The Ponte Vecchio
The Ponte Vecchio is one of the most beloved landmarks in Florence. Literally meaning, the “Old Bridge” it’s a stone span that crosses the River Arno at its narrowest point. The original bridge was probably built sometime in the first century AD but was swept away by the infamously flood-prone Arno on various occasions, each time being rebuilt stronger. The Ponte Vecchio bridge that we know today was constructed after a flood in 1345 and has managed to withstand everything that’s been thrown at it, including an immense amount of rubble piled on by retreating Nazis during the Second World War. The shops that line it were once predominantly owned by butchers who had a very strong guild in Florence. However, the Medicis didn’t want such a gory business dominating the city’s main bridge and kicked them all out in 1593. From then on, it has been the exalted ground of goldsmiths and jewelry merchants – though a few souvenir stores have also slipped in over the years.
Visiting the Ponte Vecchio: What to See
Many of Europe’s most famous bridges, included the London bridge, were once lined with shops. Although the advent of carriages, then cars, caused the gradual widening of thoroughfares that killed off these narrow pedestrian bridges, Italy still has a few. The most famous are the Rialto Bridge in Venice, and of course, the Ponte Vecchio. It wasn’t always so picturesque, though. For many years, the butchers that lined the Ponte Vecchio Bridge contaminated the surrounded waters with the bi-products of their trade – the smell was, reportedly, pretty pungent. But once the butchers were kicked out in favor of the goldsmiths the quality of the river improved markedly. Today the bridge is still a very easy place to find Jewelry shops, even if their prices tend to make actually buying jewelry a little more complicated.
The Statue of Benvenuto Cellini
This rather severe-looking bronze was commissioned in 1900 by the leading goldsmiths on the Ponte Vecchio to commemorate the doyen of all Italian goldsmiths, the great Benvenuto Cellini. To say he lived a colorful life would be putting it mildly. This sculptor, soldier, (bisexual) lover, and general hot head fought, fornicated, and sculpted his way around much of Italy and some of France, generally burning his bridges as he went. He was named to Florence’s Accademia in 1563 under the influence of Giorgio Vasari but is perhaps most famous for his autobiography. Though full of exaggerations, it’s frank style made it immensely popular in its time and it remains an important historical document of life in the 16th century. Although his life probably didn’t resemble the typical goldsmith’s, it certainly sums up the more profligate habits that many of the day’s artists aspired to.
The Vasari Corridor
Florence’s Ponte Vecchio comes equipped with its very own secret passage in the form of the Vasari Corridor. Giorgio Vasari is most remembered for writing the definitive book of biographies/hagiographies of the leading lights in the Italian Renaissance. His “Lives of the Artists” is so quoted that it often obscures the fact that he was a gifted artist and architect in his own right.
After he designed the Palazzo Vecchio – the seat of government for the Medici’s which now includes the Uffizi Gallery – it was decided that the Medicis needed a way to commute from work (in the Palazzo Vecchio) to home (in the Palazzo Pitti) without having to step outside. Vasari designed a kilometer-long corridor running between the two buildings and over the jewelry shops that was specially reserved for the Medicis. They could walk it, or ride in a specially-designed carriage for two. When Hitler was brought to see the corridor during the Second World War he was reportedly so impressed by the view over the Arno at the midway point that he ordered the bridge not to be bombed or dynamited at any point – hence, the large piles of rubble that retreating soldiers stacked on it.
Today the entrance to the Vasari Corridor sits behind a non-descript door in the Uffizi and can only be accessed by booking with specially accredited tour groups.
Tips for Seeing the Ponte Vecchio
As this is a public footbridge, the Ponte Vecchio is open 24 hours a day.
The bridge is often crowded during the day so if you’re on a bike, step off and walk it across.
The Best Time to Visit the Ponte Vecchio
During high season (roughly May through September) the bridge is jam-packed with sightseers during the day. This is especially true of the middle sections which feature spots to look out over the Arno. If you want to experience the Ponte Vecchio with a bit more tranquility go before 8:00am or after midnight.
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