When thinking about Florence, Ponte Vecchio is certainly one of the first attractions that comes to mind, isn’t it?
The picturesque “old bridge” has gone hand in hand with the Florentine people and the development of the city across the centuries, meaning there are countless stories to tell and it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of them all. Let’s discover some fun facts about Ponte Vecchio you might not yet know!
First things first, the actual structure we admire today was built in 1345. The innovative three-arch structure with buildings standing along the sides replaced the older bridges that were systematically destroyed by the recurring floods of the Arno river (the most recent collapse happened in 1333). In case you’re wondering, according to Giorgio Vasari, Ponte Vecchio was designed by Taddeo Gaddi, while other sources credit Neri di Fioravanti.
And now, let’s get started with our seven treats…
1. There weren’t always goldsmiths and jewellers selling their goods on Ponte Vecchio…
That’s right, jewellery shops made their appearance on Ponte Vecchio only in 1593-94, at the request of Ferdinando I de’ Medici. Before that, butcher shops brought life to the bridge. In so doing, butchers had been kept afar from the buildings in the city center and were also allowed to throw the foul-smelling wastes directly into the river.
Thing is, such scenery (and smells) didn’t go along that well with the Medici’s plans, especially if you consider that Palazzo Pitti had by then become the official residence of the Grand Dukes, so that meant the Medici family frequently traversed the Vasari Corridor, built in 1565 right above the east side of Ponte Vecchio.
In a nutshell, butchers had to relocate their businesses.
2. The history of the tower which defied the Vasari Corridor
Have you ever noticed that at the southeast end of Ponte Vecchio, the renowned Vasari Corridor deviates from its straight course and goes round a tower? Well, that very tower belonged to the Mannelli family, powerful enough to defy the expropriation and the subsequent demolition ordered by Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1565 to make room for his corridor.
Add to this the fact that Cosimo wanted the corridor finished in just five months (it had to be ready before the marriage between his son Francesco and Joanna of Austria), and it’s easy to understand why good old Vasari opted for a workaround.
Another interesting fact: of the ancient four towers that originally guarded the entrances to the bridge, the Mannelli tower is the only one that remains.
3. Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge in Florence that survived World War II
During the Nazi retreat in August 1944, all of the Florentine bridges were bombed and destroyed except one: luckily enough, Ponte Vecchio was spared! Reportedly, the credit for such a fortunate memory lapse goes to Gerhard Wolf, the German consul in Florence at the time.
Access was obstructed and most of the buildings at both ends were destroyed but, thanks to Wolf’s commitment, our beloved Old Bridge made it through. As a sign of gratitude for his actions (Wolf also played a decisive role in rescuing political prisoners and Jews from persecution), the former consul was made an honorary citizen of Florence in 1955 and a marble plaque in his honour was unveiled on Ponte Vecchio in 2007.
4. Ponte Vecchio has an ancient sundial
On the roof of a shop overlooking the little square at the centre of the bridge stands an ancient sundial, supported by a small marble pillar. The sundial, looking south, is composed of a white marble cup divided by thin columns indicating the canonical hours. The gnomon projects its shadow onto the cup, marking the hour.
Next to it you’ll see a stone plaque, nowadays almost illegible, which says: “In the year thirty-three after the year one hundred three hundred, the bridge collapsed due to floods of water; twelve years later, as pleased the City, it was rebuilt with this ornament”.
5. You can experience the Old Bridge from a very peculiar point of view
Our list ends with some good advice: if you have the chance, we strongly suggest you take a boat trip on the Arno river and experience the view of Ponte Vecchio right from the small old boats recently restored by the “Renaioli”.
6. Hitler liked the view from Ponte Vecchio
The addition of the Vasari Corridor also changed the character of bridge considerably, and while the Medici who used it were more concerned about the stench from the meat market below than the view out of the windows, nearly 400 years later Benito Mussolini wanted his guest of honour – Adolf Hitler – to enjoy a good view of Florence from the corridor during his State Visit on the May 9, 1938. Accordingly, Mussolini had the original three windows in the centre of the bridge on the west side knocked into one large viewing gallery for the benefit of Führer and his party. It may be just as well he did, because when the retreating German forces blew up all the other bridges in 1944 to slow down the advancing Allies, they left the Ponte Vecchio intact, instead reducing the buildings at both ends of the bridge to rubble, in order to block the streets.
7. It demonstrated its harmonic properties in 1966
The bridge might have been spared by the Germans in 1944, but when a catastrophic flood hit the city in November 1966, there were real fears the bridge would collapse. It was repeatedly struck by large debris carried by the raging waters of the Arno and whole tree-trunks pierced right through the shops on the upstream side. The Vasari Corridor is also an art gallery, and a brave group of museum staff, given just a few minutes by the fire brigade, entered the section of corridor over the bridge to save the paintings hung there. They formed a human chain to get them to safety. Later, one of them recounted how the pressure of the water on the bridge set up vibrations that made the whole structure actually hum like a musical instrument. It must have been terrifying, but the paintings were saved, nobody was hurt, and in the end the bridge survived.
That’s all (for the moment), did you know any of the above mentioned facts already?