The Ponte Vecchio, meaning “Old Bridge” in Italian, is the oldest bridge in Florence.
It is also the first segmental arch bridge built in the West.
The bridge is an outstanding engineering achievement of the European Middle Ages.
The Ponte Vecchio is noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common.
The bridge is 84 meters (276 feet) long and 32 meters (105 feet) wide.
It consists of three segmental arches: the main arch has a span of 30 meters (98 feet) the two side arches each span 27 meters (89 feet). The rise of the arches is between 3.5 and 4.4 meters (11.5 to 14.5 feet), and the span-to-rise ratio 5:1.
Built very close to the Roman crossing, the Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge across the Arno in Florence until 1218.
After being destroyed by a flood in 1117 it was reconstructed in stone but swept away again in 1333 save two of its central piers, as noted by Giovanni Villani in his Nuova Cronica. The current bridge was rebuilt in 1345.
It is not known who is the designer of today’s bridge but it is believed that it is Taddeo Gaddi or Neri di Fioravanti.
One of its characteristics, shops, are there since the beginning and were first populated with butcher shops and tanners but in 1593 duke Ferdinand I decided to allow only goldsmiths and jewelers to hold shops on Ponte Vecchio because former tenants produced too much garbage and foul smells. The present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.
The back shops (retrobotteghe) that may be seen from upriver, were added in the seventeenth century.
When the Medici moved from Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti, they decided they needed a connecting route from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno that would enable them to keep out of contact with the people they ruled. The result was the Corridoio Vasariano, built in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari and which runs above the little goldsmiths’ shops on the Ponte Vecchio.
During World War II the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River was the only one spared from destruction by the retreating German army. This was allegedly, according to many locals and tour guides, because of an express order by Hitler.
It is said that the economic concept of bankruptcy originated here: when a money-changer 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 1900, to honour and mark the fourth century of the birth of the great Florentine sculptor and master goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, the leading goldsmiths of the bridge commissioned the most renowned Florentine sculptor of the time Raffaello Romanelli to create a bronze bust of Cellini to stand atop a fountain in the middle of the Eastern side of the bridge, where it stands to this day.
There is a relatively recent custom, in which couples declare their “eternal love” by placing a lock on Cellini’s monument.
The Ponte Vecchio’s two neighbouring bridges are the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie.