Florence – The Vecchio Bridge and the River Arno

This covered passage is one of the architectural curiosities of Florence. It runs over and under the roofs of other structures, one of which is that of a church. Starting from the top of the second flight of stairs in the Pitti Gallery, situated off to our left, as the map shows, it crosses this bridge above the quaint little goldsmith and jewelry shops that are piled up under it like a heap of chicken coops. Leaving the bridge with a sharp turn it extends along the Lungarno to-ward us a short distance, then turns at right angles and passes into the Uffizi Gallery, and out of this again in the form of a lofty archway into the Palazzo Vecchio. When you look from the dome of the cathedral down upon the old gray tiles which cover it, this curiously constructed gallery that twists in and out among the buildings of the city, sometimes over and some-times under the roofs, resembling a huge serpent. This bridge was constructed by Vasari for Cosimo I so that he might pass unseen and at his pleasure from the Royal Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio where he transacted public business. It was also planned as a means of escape in case a revolution broke out in the city at any time. It was completed in five months.

During the building of this passageway Cosimo first saw the beautiful Camilla Martelli, daughter of one of the goldsmiths whose shops lined the bridge, whom he made his mistress and afterward his wife. But her triumph was of brief duration, for her husband died soon after they were married, and his successor, Francesco, shut her up in the Convent of the Murate, where she made things so uncomfortable for the in-mates that the nuns offered up novenas to be relieved of her presence. Francesco’s successor answered their prayers and removed Camilla to Saint Monaca, which she was never allowed to leave except upon the occasion of her daughter’s marriage with the Duke of Modena. So heavily did her disappointment and imprisonment weigh upon her that she lost her mind entirely and died an imbecile.

Nothing is more fascinating than to enter one of those quaint shops on the Vecchio Bridge and see the old blackened benches which have been used by gold-smiths for centuries and are still in use today; to look upon the old dingy walls, scratched with the name of many an illustrious worker in metals ; and then, to glance out of one of the tiny windows on the tremulous, golden band of the Arno and at the landscape beyond – an exquisite glimpse of sky and water and hilltops – and to view, on either hand, the moss-grown tiles of the city’s roofs. Benvenuto Cellini once had a shop on this bridge, but it has long since been demolished. At the right hand extremity of the bridge stood a hospice of the Knights of Malta in which Ariosto stayed for some months in 1513, and where he met the beautiful Alexandrina Bennucci, who was then passing the first months of her widow-hood there.

Not far from this hospice, and just beyond the upper side of the bridge, stood the statue of Mars, at the foot of which the handsome young Buondelmonte was killed, he having made a secret marriage with Dianora de Bardi, a powerful enemy of his house. In climbing to his wife’s chamber on a ladder made of ropes he was captured as a robber, and rather than betray the secret marriage, he was willing to be executed ; but as they were leading him away to his death the lady rushed through the crowd and publicly claimed him as her husband. His heroism and her devotion saved his life and restored peace, but the latter was only of short duration.

In the middle of that part of the covered gallery which extends along the Lungarno, originally stood a bathing house communicating with the river, whose waters were thought to possess healing qualities and to be a preventative against divers diseases.

This gallery was for centuries closed to the public, and into its mysteries few were permitted to penetrate ; but when the glory of the Medici departed, and it was no longer needed as a pathway for royal fugitives, the doors were thrown open and the entire passageway was hung with paintings, many of them portraits ; and to-day, with immortal works of art on either hand, one can pass over and through the city from the Vecchio to the Pitti Palace.

The first bridge which you see beyond the Ponte Vecchio is the Ponte S. Trinita, originally constructed in 1252 and rebuilt in 1569. Like the Ponte Vecchio it has three arches but, unlike it, it is uncovered. The structure is adorned with allegorical statues, the beauty of which cannot be discerned at this distance.

