Florence free tours

The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) connects the Oltrarno district on the south bank of the Arno River with the center of Florence. It was the first bridge built in Florence and is one of the city’s greatest landmarks and arguably one of the most famous bridges in the world. Today it is best known for the wooden shuttered jewelry shops lining both sides and the Vasari monastery that crosses it.

Historical sources indicate that Ponte Vecchio has existed since at least the 12th century and for a long time it was the only way to cross the Arno River. This old bridge crosses the narrowest part of the river in the city and is the fifth bridge in and around this location since Roman times.

History and architecture

The Ponte Vecchio has been renovated and rebuilt many times during its long history (especially after it was almost completely destroyed in the flood of 1333), but miraculously it managed to survive the German retreat during the Second World War. Many believe that the bridge was not destroyed because of Hitler’s explicit orders to his retreating troops. Ponte Vecchio’s current appearance dates back to 1345. Art historian, painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, in his Life of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors and Architects, states that Taddeo Gaddi (famous for his paintings and designs for many basilicas in Florence) was given the task of rebuilding the bridge after the flood of 1333, but there is no other evidence to support this. Neri di Fioravanti is also mentioned, but again there is a lack of supporting evidence and modern scholars have begun to look in other directions. The Dominican friar Fra Giovanni da Campi of Santa Maria Novella was the architect responsible for the reconstruction between 1334 and 1337. The Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella were specialists in the construction of large vaults and were the first to consistently use the term ‘architect’ (instead of mason) in their documents. The bold use of wide, flat arches on the Ponte Vecchio, as on the Ponte Caraglia, strongly suggests that Giovanni da Campi or other Dominicans were involved. Da Campi died in May 1339, just three months after the project began, so he did not see its completion, but it is possible that it was built to his designs.

The Romans were highly skilled bridge builders and used new techniques, such as mixing strong concrete with large, flexible stone structures with ease. Work to transform the old, dilapidated Roman bridge into a modern version of the Ponte Vecchio began in 1333 when a massive flood almost completely destroyed the bridge, leaving only the two central columns. The new bridge follows the design of three stone arches but has a wider paved area and is more resistant to future floods. The central arch of the bridge is the largest at 30 meters (98 ft) long, while the two side arches surrounding the embankment are slightly shorter at 27 meters (89 ft). The side arches are 3.5 meters (4.4 ft) high, while the middle arch is 4.4 meters (5.5 ft) high. This provides enough space for small boats and barges to pass safely under the bridge. The construction of the bridge was completed in 1345. The original design of the bridge included a small porch with a small votive stone in the middle span of the bridge and four towers intended to be used as military defense positions in case the city was besieged. Today, only one of these defense towers (the Mannelli Tower) stands at the southeast corner of the Ponte Vecchio. A sundial was placed on the bridge to commemorate the flood and still stands on the roof of a shop next to the Cellini monument. At the base of the sundial is an inscription commemorating the terrible event that shook the citizens of Florence as much as the great flood of 1966.The flood of 1333 toppled the Roman statue of Mars on the Ponte Vecchio. The statue came from the Roman ruins where the Baptistery of San Giovanni was built.Dante Alighieri mentions the statue in his Divine Comedy and there is a plaque on the Ponte Vecchio commemorating both the statue and Dante’s poem. An inscription on the old bridge with a poem from the Divine Comedy.

The Ponte Vecchio’s most important features are its arches and jewelry shops, the first of their kind in Europe. Its architectural style was ahead of its time and served as a model for other famous bridges, such as the Rialto Bridge in Venice. Dan Brown, who wrote about the Ponte Vecchio, mentions in Inferno the violence that shook Florence for years. For the past centuries, the shops on the bridge belonged to the city of Florence and were rented to merchants and artisans.

From the middle of the 15th century, these shops were occupied by butchers and tanners, alleviating the annoying problem of garbage being left on the streets. Butchers and tanners added a small room to their workshops, projecting over the Arno River. In 1565, Giorgio Vasari created the Vasari Corridor for the Medici family, a high, elevated, covered passage connecting Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Vecchio. The Vasari corridor ran directly over the shops on the Ponte Vecchio and the Medici family could not tolerate the odor coming from the corridor. Therefore, in 1593 Ferdinando I ordered the employment of jewelers instead of butchers and leather workers to make the Ponte Vecchio a respectable and decent place. An interesting anecdote about the Vasari monastery deserves special mention. Giorgio Vasari’s project involved the demolition or conversion of numerous privately owned buildings along the route of the Vasari corridor. This route included Via della Nina, the Uffizi Gallery, the Lungarno Archibugieri, Ponte Vecchio, Via De Bardi and Via Guicciardini and ended in the Boboli Gardens.

The Mannelli family, owners of the last tower of the Ponte Vecchio, strongly opposed the demolition of their building and appealed to Grand Duke Cosimo I. Cosimo I and Giorgio Vasari agreed that the towers would be omitted when the Vasari monastery was built. In the middle of the bridge is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), Florence’s most famous goldsmith. The bust was placed here in 1901. Like many Florentine artists, including Dante, Cellini was a violent man, involved in brawls and numerous murders and prosecuted by the justice system. Besides his goldsmithing, his most famous works are the statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa in the Loggia in Lanzi and his autobiography Vita di Benvenuto di Maestro Giovanni Cellini fiorentino, scritta, per lui medesimo, in Firenze). Ponte Vecchio is a masterpiece of architecture and beauty. Today, many tourists cross over the bridge, admiring its splendor, the splendor of the jewelry shops and enjoying the unique view. Ponte Vecchio has survived butchers, floods and wars. The city of Florence has recently banned padlocks on the fences surrounding the Cellini monument. This practice had become very common, especially among couples, and threatened to destroy the bridge.

If you want see this unique bridge come with us in our Florence free tour

We believe that Ponte Vecchio will survive too!