“…we used to go and stand on the bridges and admire the Arno. It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it.” – Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’
The most famous bridge in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, which crosses the River Arno and like the Rialto in Venice is instantly recognisable by the thousands of tourists who visit it annually and saunter aimlessly from one side to the other and then back again. It is the oldest bridge in Tuscany and by happy chance the only one in the city that, allegedly due to a direct order from Adolph Hitler himself, wasn’t blown up by the retreating Nazis as they abandoned Italy in 1944 towards the end of the Second-World-War. Knowing just how much the Nazis used to like to blow things up this must have been a one-in-a-million fluke!
The first bridge on this site was built a very long time ago by the Romans and was constructed of wood on stone piers. It was ruined in 1117 and later reconstructed but destroyed again in 1333 by flooding, it was then rebuilt once more in 1345, but this time much more sensibly using stone. Due to the high volume of traffic using the bridge, a number of shopkeepers set up shop to catch the passing trade. The first merchants here consisted primarily of blacksmiths, butchers, and tanners catering mostly to travelling soldiers but when the Medici family moved into Florence bringing with them vast wealth and an appreciation for the finer things in life they promptly cleared the bridge of all the dirty trades that were a bit of an eyesore and certainly responsible for polluting the river below and replaced them with goldsmiths and similar upmarket shops.
Today it remains lined with medieval workshops on both sides and some of them precariously overhang the river below supported only by slender timber brackets that look as though they are in imminent danger of collapse. A number of these shops had to be replaced in 1966 when there was a major flood that consumed the city and swept some of them away but this time was unable to destroy the bridge itself.
Running along the top of the bridge is a corridor that the Medici had built so that they could cross the river without having to mix with the riff-raff below and is now an art gallery but we stayed down below and pushed our way through the hordes of tourists. Today, as everyday I suspect, the bridge was busy with street traders and shoppers and the ever-present scrounging beggars.
Along the bridge and especially in the middle around the statue of the Florentine sculptor, Cellini, there were many padlocks clamped to the railings. This, I found out later, is a lover’s tradition where by locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river they become eternally bonded. This is an action where I would recommend extreme caution because it sounds dangerously impulsive to me; I think I would further recommend taking the precaution of keeping a spare somewhere in case I needed releasing later. Apparently all of these love tokens do lots of damage to the bridge and thousands of padlocks need to be removed every year. To deter people there is a €50 penalty for those caught doing it and that is a much higher price than I would ever be prepared to pay for eternal bondage!
Actually, it may be that there is some truth in this legend because according to ‘EuroStat’, even though it has doubled in the last five years, Italy has one of the lowest divorce rates in the European Union. Sweden has the highest and although I don’t know this for sure I’m willing to bet that across all of Europe the Vatican State probably has the absolute lowest!
On the south bank of the river there is an area of the city known as the Oltrano (literally ‘Over the Arno’), which was an area of palaces and gardens developed by the Medici in the sixteenth century where they moved to get away from the overcrowding and the pollution of the old city. The walk along the embankment took us as far as the Porta San Niccolò, a fourteenth century City gate and from there we climbed what seemed like never ending winding steps through lush mature gardens to the Piazzale Michelangelo where there were far reaching views over the rooftops of Florence on the north side of the river.
The pastel facades of the buildings with their terracotta tiled roofs were just as they appear in the guide books and looked magnificent under a sky becoming ever more steadily blue. At this location there was another copy of the statue of David and several other Michelangelo masterpieces but all of this was spoilt somewhat by the presence of the tacky tourist stalls catering for the continuous flood of day trippers arriving in torrents by coach.
The City was stretched out below and as we surveyed it and appreciated its size we knew instinctively that we had not allowed nearly enough time for the visit to Florence as we only had enough for a frantic dash around the major sites and certainly didn’t have time to visit the many museums, palaces and gardens that we would have liked to have seen. We made a decision that we would have to come back another time.