Florence's Most Famous Bridge
One of the many bridges that cross the Arno River in Florence, Italy is the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The history and legend behind it are fascinating!
But to truly gain perspective of the significance of the Ponte Vecchio, a tad bit of Florentine history is needed.
A Bit About the History of Florence
Florence is one of those cities whose past is checkered by political turbulence. As in many cases, political turbulence is born of corruption. Add in family rivalries and you have the equation which equals Florentine history.
The Medici family did and still has, a strong influence on the ebbs and flows of Florence. Their rise began around 1325 AD. A family of great importance and wealth, with their hands in many economic aspects of Florence. Cosimo de' Medici was the first family member to rise to any significant power. It is said, that from behind the scenes, he controlled everything in the city. The Medici family not only gave us two Popes but also wed into and gave birth to European royalty. The family was also known to be huge patrons of the arts and commissioned works by the great Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli.
The Fall and Resurrection of the Medici Family
By 1492, the Medici family fell from grace due to a miscalculation by Piero II and the invasion of the French army. Piero II's sin was failing to calculate the strength of the French armies which led to the death of many Florentines. And, it is for this reason, that he was exiled. In 1531, the family rose to power again but only until 1737.
More Modern History
From 1737 until the 20th century, rulership and country allegiance changed several times. The city was occupied and under the control of Austria and then France during this period of time. During the Second World War, Germany occupied Florence for about one year.
The Ponte Vecchio Bridge
Portions of Florence are separated by the Arno River. Ultimately, Florence was liberated by New Zealand, South African, and British troops on 4 August 1944. In early August, as British troops began to approach Florence, Hitler ordered the demolition of all bridges which connected the city to be demolished, thereby, making it difficult for the Brits to enter.
The Stories that Surround How Ponte Vecchio Was Saved
There are a few different versions of how Ponte Vecchio was saved from demolition throughout the Second World War.
The Romantic Version
As a result of a last-minute plea, the Ponte Vecchio bridge was spared from demolition. Now, here is where the story varies. If you speak with a Florentine, a romantic at heart, they will relate the story like this:
A top-ranking soldier in the Nazi German army, who had the ear and trust of Hitler, made a personal plea to have the bridge spared. Why? Because of its aesthetic value and he had a special lady friend that he had met at the foot of the bridge. Hitler, feeling this was a beautiful story, spared the bridge from demolition even though explosives were already in place.
Documented History Tells Another Story
At the last moment Charles Steinhauslin, an important European counselor, convinced a German general in Italy that the Ponte Vecchio was not to be destroyed due to its historical value. Instead, the areas surrounding entry to the bridge on both sides were destroyed, thus disabling the ability to cross the bridge.
The Ponte Vecchio remained the only bridge not destroyed in Florence. However, there is yet another legend told about the infamous bridge:
The Amazing Love Story of the Ponte Vecchio
The history of the lovelocks dates back to WWII in a small Serbian town. A couple named Nada and Relja were madly in love until the war broke out and Relja enlisted. Despite Nada’s faithful commitment to Relja’s return, he fell in love with another woman. According to the legend, Nada died of heartbreak and village girls began attaching padlocks to the bridge where the couple used to spend their time. The girls would engrave their names alongside their lovers and throw away the key with hopes doing so would ensure their love would last forever and that their beloved would not leave them as Relja had left Nada.
The story as told by: Famous Love Lock Bridges: The Ponte Vecchio
Cellini, the Sculptor
There is a bronze bust of Benvenuto Cellini on top of a fountain in the middle of the Eastern side of the bridge. These love locks are placed around the statue and there are thousands of them. Cellini was the sculptor who created Perseus with the head of Medusa, the famous statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi.
I feel like the love locks around his bust are a bit ironic. Understand that Cellini was known to be a philanderer and even faced criminal charges of a sexual nature. The fact that the love locks signify true love, doesn't seem to mesh with the reputation that Cellini had.
According to the regulations in Florence, it is now illegal to place a love lock on the bridge. Getting caught doing so can result in a citation and a monetary fine. I've read several articles that state that the locks have been removed. But at least the last time I visited, the locks were still there and available for purchase from vendors stationed on the bridge itself. This leads me to the assumption that you can buy the lock but the trick is to not get caught attaching it to the bridge!
More About the Ponte Vecchio
The Ponte Vecchio bridge was actually the first bridge built in Florence and dates back to medieval times. In fact, until 1218, it was the only bridge that crossed the Arno River. At the time the bridge was built, it was not unusual for chapels and shops to be built on top of the bridges. They were, after all, entryways to the cities. Because they were entryways to the cities, it was also not unusual for them to have fortification towers to protect the city.
Once again, the common theme that I have discussed in other articles is true here as well; this is NOT the original bridge. The bridge has been destroyed by floods from the Arno River and has been rebuilt twice. When visiting today, you see the third version of the bridge. The floods I speak of were in 1117 and 1333. There was also a flood in 1966, but the bridge was not destroyed.
What is unusual about this bridge is that it still has shops and businesses on top.
The Amazing Ponte Vecchio Today
Originally, the shops on the bridge were those of butchers, fishermen, and tanners. The odor from the products and their waste became terribly foul. In order to make the bridge entering the city more suitable for citizens and visitors, Grand Duke Ferdinando I decreed only jewelers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths would be allowed to work in the shops of Ponte Vecchio, thus eliminating the problem of waste. This change occurred in 1593.
Those are the same types of shops you will find today as you stroll across this pedestrian-only bridge. Today, you will also find tanners, food vendors, and tanners. In fact, on one of my visits to Florence, I purchased a handmade leather purse crafted by none other than the Medici brand, the family that is still considered the most powerful family in Italian history.
A Symbol of Florence
The Ponte Vecchio remains one of the most loved symbols of Florence. Stroll and shop yourself across the bridge. Enjoy! Some people like to take a stroll in the evenings when all the shops are closed up behind medieval-looking wooden doors. And don't forget to take a look at the love locks as you cross the bridge! It's one of my favorite parts of Florence.
Until next time friends, remember, "To Travel is To Live!"
© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin