On a very warm August morning I set out for a visit to what is certainly one of the most unique bridges in all the world. I begin walking from my hotel in Florence–the capital of the Tuscany region–to the River Arno. Soon I arrived at the beautiful and imposing Cathedral of Florence. This basilica is one of Italy’s largest, and its dome is the largest in the world.
Next, I entered Michelangelo Plaza. This beautiful square was filled with tourists even at this early hour. The bright sun and countless pigeons above added to the mystique of this uniquely “Florentine” meeting place. The view of the city from this plaza is alone worth the effort required to visit. The square, dedicated to the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, is adorned with copies of some of his sculptures found elsewhere in Florence. Among these is Michelangelo’s David–a favorite for the crowds who flock to photograph it or just to marvel at how a solid piece of marble could be transformed into an object of such beauty.
As I left behind the beautiful statues of Michelangelo Plaza, I had walked only a short distance when I came upon the Uffizi Gallery which attracts about two million visitors each year. The Uffizi is home to scores of works by famous Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Botticini, Martini, and Donatello–the list is legion. The Uffizi was once home to the Mona Lisa, if only briefly, before this treasure was returned to the Louvre in Paris.
After walking farther down a slight grade I came to the wide-walkway that runs along beside the river. I looked off to my right and saw the Ponte Vecchio (literally “old Bridge”). I was astounded at the vast hoard of tourists angling for a spot to take photos of this most unusual medieval closed-spandrel arch bridge. Easily the most unique bridge in all of Europe, the Ponte Vecchio, in its various iterations, is at least 10 centuries old. It is the first “segmental” arch bridge ever built in the West, and its construction was itself an outstanding feat of engineering during the Middle Ages.
The Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Florence, and it spans the narrowest point of the River Arno. Built very close to an old Roman crossing point, the Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge across the Arno in Florence until 1218. The bridge is 276 feet long and 105 feet wide. Over the centuries the river has flooded the area causing immense damage to the Ponte Vecchio. The bridge had to be rebuilt at least twice before the 14th century because of flood damage.
Perhaps the most interesting feature about this bridge is that it does not look like a bridge at all. Its real uniqueness lies not in the fact that it is a functional way across the river, but is also a market place that has developed in a rather chaotic fashion over the centuries. Indeed, the Ponte Vecchio has defied the impetuous river and even the laws of physics throughout its existence! Many of the shops appear as random appendages to the structure literally “hanging” off it sides. Most are extended out from the actual bridge’s roadway and are supported by slender wooden stakes, making the shops appear as if they are suspended in mid-air. This arrangement gives a rather jumbled but incredibly fascinating appearance to the structure. These shops are rented to various artisans and merchants who ply their wares to the thousands of tourists who stroll across this famous bridge.
The bridge’s entrance point to the city of Florence is made of wood and stone and dates to the Roman era. I eagerly joined in with tourists ambling, slowly, across this “bridge” where shopping, not necessarily crossing a river, was the main objective.
During earlier centuries, the bridge was populated by shops operated by lively throngs of grocers, butchers, and fishmongers. These activities produced a lot of noise as well as extremely unpleasant odors! In order to make the bridge cleaner and more elegant, these specific merchants were evicted and replaced with goldsmiths and silversmiths. This decision was taken, and widely accepted, because Florence was becoming the center of Renaissance culture. The city was well-known all over the world and was fast becoming an obligatory destination for nobility and foreign dignitaries from all over Europe. This change radically transformed the nature of the Ponte Vecchio’s characteristic shop windows that were now brimming with jewels and gold instead of meat, fish, and other grocery items.
As you walk across the bridge, the tiny shops are suddenly interrupted by two wide terraces which open out on to a gallery providing incredible views of the River Arno. Adolf Hitler was genuinely attracted by the views available from Ponte Vecchio. In fact, the gallery on the west side of the bridge was installed by Benito Mussolini specifically for the benefit of Hitler and his party. Mussolini had the original three windows in the center of the bridge on the west side reformed into one large viewing gallery for the pleasure of his Axis partner. Hitler’s appreciation of the Ponte Vecchio probably insured its survival during WWII. Most historians conclude that it was not by chance that the Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence that was spared by the retreating German troops in 1944.
It is often suggested that the economic concept of bankruptcy originated among the various shops located on the Ponte Vecchio. Whenever a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the “banco”) was physically broken (“rotto”) by soldiers, and the merchant was subsequently banned from doing business on the bridge. The practice was called “bancorotto” (literally “broken table”) and the merchant, no longer having a table, was unable to continue seeling his wares on the bridge.
During the catastrophic flood that devastated Florence in 1966 it was feared that the bridge would again collapse. The raging waters rose so high that many of the shops were flooded. Whole tree trunks pierced through some shops on the upstream side. But once more, the bridge stood defiantly against the forces of nature and became itself a symbol of this splendid city. And so it stands today in all its unique beauty as a testimony to the strength and resilience of the people of Florence.