The Old Bridge and its Goldsmiths
Bent bridges seeming to strain like bows And tremble with arrowy undertide … Casa Guidi Windows, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Often at sunset the Arno becomes a stream of molten gold, confined in its walls of stone and laced into its bed with the curving arches of its spans. That is, during those months when it has a respectable flow of water. But even in the torrid days of August, when the Arno shrivels into muck and spittle, its two famous bridges retain their distinctive beauty. The most famous of these, the Ponte Vecchio, the ‘Old Bridge’, crosses the Arno at its narrowest point; the present bridge, with its three stone arches, was built in 1345, and replaces a wooden construction from the 970s, the successor to a span that may well have dated back to the Romans.
In the Paradiso (canto 16, 145–7) Dante recalls the murder of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti in 1215, the event that touched off the eternal wars of Guelph and Ghibelline: ‘How fitting for this battered stone that guards the bridge, that Florence should make its peace a victim here...’
The stone was of course the Marzocco, the ancient statue of the war god Mars. In 1333, only 12 years after Dante’s death, an Arno flood washed away stone, bridge and all; the replacements would be the bridge you see today, protected by a new leonine Marzocco (sculpted by Donatello, which in turn has been carted off to the Bargello.
Like old London Bridge, the Ponte Vecchio is covered with shops and houses. By the 1500s, for hygienic reasons, it had become the street of hog butchers, although after Vasari built Cosimo’s secret passage on top, the Grand Duke, for olfactory reasons, evicted the butchers and replaced them with goldsmiths.
It survived the Second World War, but only just. As the retreating Germans blew up all the bridges in Florence to hinder the Allies, a deal was struck to preserve the old bridge on the condition that the approaches were dynamited.
The goldsmiths still hold down the fort, and shoppers from around the world descend on it each year to scrutinize the traditional Florentine talent for jewellery – many of the city’s great artists began their careers as goldsmiths, from Ghiberti and Donatello to Cellini, who never gave up the craft, and whose bust adorns the middle of the bridge.
In the 1966 flood, the shops did not prove as resilient as the Ponte Vecchio itself, and a fortune in gold was washed down the Arno.