Florence’s left bank, the Oltrarno, is relatively small, squeezed in between the Arno and the hills, but it manages to seem more green and serene than the dense stone canyons that characterize the right bank. Its streets were fashionable in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the feisty nobility lived in tower houses during the violent scrums between the Guelphs and Ghibellines.
Afterwards, wealthy merchants and bankers developed the neighbourhood – the Bardi clan, most notably, who bought up a whole street of a slum known as Borgo Pigiglioso (‘flea pit’) and made it into the Via de' Bardi lined it in almost its entirety with family palazzi. Once in fashion, the Oltrarno never really fell out, especially once the Grand Dukes took up residence in the Pitti Palace.
Today the Oltrarno is central Florence’s last real residential neighbourhood, the streets lined with bakeries and barber shops instead of boutiques and restaurants. It is also now a really sought-after area to live in (property prices in Santo Spirito are among the highest in Florence) and has become increasingly trendy in the past 10 years, so there are also lots of bars, restaurants and nightspots here too.
Although at first glance even these streets seem severe, there are plenty of details to pick up – don’t keep your eyes at street level. If you look up, the buildings reveal intricate stone carvings, wrought-iron work and frescoes. The Italians tend not to draw their curtains, so after dark you’ll often see amazing ceilings and chandeliers through the tall windows of the piano nobile. Rooftop terraces and gardens are always a delight, especially in spring and summer when they are a riot of flowers. If you find doorways to grand buildings open, step inside if you dare; there’s often a spectacular courtyard or hidden garden waiting to be discovered.
Even when they are closed, these doors, often immensely thick with all sorts of decorations or great studs in them, are worth a glance. Don’t forget the doorbells – there are some wonderful little wrought-iron gargoyles about. The names on the buzzers of the flats, or on the shop signs of the butcher’s or furniture restorer’s, are often the very same that shine in Florence’s chronicles. Also keep an eye peeled for the plaques marking the high water-mark of the flood of 1966; some old façades still bear a faded mark as well.
Start by strolling over the Ponte Vecchio. Vasari’s corridor runs along the top of the bridge on the left-hand side. This was built in 1564 for Cosimo I when he moved from the Palazzo Vecchio into the Pitti Palace, at the insistence of his wife, Eleanor of Toledo, whose health was failing; they had hoped the gardens and more airy and spacious halls of the Pitti would make her better (it didn’t – she died within two years).
The Corridor, linking the new Medici residence to Cosimo’s new office building, the Uffizi, was built post-haste – four builders were killed on the site – because Cosimo had already survived more than one assassination attempt, including an ingenious one discovered by his spies before it was too late – a cheval-de-frise, bristling with swords and spikes, sunk under the Arno just where the Grand Duke liked to dive in to cool off in the summer.
The buildings opposite the end of the Ponte Vecchio were rebuilt after the war, after the fleeing Germans blew them to smithereens to block access to the bridge. To the left, at the end of the bridge, the Corridor was forced to snake on brackets around the medieval Torre dei Mannelli when the owner adamantly refused to let Vasari ram it through the interior of the building.
Opposite, towards Borgo San Jacopo, the bottom floor of the Casa dei Templari, once headquarters of the Knights Templar in Florence, survived the Nazi dynamite, while the rest was carefully rebuilt ‘dové era, com’era’ (where it was, as it was).
Turning right into Borgo San Jacopo at the end of the Ponte Vecchio, opposite you will see the Torre dei Rossi Cerchi, a rebuilding of a typical tower house from the 1200s (now part of a hotel) with a fountain at its foot made of a Roman sarcophagus (or rather it, too, is a copy of the one blown up in the war) topped by a handsome if anonymous bronze 16th-century Bacchus.
Continuing along Borgo San Jacopo, you’ll find two other 13th-century tower houses (the Torre di Belfredeli on the right and the Torre dei Barbadori opposite) that have been restored on either side at the corner of Via Ramaglianti, and another further on at No.17, the Torre dei Marsili, marked by a beautiful Della Robbia Annunciation in a lavish frame, with two kneeling angels on the sides.
Next comes the pretty façade of the 11th-century church of San Jacopo sopr’Arno, sporting a series of delightful little gargoyles above the three arches of its portico, supported by ancient columns and others from the 12th century. In preparation for his great dome on the cathedral, Brunelleschi practised building a dome here without supports, over the Cappella Ridolfi, although it was destroyed when the interior was remodelled in the 18th century.
Borgo San Jacopo ends in the Piazza Frescobaldi and the fountain with its Medici crest under the triangular room on the corner of Borgo San Jacopo and Via dello Sprone. Via di Santo Spirito is lined with fine palaces and medieval towers pruned by the Republic, belonging to some of the oldest noble families in Florence, embellished with coats of arms above doorways, and some marvellous internal gardens if you are lucky enough to find doors open.
Note the little carved arches at waist level, built into the buildings. Some have been blocked up, are used as postboxes or simply as decoration, but they were originally used to dispense wine to thirsty passers-by. Note too the terracotta Madonna on the left-hand corner just past Via Maggio; at No.27 the R painted on the wall is the kind of relic still common in many Italian cities: it stands for rifugio – a bomb shelter from the war.
The westernmost quarter within the medieval walls, Borgo San Frediano is known for its workshops and unpretentious antique dealers. Via S. Spirito ends in Piazza Sauro (leading to the Ponte alla Carraia).
From here, take the Lungarno Soderini and follow the river along to the parish church, San Frediano in Cestello, its blank unfinished poker face a landmark along this stretch of the Arno. This was an early church, rebuilt in 1698, with an elegant cylindrical drum and a funny puny Baroque campanile. The interior is grandly Baroque, and contains among the 18th-century frescoes, a famous 13th-century smiling polychrome statue of the Virgin, the Madonna del Sorriso (third chapel on the left). The massive low building at the end of the piazza was a granary built by Cosimo III in 1695.
At the end of the Lungarno Soderini, the Torrino di Santa Rosa, often remodelled after it was built in 1324 has a tabernacle protecting an early 18th-century Pietà, attributed to Ghirlandaio.
Going left from here, you can make out a last stretch of Florence’s medieval walls, leading towards the massive Porta San Frediano (1334), a tall tower gate built by Andrea Pisano guarding the Pisa road, with its old wooden door, mighty nails and locks still in place, although not quite as picturesque as it was when Filippino Lippi painted in the Pala Nerli, now in the church of Santo Spirito.
Images by: Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, PD Art