Many centuries ago, bridges served many purposes. Aside from getting you over water, it was common for medieval bridges to have chapels and shops built over them, and many were fortified with towers and ramparts because bridges served important entry points to the cities. The Ponte Vecchio or the “Old Bridge” over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, is a medieval stone bridge noted for still having shops built along it.
The first bridge over the Arno River was probably built by the Romans in stone and wood and is mentioned in a document that dates from 996. The bridge was swept away in a flood in 1117 and was rebuilt in stone only to be destroyed again by another flood in 1333, save for its two central piers. Consequently, the bridge was rebuilt again, twelve years later, designed by the Italian painter and architect Giotto’s most talented pupil Taddeo Gaddi, who was a painter and architect in his own right.
Today, the Arno River is spanned by six bridges all of which can be crossed on foot or by cars, except Ponte Vecchio, which doesn’t allow vehicular traffic. That’s because this iconic medieval bridge is always crowded with shoppers.
The Ponte Vecchio has been home to shops across its span since the 13th century. Merchants would sell their goods on tables after receiving approval to do so from the proper authorities. When a merchant couldn’t pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the "banco") was physically broken ("rotto") by soldiers, effectively shutting down their business. This practice was called "bancorotto" and is believed that the economic concept of bankruptcy originated here.
The shops belonged to the Commune and were rented out, originally to butchers, fishmongers, and tanners. But these merchants produced so much garbage and foul stench, that Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici threw them out and replaced them with goldsmiths. The problem was that the Vasari Corridor that connects Florence's town hall with the palace of the ruling family, passes over the Ponte Vecchio and had to bear the foul smell. So the duke decided that the new occupants of the bridge should be goldsmiths. Jewelers still make up a majority of the Ponte Vecchio shops today. In fact, some of Florence’s best jewelers sell their creations on this medieval bridge. There are also some art studios and souvenir shops.
Towards the 15th century, the shops that were originally on rent were sold to private owners and they began to alter the superstructure adding external terraces and rooms that extended towards the river supporting on wooden props. By the 17th century the bridge had taken on a chaotic appearance that we see today.
During the Second World War, when the Germans withdrew from Italy back to Germany, they destroyed many fine bridges in Italy to thwart the advances of the Allies. All the bridges in Florence were blown up, but Ponte Vecchio was spared. Instead they blocked access by demolishing the medieval buildings on each side. Even Adolf Hitler recognized that destroying Ponte Vecchio would be a crime too many.
The three central arched windows was added in 1938 by Mussolini for the benefit of Adolf Hitler, so that the Fuhrer could enjoy a good view of Florence, when he was invited for a state visit. Photo credit
Jewelry shops line on both sides over Ponte Vecchio. Photo credit
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