Bridges are charged places in the geography of any city, and in Florence that is true above all for the Ponte Vecchio – the first bridge (although this one dates from the 1340s, built after its predecessor was swept away by flooding). Originally built to transport goods in and out of the city, connecting Florence with Rome to the south, the Ponte Vecchio, as Giovanni says, was a working bridge. It was packed with butchers as well as other artisan crafts. At the same time, it was a conduit between the original city and the newer south side of the river, a place that always had its own sense of political identity. In 1343, the citizens of the Oltr’arno – literally the place “beyond the Arno”, considered down at heel in comparison to the civic centre of Florence – threatened to “cut the bridges and make a city for ourselves” if they didn’t get what they saw as fair representation in the Palazzo della Signoria. It’s no coincidence that the principal rivals of the Medici, a solidly north of the Arno family, in the later fifteenth century were the Pitti and Soderini, both Santo Spirito clans.
Thus the Ponte Vecchio was a liminal space, a boundary, and this gave its processional role a greater significance. The St John celebrations that Giovanni describes ritually connected the two sides of Florence under the protection of its patron saint. These rituals were part of the glue that bound citizens together.
The symbolic investment in the Ponte Vecchio only increased after Giovanni’s time, but the nature of that investment shifted. In the mid sixteenth century, Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to build the corridor along the top, connecting the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti, where the new ducal court was based (the Medici finally and fully colonising the south side of the Arno). In 1593, Grand Duke Ferdinando I had the old trades moved off, for the “beauty of the city”, and the goldsmiths moved in. As the enabling legislation said, it wasn’t considered fitting that a bridge frequented by nobles and foreigners should be full of butchers. The Ponte Vecchio had become the showpiece that visitors see today – its civic function primarily seen in aesthetic terms.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Bridging the Arno’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/1-bridging-the-arno/
Maria Luisa Bianchi and M. Grossi, ‘Botteghe, economia e spazio urbano’, in La grande storia dell’artigianato, vol. II, eds. Franco Franceschi and Gloria Fossi (Florence: Giunti, 1999), 26-63
Roberto Mancini, ‘Il principe e l’artigiano. Propositi di emarginazione sociale nella Firenze del Cinquecento’, in La grande storia dell’artigianato, Vol III, eds. Franco Franceschi and Gloria Fossi (Florence: Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, 2000)
Richard Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York: Academic Press, 1980)