The Old Bridge
The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is located on what was once the narrowest point of
the Arno River in Florence, Italy. During Roman times a single wooden bridge was all there was to cross the river
into Florence. The bridge was continually collapsing into the raging waters of the Arno, yet each time the
bridge was patiently rebuilt. In 1218 the Romans finally built another bridge, the Ponte alla Carraia, known as
the "new" bridge, to help cope with the growing traffic.
The old bridge was eventually rebuilt in stone, but that too was swallowed up by the rising flood waters in
1333. Again the stone bridge was rebuilt, but this time with a new design. The new look bridge was constructed in
1345 by either Taddeo Gaddi or Neri di Fioravanti and it featured three segmented arches.
The main structure of the design remains today and is the oldest segmented arch bridge in Europe. It even
survived its greatest test during the Florence Floods of 1966 . The main arch has a span of 30m, whilst the arches
on either side both span 27m. The total length of the bridge is 100m (330ft).
Following its construction fishmongers, butchers and tanners began to occupy the bridge, as it was close to a
much needed water supply and had a great deal of traffic.The butchers however began to spread out across the
bridge, eventually taking total control.The boteghe (shops), suspended along the spans of the bridge, were
originally arrange symmetrically on either side, but in 1495 things changed. The owner and leaser of the shops
found himself in financial trouble and was forced to sell them. Following his departure the shops took on a life of
their own, springing up everywhere.
In 1564, during the wedding between Francesco I de' Medici and Giovanna of Austria,
not only was Bartolomeo Ammannati busily carving the Fountain of Neptune , Giorgio Vasari was busy designing a
secret corridor for Cosimo I de' Medici. The corridor (Corridoio Vasariano) was designed to link the Pitti
Palace (his Residence) with the now Uffizi (his place of work). The covered walkway was almost a kilometre
long and ran across the top of the shops at Ponte Vecchio. It guaranteed the Duke the utmost privacy as he
wandered in peace to and from his palace. The only problem Medici encountered was the tremendously horrid
smell coming from the meat markets on the bridge . The waste products from the stalls were often disposed of
in the river, adding to the bad odours. This undoubtably spoilt Medici's walk, so in 1593 he signed a decree
banning the butchers from the bridge. The butchers, who had monpolised the bridge for over 150 years, were
removed and quickly replaced by goldsmiths and jewellers. Today you can take tours of the corridor, which had
previously stopped, following the 1993 Mafia bomb attack.
So the Story Goes
Rumour has it, that the concept of bankruptcy originated from Florence and specifically from incidents on the
bridge. In the early years merchants using the bridge were only allowed to display their goods on tables. To have a
table they needed approval from the local authorities, for which I assume, a fee was also needed. If the merchant
was unable to pay his debts, the table (known as "bancus") was smashed to pieces ("ruptus"). Thus it became known
as "Bancus ruptus" when a merchant lost his livelihood. A more likely version of the word's origin is that in early
times bankers operated in public places and business was carried out from a table or bench. Unhappy clients
sometimes showed their disapproval by breaking the bankers table or bench, making the banker "bancus ruptus".
Did Hitler Say No?
Interestingly , during World War II, when the German army retreated from Florence , all the bridges except for
the Ponte Vecchio were destroyed. Some say this was due to a direct order from Hitler but others think, more
probably, it was due to a disobedient German officer. Access to the bridge was, however, obstructed by the German
soldiers who blew up buildings on either side, making it impossible to cross.
The Locks of Love
If you wander across the bridge you may notice a number of padlocks locked onto railings or gates. This is a
relatively new custom, believed to have been started by the lock shop owner located at the end of the bridge.
Lovers or friends lock the padlock onto the bridge and then throw the key into the Arno River, in the hope of
making each other eternally connected. Unfortunately the local authorities don't see the romance in the tradition,
as they are the ones left to bolt-cut the locks off the bridge. Today there are a number of large signs warning
people that a fine will be given for any one caught locking on the bridge.
Interesting Facts About the Ponte Vecchio
In the 1900's a bronze bust in honour of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), the city's most famous goldsmith, was
placed in the middle on the bridge. The bust was the work of Raffaele Romanelli. Amongst Cellini's greatest
achievements was the bronze figure of Perseus holding the Head of Medusa.
During the great flood of Florence in 1966, water gushed right through the bridge, taking with it many of the
shops and the shop's jewellery and gold.