Florence's Ponte Vecchio
Florence’s Renaissance art stars, like Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo’s David, are synonymous with the city. Its medieval masterpieces, like the Ponte Vecchio, deserve equal attention. After a lengthy tour of the Uffizi galleries, visitors find themselves exiting towards the Arno River and the iconic Ponte Vecchio (“old bridge’). Known today for the goldsmiths and jewelers selling their wares and the perfect selfie spot, it holds a special place in Florence’s history. This Florentine bridge has withstood floods, war, and political unrest for over 675 years. The story of the Ponte Vecchio is one of perseverance.
Romans called the city Florentia and established governing control in 56 BCE. They constructed a bridge at the site of the current Ponte Vecchio. Due to recent archeological masonry findings, we now know the Roman bridge was built about 125 CE. We don’t know how long that bridge stood or how often it may have been replaced during the Roman era. At some point a bridge was replaced on the site and destroyed in a 1333 flood. The Arno was a transit route to Siena, Pisa, the Ligurian Sea, and Tuscan towns and villages. Florence urgently needed to replace the 1333 bridge. The replacement bridge, the one still standing today, was finished in 1345. The striking feature is that it doesn’t look like a typical bridge at all.
We don’t know the architect or people who constructed the bridge, but we do know what features the city looked for in choosing the design and construction. Several elements were important to the city. One was a bridge that would bring honor to its citizens and the town. Another criterion was a pleasing design that incorporated fourteenth century ideals of harmony and beauty. A plain bridge wouldn’t do. The Ponte Vecchio was unique in serving three purposes: retail shops, a transportation route, and a public square. A committee of six decided to construct a masonry bridge whose width nearly equals its length, composed of shops of square measurements, and a nearly square piazza in the middle.
Medieval engineers built this bridge to last. Pointed oak piles were driven into the river bed with concrete foundations on top. Two mid-river upright supports with triangular prows hold up the bridge. The pointed triangular prows divert the river current and help prevent damage from current and floods. Rising from the water and between the upright supports are three graceful low barrel vaults. On either end of the bridge are abutments positioned at the walls of the river bank.
Forty-three shops, each nearly the same size, were constructed on the fourteenth century bridge, in a type of a mini-mall. Records indicate grocers, butchers, barbers, metalsmiths, and shoemakers rented spaces on the bridge. The city charged 80 or more gold florins a year to rent a shop space, wisely estimating that the rent would pay for the bridge in a few decades. Keep in mind that a carpenter would have earned about 36 florins a year and a lawyer about 300 florins a year. These coveted spaces were secure, glassed in, and offered a unique shopping experience. The piazza was open to the sky and provided a gathering place for citizens. The Ponte Vecchio became a centerpiece of the medieval Florentine city. Visitors walking across the Ponte Vecchio nowadays see only expensive gold jewelry in every size and shape, but it wasn’t always that way. Only after 1593 were gold and jewelry the primary retail offerings.
Aesthetically, one has to use a bit of subtractive imagination to see the medieval genius in the Ponte Vecchio. The flat section on top of the shops was added later. It altered the truly medieval character of the bridge. Each shop juts out over the river with wooden braces, still intact, giving it a balanced yet interesting visual appeal. Without the imposing upper corridor added later, the medieval equilibrium and give and take of the nearly equal shop squares gives a sense of texture, play of light and shadow, as well as drawing the eye across the expanse of the bridge. The contrast of the squares and round barrel vaults contribute to its visual interest. The mathematical ratios used to determine the bridge’s shops, piazza size, and base width all conformed to a medieval ideal of rational beauty and harmony.
In the detail below, the Ponte Vecchio is the second bridge from the top. Although not an exact depiction, it gives an idea of what it looked like before the upper level addition.
Visitors can purchase a ticket to exit the Uffizi on the “skyway” level, walk on top of the Ponte Vecchio across the Arno, and exit at the Palazzo Pitti, just like the Grand Duke did. The name Gli Uffizi means “the offices.” They were constructed by Giorgio Vasari from 1559-1580s. Vasari (1511-1574) was a busy man. He was court artist to the Grand Duke Cosimo I, architect, and penned the famous biographies in The Lives of the Artists. Vasari’s massive multi-story Uffizi buildings are long and large as they face each other with a pedestrian walkway in between. Cosimo wanted to instill a sense of unity and power in his government buildings as he established his Grand Duchy and court. Now the Uffizi houses the exceptional collection of Florentine art.
