Florence 12: Ponte Vecchio

Upstream side
Rowers learn to maneuver their craft on the River Arno upstream of the Ponte Vecchio. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

Spanning the River Arno at its narrowest point, the Ponte Vecchio is (as its name would suggest) the oldest bridge in Florence. In fact, until 1218, it was the only way for Florentines to cross the Arno without getting their feet wet. The current bridge dates back to 1345, but there was a bridge there in Roman times and perhaps earlier. All of the other bridges in Florence were destroyed by the Germans as they retreated in World War II. (Apparently they blocked the Ponte Vecchio by demolishing buildings on either end.)

Today, the Ponte Vecchio is notable for the merchants that line it. Indeed, until you get almost halfway across, you wouldn’t know that you were on a bridge at all as the river is completely hidden from view. From the riverbank upstream and downstream of the bridge, you can see that the shops—which are two to three storeys tall—sit like barnacles on the side of the bridge, supported only by disturbingly small stilts. One wonders how many shopkeepers lost everything by trying to add just a few more inches to their space.

The shops date back to the 13th century. Initially there were all kinds of venders, but since a Grand Ducal decree in 1593, only jewellers and goldsmiths have been allowed to peddle their wares on the bridge. That’s what it’s famous for today. I didn’t go into any of the shops, but I suspect that their unique address adds a significant markup to the price of their goods.

The other notable feature of the bridge is the Vasari Corridor. Built in 1565, the corridor links the Pitti Palace with the Palazzo Vecchio, giving the Grand Dukes a pathway from their home directly to the city government building without having to come in contact with the common folk. The corridor forms the uppermost level of the structures on the bridge, most obviously over the mid-span portion where you can actually see the river.

Click the thumbnails below to see photos of the Ponte Vecchio.

All of my posts about Florence can be found here.