Ponte Vecchio, one of the symbols of Florence, is a Medieval bridge spanning the narrowest point of the Arno River and it’s Europe’s oldest wholly-stone, open-spandrel segmental arch bridge.
Originally built in Roman times it was made of wood and once it was destroyed by floods in 1333 it was replaced by a new one, this time in stone, built in 1345 according to a design by Taddeo Gaddi.
Nowadays the bridge is home of many handcraft jewelry shops, originally housed by butchers and tanners.
The tanners would cure the hides of hogs with horse urine, with the urine making it way into the Arno, along with the blood and guts of butchered animals. The stench was so great that in 1593 the Grand Duke Ferdinando I issued a decree allowing only the more elegant jewellers and goldsmiths to conduct trade on the bridge.
The bridge is still the home of goldsmiths and jewellers, and during the day it swarms with customers looking for high-quality gold jewellery.
A bust of the Florentine goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini stands half way across the bridge, off to the side in a tiny piazza overlooking the Arno. There are no shops here, and the space opens up offering views of the city.
The Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge in Florence to survive the fleeing Nazis in August 1944. They had orders to destroy all the bridges in Florence. It seems they did not have the heart to destroy such a beautiful and ancient bridge, so instead blew up the ancient buildings on both sides, using the rubble to stop the allies from easily gaining access.
On the left side of the bridge, the Vasari Corridor passes above the shops.
The Vasari Corridor was built in 5 months by order of Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1565, in connection with the marriage of Cosimo’s son, Francesco, with Johanna of Austria.
It is a tall and gracious private passageway connecting where Cosimo the Great lived and the city state he governed. Giorgio Vasari (named after its architect) was intended to allow the Medicis to get into the office without having to mix with the murderous plebs below. To get his patron safely into work each day Vasari built a sealed corridor from one side of the Arno to the other. He did it in record time, bulldozing through existing buildings when he could and skirting them when he had to.
Later Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici who didn’t love to walk over Ponte Vecchio, where there were those shops with their smells, issued the decree to send them away and called the far more noble and elegant goldsmiths to occupy shops.
The Vasari Corridor connects Palazzo Vecchio with Palazzo Pitti. Starting on the south side of Palazzo Vecchio, it then joins the Uffizi Gallery and leaves on its south side, crossing the Lungarno dei Archibusieri and then following the north bank of the River Arno until it crosses the Ponte Vecchio. At the time of construction the Torre dei Mannelli had to be built around using brackets because the owners of the tower refused to alter it. The corridor covers up part of the facade of Santa Felicita church and snakes its way over rows of houses in the Oltrarno district, becoming narrower, to finally join the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens.
The Corridor houses more than 700 artists’ self-portraits collected by Medicis, everything from Tintoretto to Van Eyck to Vige le Brun. As you pass over the tops of shops on the Ponte Vecchio, there is the so called “Cosimo’s Eyes”, round barred windows that allowed the paranoid duke to spy on his subjects. In the middle of the bridge, however, there are large picture windows that look west down the Arno to the three bridges.
As you leave the “Old Bridge” itself you pass a window that was cut into the outer wall of the 14th-century Santa Felicita church when the Corridor demolished its portico, thereby affording the Medici a view of divine service. Then you follow a dog-leg diversion round the outside of the Mannelli Tower. In 1565 the owner of the tower refused to allow the corridor to pass through his property, so Vasari simply diverted it round the outside.
At the gallery’s end you find a wedding portrait of the last of the Medicis, Anna Maria Luisa, who willed the family’s art collection to the people of Florence at her death.
It is possible to visit the Vasari Corridor, deserves, but it is necessary to organize the visit first because the entrance is allowed only by appointment and in a few fixed days.