Across the Arno the Medici expanded an unfinished abandoned palace began by the Pitti family and created a vast playground called the Boboli Gardens. Purchased in 1549, the greatly enlarged Pitti Palace now houses a number of different museums. The Pitti, Boboli, Uffizi, and Vasari’s Corridor are under the umbrella of the Uffizi Galleries. Vasari’s Corridor has never been hailed for its artistic achievement or sense of style. Instead, it provided another means of transportation across the Arno.
Views of the Ponte Vecchio. Photos Gerriann Brower
Florence survived natural disasters and many changes in governments. There were two twentieth century events when the Ponte Vecchio narrowly escaped destruction: World War II and the 1966 flood. 1944 was a turning point in World War II. The Allied forces invaded Sicily in the summer of 1943 and were fighting their way slowly up the peninsula. Mussolini had effectively lost power shortly after the invasion of Sicily but was governing a puppet regime in northern Italy with the help of Hitler. The Germans conscripted Italians to continue to fight the Allies (most Italians made minimal effort) but were losing ground daily and weekly. American forces entered Rome June 4, 1944 and were headed north to central Italy. Just two days later the Allied forces landed on the Normandy beaches in the D-Day invasion. The Allies continued to liberate each Tuscan hill town in difficult terrain and sweltering heat as the Germans pulled back.
European countries experienced immense amounts of art looted by the Germans. Florence was no exception. Bombs and shelling destroyed infrastructure, homes, public architecture, commerce, art works, and of course human life. Naples was not sparred in the invasion with hundreds of air strikes earning the unwanted reputation as the Italian city most bombed by the Allies. As the Allies approached Rome, it was declared an open city, meaning no military targets or defense, therefore lessening the destruction of homes, loss of life, and harm to monuments. Both Germans and Allied forces had to agree if a city was to be declared open to avoid loss of cultural heritage. Very few cities were designated as open.
In addition, the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive section, known as the Monuments Men, categorized cities into different groups according to their cultural patrimony. Florence, Venice, Rome, and Torcello (an island near Venice) were designated Group A. Bombing in Group A cities was not allowed without special permission. Group B cities included Assisi, Ravenna, San Gimignano; Group C Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Bologna, Verona, and Padua. B and C cities could be bombed day or night, and they were. Special maps were prepared for airmen by the Monuments Men to indicate the no bomb zones.
The railroad yards of Florence were deemed a target of opportunity and permission to bomb was granted. In March 1944 seventy-eight American B-26 Marauders dropped 145 tons of explosives on the marshaling yard. The rail yard was the only area with a bomb zone. The remainder of the city was a no bomb zone. Their precision was incredible since the thirteenth century church of Santa Maria Novella and its historic frescoes were less than 500 feet away. The Ponte Vecchio is about .8 mile from the rail station, the same rail station visitors arrive at today. A bomb dropped off target would have devastating effects. Florence was lucky on this bomb run. Other cities did not fare so well. However, the Germans did not exhibit such care in their bombing or destruction.
After Rome, Florence would be the next significant city to liberate. Control of Florence was important as a major railway hub for central Italy and supply line. As the Germans prepared to withdraw from Florence, they laid mines in the bridges and surrounding streets. They stationed artillery batteries in the city as well as pounding anti-tank spikes into the streets. Movable art works had been stored away by Florentines, or protected (or looted). This left architecture, bridges, and exterior sculpture most at risk, and, of course, the very medieval and Renaissance character of the city. German and Allied diplomats worked behind the scenes to try to persuade declaration of an open city, but to no avail. The Germans would have to remove the mines and artillery, and they did not seem committed to doing so, at the same time saying they wanted an open city.
On August 3 German Colonel Fuchs ordered Florentines living within 330 to 660 feet of the Arno to abandon their homes as they prepared to detonate mines in each bridge and streets leading up the bridges. More than 50,000 people had homes along the Arno by the six bridges. They were given four hours to leave and take shelter elsewhere. Instructions were to shoot to kill anyone on the street or seen at a window. Florentines were to shelter at home in cellars or churches, with shutters closed.
At dusk the explosions began. The Ponte Vecchio and Ponte Santa Trinità were the most esteemed artistically. The Trinità was a sixteenth century bridge in which Michelangelo had a hand in designing. It also has three graceful arches. Explosions continued through the night. Ponte alla Vittoria, Ponte alle Grazie, Ponte Santa Trinità, Ponte di Ferro, and the Ponte alla Carraia, were all destroyed by daybreak. It took three tries to bring down Santa Trinità.
