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 Essential Architecture-  Florence

Ponte Vecchio

architect

Taddeo Gaddi

location

Florence, Italy

date

1345 and 1564

style

Italian Mediaeval Vernacular

construction

masonry, stone arches

type

Bridge
   
 
  Ponte Vecchio over the Arno, Florence
 
 
The Ponte Vecchio (Italian for Old Bridge) is a famous medieval bridge over the Arno, in Florence, Italy, noted for having shops (mainly jewelers) built along it. It is Europe's oldest segmental arch bridge.

Believed to have been first built in Roman times, it was originally made of wood. After being destroyed by a flood in 1333 it was rebuilt in 1345, this time in stone. Most of the design is attributed to Taddeo Gaddi. The bridge consists of three segmental arches, the main arch has a span of 30 meters (98 feet) the two side arches each span 27 meters (88 feet). The rise of the arches is between 3.5 and 4.4 meters (11 1/2 to 14 1/2 feet), and the rise-to-span ratio approximately 1:5.

It has always hosted shops and merchants (legend says this was originally due to a tax exemption), which displayed their goods on tables after authorisation of the Bargello (a sort of a lord mayor, a magistrate and a police authority).

It is said that the economic concept of bankruptcy originated here: when a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the "banco") was physically broken ("rotto") by soldiers, and this practice was called "bancorotto" (broken table; possibly it can come from "banca rotta" which means "broken bank"). Not having a table anymore, the merchant was not able to sell anything.

In order to connect the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence's town hall) with the Palazzo Pitti, in 1565 Cosimo I de Medici had Giorgio Vasari build the famous "Vasari corridor" above it. To enforce the prestige of the bridge, in 1593 he prohibited butchers from selling there; their place was immediately taken by gold merchants. The corporative association of butchers had monopolised the shops on the bridge since 1442.

During World War II, the Ponte Vecchio was not destroyed by Germans during their retreat of August 4, 1944, unlike all other bridges in Florence. This was allegedly because of an express order by Hitler. Access to Ponte Vecchio was, however, obstructed by the destruction of the buildings at both ends.

Padlocks on the railing of Cellini's statue on the Ponte Vecchio, before being cut away
Padlocks on the railing of Cellini's statue on the Ponte Vecchio, before being cut away

Along the Ponte Vecchio, there used to be many padlocks locked to various places, especially to the fence around the Cellini's statue, a recent tradition perhaps invented by the padlock shop owner at the end of the river, was connected to idea of love and lovers, closing the padlock then throwing the key in the river. This is an example of the negative impact of the mass tourism (thousands of padlocks needed to be removed frequently, spoiling or damaging the structures of the centuries-old bridge) and it seems to have decreased after the city administration put a sign on the bridge mentioning a 50 Euros penalty for those caught locking something to the fence.

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