One of the landmarks of Florence, the Ponte Vecchio or “Old Bridge” spans the river Arno right in the centre of the city. Its jumbled silhouette is one of the city’s most enduring sights, especially at sunset, when the light seems to drench it in gold.

Today the bridge is the place to go for expensive jewellery and luxury watches, but in the past this bridge had a very different atmosphere.

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The Ponte Vecchio – A bit of history

Where today it swarms with tourists, in the 1400s the bridge was populated by a lively throng of rowdy grocers and butchers who would throw their waste directly into the river producing all manner of unpleasant odours.

In 1565, the Vasari corridor was built over the Ponte Vecchio to connect the Palazzo Vecchio to the residence of the Medici Palazzo Pitti. In order to make the bridge air more pleasant smelling for the aristocracy passing above, Grand Duke Ferdinand I evicted the merchants in 1595 and substituted them with goldsmiths and silversmiths. Fortunately for today’s visitors the butchers were never invited back.

There has been a bridge here since Roman times, allowing the via Cassia to stretch onto the other side of the Roman settlement of Florentia. But the ‘modern’ structure was built in 1345 with four towers on each corner to defend it against a possible enemy attack from the river – a common feature in the Medieval art of war. Only the Manelli Tower still stands today, on the southeast corner of the bridge, restored after being damaged during WWII.

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Why does it have that shape?

On the outer side of the bridge you’ll notice how most of the shops stick out in a uniquely higgledy-piggledy manner. The reason? Not being allowed to expand their shops toward the street for lack of space, the shop owners would instead steal a bit of space in the other direction – building new rooms over the river. This making the whole construction the loveable architectural jumble it is today.

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Cellini’s bust – A tribute to the art of goldsmithing

The bronze bust that you see on the Eastern side of the ‘terrace’ on the Ponte Vecchio is of Benvenuto Cellini. As a sculptor he was responsible for “Perseus” in Piazza Signoria. But he was also a master goldsmith, an apt personality to watch over the glittering windows of these prestigious shops.

BEST PHOTO OPPORTUNITY: From Ponte alla Carraia and Ponte Vespucci you can take wonderful pictures of the old bridge with the Florence hills in the background. Spectacular at sunset.

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Did you know?

It was the only bridge in Florence that German spared from bombing during WWII when retreating from Italy, but the nearby buildings were completely destroyed to block it.