The Ponte Vecchio was severely damaged, but standing. Due to the detonations at the entrances to the Ponte Vecchio and surrounding streets, the bridge was impassable. Florence was cut in half. The Ponte Vecchio was rigged with explosives but they were never detonated. Because the piers of Santa Trinità were still standing, a temporary crossing was built by the British army so citizens and the supplies could traverse the Arno.
The British Eighth Army was the first to reach Florence August 4, but Allies didn’t completely liberate the city until the end of the month. There were many unrecognized heroes of the city. Although the British and American armies get the kudos, the South African Sixth Armored Division and Sikh Eighth Indian Division fought alongside the Brits and Americans and participated in liberating Florence. Italian partisans assisted in securing the city.
There are a few theories as to why the Ponte Vecchio wasn't blown to bits. It may have been spared at the last moment due to Hitler’s fondness for the bridge from his 1938 visit. He reportedly did not wish Florence to be in ruins as the Germans retreated. Another German played a part in saving the Ponte Vecchio. There is a plaque on the bridge that most people miss. It is a tribute to German Consul Gerard Wolf, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to protect Florentine art and monuments from destruction during the war. The plaque attests to his diplomatic efforts. However, there is recent evidence in a letter that a shopkeeper may have disabled the mines on the bridge, preventing an explosion. As a rare example of an urban medieval bridge, we are grateful to those who intervened.
All the bridges were rebuilt or repaired. The Santa Trinità was painstakingly rebuilt, mostly by recovering the blasted stone from the Arno. It wasn’t passable until 1948, although it wasn’t until 1961 that a final piece of a statue was found and put it place on the bridge.
Late fall is typically the rainy season in Italy. Floods have proven disastrous for Florence since the city was founded. The three most significant floods occurred in 1333, 1557, and 1966. In summer the Arno can seem like a gentle river, but in the rainy season the water can be powerful and threatening. The first recorded flood in Florence took place about 1177. November 4, 1966 proved catastrophic for Tuscany when about a quarter of the annual rainfall fell in 24 hours, causing landslides and sending a torrent of water into the Arno. A cyclone in the Mediterranean created a perfect storm for floods and landslides. Ironically, the 1333 flood also occurred on November 4. Venice and other Italian cities were also flooded in November 1966, but none were as impacted as Florence.
The city had flooded about fifty-seven times in recorded history prior to 1966. High water signs and plaques are marked on some buildings near the Arno. It is eerie and shocking to see the 1557 plaque marking the water compared to the 1966 plaque in the low-lying area of the church and piazza of Santa Croce. The city and national government were unprepared for what happened. As the Arno rose quickly, the banks were easily overcome by the forty-five mile an hour raging waters. Mud, sludge, oil, sewage, cars, and debris were poured into homes, businesses, piazzas, churches, and museums. Thousands of Florentine businesses and homes were in ruins, over thirty people lost their lives, and thousands of art works, archives, and manuscripts were lost or severely damaged.
Flood waters reached a height of twenty-two feet (6.7 meters) in the piazza of Santa Croce, which is only a few blocks from the Arno, exceeding the 1557 flood. Broken pews inside Santa Croce were chaotically thrown together with a layer of thick oily mud. Donatello’s wood statue of Mary Magdalene was submerged. The bronze doors of the Baptistry painstaking made by Lorenzo Ghiberti’s workshop buckled and bronze sections loosened. Restoration is still ongoing today to try to restore, or make useable again, thousands of manuscripts. Frescoes were another matter. Damage from humidity, even if the water didn’t reach the painted surfaces, caused some frescoes to separate from the walls.
Once again, the Ponte Vecchio survived. The high-water mark reached or exceeded the open piazza on the bridge. Structurally the bridge held, but needed immediate stabilization. The aftermath was a tangle of debris, mud, trees, and sewage. The triangular prows show missing brickwork, however, the most damage was done to wooden structures on the bridge. Wooden supports for the shops that jut out on the exterior were ripped away. The inside of the bridge sustained extensive damage to the shops in merchandise, walls, and interiors.
Foreigners, academics, and any visitors staying in Florence during the flood immediately helped Florentines in recovery. They pitched in to salvage objects, whether it was hosing mud off a statue or someone’s possessions, drying archival material, or forming a human chain to rescue wood panel paintings. The volunteers became known as “mud angels” or angeli del fango.
