellers. These goldsmiths and jewellers had to protect their shops, and created the ‘madielle’, the big wood and iron boards that you can still admire today as shops close.
I think you can still notice the past disorder on the sides of the bridge. Some shops are wider; others are longer. It is true that it creates a kind of asymmetry. Nevertheless, I also think that it is that asymmetry that gives all its charm to the Ponte Vecchio.
Today, you will only see jewellers’ shops on the bridge. It is organised in the exact same way it was several centuries ago. You can find the shops on each side, and a kind of small square in the centre. You can find the bust of Benvenuto Cellini, a goldsmith and sculptor, who sculpted Perseus, the famous statue of the demi-god holding a head. You can admire this statue in Florence, on la Piazza della Signoria.
This is Perseus:
I was lucky to visit Florence on the first weekend of the F.LIGHT, which is an illumation event around Christmas. A few monuments are lighted up with colours and the reproduction of paintings. Il Ponte Vecchio is one of the monuments chosen to display these plays of lights.
At night, you also have musical animations. Street musicians come to play on the bridge. It has a wonderful sonority! The musicians I heard were pretty good. One sang classics of British and American songs; another sang his own Italian songs.
If you want to see the bridge without anyone walking, pushing and taking pictures, you can wake up early and come around 8AM-8.30AM. You are bound to see no one! The shops are closed, the people are not yet going to work and the tourists are definitely not up!
Enough about il Ponte Vecchio. It just an ‘old bridge’, after all!
Let’s continue on the other bank of the river. I have something quite extraordinary to show you!
Keep window shopping,
I M Gullivering.