Arguably, Florence’s most famous free attraction is the Ponte Vecchio. Centuries of writers have waxed poetic about its picturesque shops, and an uncountable number of lovers have dramatically declared their love by securing padlocks to the bridge’s fence and throwing the key into the Arno below. But the bridge is more than beautiful – it’s central to Florentine history.
Ponte Vecchio expert Jay Pridmore has written an historically accurate (yet thankfully brief) recap of the bridge’s lineage in the Wall Street Journal, which you should read here. While he does touch on many of the same points this post will, we’d like to recount the story the way we’ve heard Florentines tell it – with a little local legend thrown in.
Ponte Vecchio means “the old bridge,” and while it is the longest standing in Florence today, it is relatively new, considering a bridge was erected in this same spot during the Roman settling of Florentia. As trade flourished, this crossing of the narrowest part of the Arno became a popular pedestrian passageway, as it still is today.
In fact, the bridge is so central to Florence’s identity that the city’s most fundamental feud, the fight between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, started on the Ponte Vecchio in 1215. Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti slighted the wrong noble family when he snubbed an Amidei daughter and proposed to a Donati woman instead. The move was particularly spiteful, because the Amidei were allied with the Ghibellines while the Donati were known Guelphs.
So, as Buondelmonti crossed the Ponte Vecchio on his wedding day to take his Donati bride, the Amidei took his life at the foot of the bridge. A plaque quoting Dante now memorializes Buondelmonte’s fall.
The base of the current structure we see today was built in 1345. In 1565, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici couldn’t be bothered to commute with common folk from the office (Palazzo Vecchio & the Uffizi) to his new home (Palazzo Pitti). He instead instructed Vasari to build a passageway leading from an inconspicuous Uffizi door over the top of the Ponte Vecchio’s shops, through Santa Felicita, and ending on Pitti grounds.
The Vasari Corridor was constructed under the pretenses that Giovanna d’Austria, Cosimo’s soon-to-be daughter-in-law, needed a grand entrance to her wedding (another Ponte Vecchio marriage tale!); in reality, it was the perfect excuse to build a bridge that allowed the Duke to maintain absolute control of his city by spying on others through small round windows.
Only one problem: the Ponte Vecchio’s shops were filled with meat vendors. The atrocious smell of slaughter displeased the Medici, so the butchers were evicted and goldsmiths put in their place. Today, Medici ruthlessness is to thank for the tiny jewel boxes lining our favorite bridge.
The Ponte Vecchio remained relatively the same for almost 400 years, until another despot assumed absolute rule. In 1939, Mussolini installed large windows in the Vasari Corridor (seen in the photos up top) to provide a better view and to impress an international visitor – Hitler. Mussolini met Hitler in the walkway, hoping to intimidate his peer by showcasing Florence. Little did he know how pivotal his choice of meeting place would be.
Because by 1944, Hitler’s army occupied Florence’s city center, and the Allies were entrenched on the Oltrarno. When the Germans begin to retreat, they decided to destroy all bridges so that the Allies could not retake the town. But, as the story goes, Hitler personally intervened and spared the Ponte Vecchio, remembering the unmatched vista from his tour above the bridge.
Seems Hitler’s soft spot might have cost him, because the Allied forces continued to use the corridor to communicate with partisans in enemy territory and outsmart their foe. (There’s even a tale of a midnight art rescue that you should read all the details of here.)
As Florence rebuilt, the Ponte Vecchio became a lasting symbol of heritage and resilience. Today, the singular attraction still draws crowds, but few realize the historic route they walk while suspended above the Arno.