Beyond the Trinita is seen another bridge, the Ponte alla Carraja, first erected in 1220, but it was swept away by a flood in 1274. Fra Ristoro and Fra Sisto, the Dominican monks who built Santa Maria Novella, rebuilt it at their own expense. They laid the piles most securely in stone, but constructed the bridge itself of wood, and, in consequence a terrible catastrophe occurred here during a theatrical representation conducted by the artist Buffalmacco and given by the residents of the Borgo San Frediano. The river was filled with boats in which were persons rep-resenting demons who, amid floating rafts ablaze with fire and great clouds of smoke, uttered shrieks and cries in imitation of the agony of lost souls ; while the bridge, thronged to its uttermost (every available space on which a human being could stand or to which he could cling being occupied), spanned the river like a living arch. In the intense excitement which swept over the multitude as they heard the heart-rending shrieks of the perishing souls, the crowd on the Ponte alla Carraja became frantic, and the bridge gave way and fell into the river; and many perished either from the fire on the floating rafts or by drowning. In 1867, the bridge was greatly strengthened and widened.

In the distance may be seen the Suspension Bridge (Ponte Sospiri). If you look closely you may see, just this side the bend in the river, its two graceful piers and the fairy-like curve of its cables and the slightly bent bow of its pavement. On either side of the point where the bridge touches the right bank of the river is the Cascine, or park of Florence, which is about two miles in length, containing delightful walks and drives, and affording the inhabitants of the city, as well as the tourist weary of sightseeing, a charming and delightful retreat. The name of the park is derived from a dairy farm to which it once belonged, ” cascina ” being the Italian for dairy. There the military band plays on pleasant afternoons, and near the bandstand is a restaurant and café. The brilliant hues of the flowers, the music, and the gaily dressed crowds of people, make it a very fair and attractive spot. A picturesque element in the scene is the appearance of the flower girls who enter the restaurant and café, and, in the words of Thackeray,

“Who disturb your repose with pecuniary views, Flinging flowers on your plate and then bawling for sous.”

The old tower which you observe on the left bank of the river between the Vecchio and the Trinita bridges belongs to the Church of S. Jacopo sopr’ Arno, in which the nobles assembled in 1293 and resolved to resort to arms rather than be excluded from a share in the control of the government of the city. The houses beyond this church, and lining the river bank, belonged to the famous family of the Soderini, and in one of them – the large one next the church – Nicolo Soderini received St. Catherine of Siena. Back of this old mansion, in a house facing the street, above and parallel to the river, was born the great Florentine captain, Francesco Farrucci, in 1489, and not far distant is the Casa Guidi, where Mrs. Browning wrote Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh, and where she died. Here also lived Lowell and the Hawthornes. Other celebrated visitors to Florence were Queen Victoria, whose favorite residence was the Villa Crawford on the Via Boccaccio, and Mark Twain who, during the winter of 1892–3 occupied the Villa Gherardo, and here he often entertained a select party of friends with stories of his Mississippi steam-boat life and reminiscences of Huckleberry Finn.

To the left of the third bridge, the Ponte alla Carraja, we observe the dome of the church of S. Frediano, a modern structure built on the site of the original convent of S. Maria Maddalena de Pazzi, and the cell of the saint is now a chapel. To the left of the dome of this church, on a superb location on a hilltop, is seen a Carmelite convent surrounded by a stately grove of cypresses.

We will next take our position in the Pitti Palace, which is at the left-hand extremity of this passage-way, a structure which is the most monumental palace in Europe. It has a simple but impressive appearance and seems to be built, not out of blocks and stone, but of sections of granite mountains, so rugged and somber and massive are they. Brunelleschi, who de-signed the dome of the cathedral, planned this palace, but Luca Pitti, the man who incurred the expense of its construction, ruined himself by so doing. It is the most imposing dwelling ever reared by a private citizen, and it was not fully completed until a century after it was begun. ” It shows,” writes George Eliot, ” a wonderful union of Cyclopean massiveness with stately regularity.” The length of the building is four hundred and seventy-five feet and its greatest height is one hundred and fifteen feet, and its grandeur consists largely in its vast lines and gigantic dimensions. This palace has been the residence of the reigning sovereigns of Florence since the middle of the sixteenth century, when it came into the possession of the Medici, and is now the Royal Palace and occupied by the King of Italy when he comes to Florence. The upper part of the royal residence contains the far-famed picture gallery, the rooms of which are most gorgeously decorated.