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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

What is the Ponte Vecchio?

The Ponte Vecchio is a famous stone crossing built in the 14th century that’s flanked by jewellery shops.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio History

The Ponte Vecchio (literally, ‘the Old Bridge’) crosses the River Arno, here in the historic centre of the city. It’s undoubtedly one of Florence’s most iconic landmarks. The three-arched stone crossing is now most famous for the vibrant assembly of jewellery and souvenir stores that occupy its two facing arcades. This scene harks back to medieval times, when the premises were occupied by a variety of merchants trading their wares to the captive audience of pedestrians obliged to use the bridge.

The magnificent stone construction you see today dates from 1345 and replaced an old wooden crossing that was lost when the River Arno’s epic floods swept away nearly all the medieval bridges in Florence. The new stone bridge was initially built as part of a fortification, but began to be used as a marketplace as well as a public crossing point. Originally, it was popular with butchers and blacksmiths, but these trades tended to pollute the river. So, in the 16th century, Grand Duke Ferdinando I commanded that they were to be replaced with jewellers and goldsmiths. Thanks to the luxury goods they sold, these merchants could afford more expensive rents, which meant the bridge became a centre of affluence, illustrating the power and wealth of Renaissance Florence.

Its architecture is noteworthy. We know from Renaissance art historian and biographer Giorgio Vasari that the bridge was probably designed by 16th-century painter and architect Taddeo Gaddi, although some historians believe it was the work of a group of Dominican friars. The symmetry, proportion and mathematical arrangement of the bridge is typical of Proto-Renaissance architecture. It has three segmental arches, allowing river traffic to pass beneath. In the middle of the bridge is a mini piazza, displaying a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance artist who started out his career as one of the bridge’s many goldsmiths.

Above the shops on one side of the bridge there’s a famous ‘secret’ passageway called the ‘Corridoio Vasariano’. As the name suggests, the corridor was designed by Giorgio Vasari. It was built on the orders of Grand Duke Cosimo I and allowed the Medici to pass over the bridge in complete privacy, without being seen by the public.

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