The troubled past of Ponte Vecchio
Not much is known about the origin one of the most famous in Italy and oldest bridge in Florence: Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”).
It was rebuilt several times during its long history, but we don’t know exactly when it was built, only that the Romans at some point decided to build a bridge over the narrowest point of the Arno river within the city.
Merchants immediately began to settle over the bridge to take advantage of the strategic position that enabled them to get in contact with the many travelers that had to cross the bridge every day. Let’s not forget that Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge across the river until 1218.
In 1333 a terrible flood devastated the city of Florence and not even Ponte Vecchio was spared. It was destroyed by the water that carried away its entire structure, along with the large statue of the god Mars to which the Romans had devoted the city, leaving only two pillars standing.
Reconstruction works of Ponte Vecchio began right after the flood and ended in 1345, under the guidance of Taddeo Gaddi, who helped creating what turned out to be one of the most advanced and beautiful bridges in Medieval Italy.
Again, merchants set off to place themselves along the bridge, but this time they were forbidden to set their stalls directly on the walkways of the bridge, instead they were forced to build their shops on the side of the bridge, supported by the wooden beams.
Over centuries, more of these “suspended” shops were built, but they were not exactly of the kind we see today. They were mostly butchers and tanners, that produced way too much foul smelling and polluting waste that would end up directly in the river below.
In order to make the bridge and the city more presentable to citizens and visitors, in 1593 Grand Duke Ferdinand I decreed that only jewelers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths would be allowed to work in the stores of Ponte Vecchio.
The number of shops increased after the construction of the Vasari Corridor in 1565, a kind of secret passage that allowed the memebers of the Medici family to travel from their residence, Palazzo Pitti, to Palazzo Vecchio without getting out on the street.
This new addition to the structure, elevated the walls of the bridge, creating more space for the shops to be built one on top of the other.
The design of Taddeo Gaddi for the Ponte Vecchio bridge included four towers that were intended to use as military defense points in the event of a city siege. Only one of them remains today, Torre dei Mannelli. Its presence caused problems during the construction of the famous Vasari Corridor because the owners, the Mannelli family, refused to tear it down to allow the passage of the corridor, forcing Vasari to quickly find a solution, that proved to be effective: building that section of the corridor around the tower.
Ponte Vecchio is incredible for one more reason: it miraculously managed to survive World War II bombings. In fact, during the retreat of the German army from Florence, all the other bridges were bombed and destroyed, but Ponte Vecchio remained the only one standing. Legend has it, that it was an explicit order of Hitler, known art enthusiast, to spare the beautiful and ancient Florentine bridge.
In more recent times, Ponte Vecchio managed to avoid destruction once more, mirably enduring the strong flood of 1966 that brought damage to a large portion of the city.
As today, Ponte Vecchio remains one of the most beloved symbols of the city of Florence. Every day thousands of tourists and Florentines walk on its curved surface over the river, among the jewelers' shops that still carry on their business here. The best way to appreciate Ponte Vecchio however, is late in the evening, when all the shops are closed and their thick wooden doors make them appear like ancient treasure chests, evoking a timeless and magical atmosphere.