Soon after the flood conservators arrived from museums and institutions from Europe and U.S. to start a massive recovery and restoration effort as well as fundraising to provide resources. Unlike World War II, there wasn’t any disaster preparedness for the flood. Michelangelo’s sculptures were bricked up in the war; in the flood they were subject to the elements. Conservators learned much from the Florence flood and many technical advancements occurred as a result of their efforts.
When 30,000 books alone in the Biblioteca Nazionale are covered in mud and oil, you muster resources quickly to intervene. When 300,000 archival bound books are damaged in sum total across Florence, the scale of recovery and restoration is hard to grasp. How does a team triage restoration priority amongst the vast numbers of damaged art, books, and archives? Some well-meaning recovery efforts by untrained volunteers had unintended results, like sending wet books to tobacco kilns for drying (it cooked them), or rubbing talc on wet archival papers to absorb moisture (it becomes an adhesive). But all hands-on deck were needed, and appreciated, with no regrets. It was an occasion when countries came together to help, learn, and rebuild. The world's love for Florence made a difference.
Florence is still vulnerable today to flooding. The same hazards are present since the urban area lies in a basin and during Roman Empire excess water naturally flooded into marshy areas. Human efforts to expand the city and drain wetlands contributed significantly to the problem.
Three mountainous areas (Mugello, Valdarno, Casentino) drain into the Arno. The Romans began to reclaim the wetlands to expand the city and for agriculture. Urban growth in the Middle Ages necessitated larger ring wall fortifications and efforts to divert the Arno tributaries. The city continued to expand into the 1700s. From Roman Empire to the Middle Ages Florence was concentrated almost exclusively on the medieval side of the city near the Duomo, Uffizi, Santa Maria Novella, and Santa Croce. Population expansion to the oltrarno (other side of the Arno) required diverting more tributaries and reclaiming marsh land.
Geographic data models tell us that the path of the Arno and surrounding land looks significantly different from the pre-Roman era to the twentieth century. What was once a more meandering river with varying width and tributaries like branches on a tree now appears like a slightly curved spaghetti noodle with equal width east and west of Florence. A river that naturally was wide, then narrower, then wide, became narrow and straightened. Without the marshland to accommodate flooding, excess water had no where to go but into the city. Recent flood reduction efforts, such as creating water retention ponds upstream, and warning systems for civilians, will help to minimize damage, save property and lives. Flooding will happen again, and with climate change, it is only a matter of when.
In an important effort to maintain the cultural heritage of the bridge, Florence’s mayor Dario Nardella announced October 27, 2022 a two million Euro project to fix and renovate the Ponte Vecchio. It is the first time there is an effort to evaluate and repair the bridge pro-actively, not just after a disaster. Scaffolding secured on a floating platform will remove weeds, and assess the piers, wooden piles, and masonry structure. Sealant will be applied to masonry to reduce rainwater seepage and crews will reinforce the piles. The project is estimated to take about one year.
Most of the links in blue below have additional photos of the bridge. The PBS documentary video highlights recovery efforts after the flood. The Uffizi video is about the World War II destruction of the bridges.
Bartlett, Richard A., and Michael J. Pulman. “Of Librarians and Historians: Observations on the Florence Flood.” The Journal of Library History (1966-1972), vol. 3, no. 1, 1968, pp. 51–54.
Coli, Massimo, Marcello Brugioni, and Giovanni Montini. “Florence and its floods: anatomy of an hazard.” Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering, 2013.
Conway, Paul, and Martha O’Hara Conway, editors. Flood in Florence, 1966: A Fifty-Year Retrospective. Michigan Publishing Services, 2018.
Edsel, Robert M. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Flanigan, Theresa. “The Ponte Vecchio and the Art of Urban Planning in Late Medieval Florence.” Gesta, vol. 47, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1–15.
Flanigan, Theresa. "The Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) in Florence," in Smarthistory, August 12, 2021.
Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, “La Notte dei Ponti.” Le Gallerie degli Uffizi video (n.d.).
Pianigiani, Gaia. "50 Years After a Devastating Flood." NY Times, (Nov 7, 2016).
Pirro, Deirdre, “The Night the Bridges Come Falling Down.” The Florentine, February 8, 2007.
Staff. “Ponte Vecchio to Be Restored Comprehensively for the First Time in History.” The Florentine, October 27, 2022.
When the World Answered. Directed by Kim Jacobs. PBS documentary, 2016.