As the sun rises on Florence, the riverside houses, clutched up against each other facing the River Arno, become shades of the rising sun. Turned yellow as if jealous, they look upon the opposite houses and at the bridge between them. The bridge, equipped with its own houses, hovering over the river as it has done since the middle ages, is known as Ponte Vecchio – the old bridge.
This bridge is one of many – but probably the most iconic – passages into the historic center of Florence, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 and which can easily be explored on foot. But travelers be aware: Florence is so packed with exquisite arts, architecture and culture, that it gave birth to the Stendhal Syndrome; a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and hallucinations when exposed to art. The illness is also called Hyperkulturemia or Florence Syndrome and is named after a 19th century French writer, Stendhal, which described these symptoms on a trip to Florence in 1817. The same year, Lord Byron returned from the Uffizi galleries ‘drunk with beauty’ as he described it and he has since become one man in a long line of people that are intoxicated and overwhelmed by the vast collection of fine arts and impressing architecture in Florence.
Lord Byron would however have become instantly sober, if he was to cross the Ponte Vecchio in the middle ages, as it was inhabited by butchers, who threw their bloody leftovers in the River Arno. Later, the Grand Dukes of the Medici family saw to it, that more unsoiled trade took over and it is said, that the concept of bankruptcy originated here: when a merchant could not pay his debts, the table (“banco”) on which he sold his wares was physically broken (“rotto”) by the law-upholding soldiers and this practice was called “bancorotto”; broken table.
Nowadays, Ponte Vecchio is home to silver- and goldsmiths and other trades, which formal mission it is to suck every dime out of the bewildered tourist. But hold on tight to your wallet as both silversmiths and thieves share same objectives and there are plenty of other ways to spend our money, with the escalating entrance fees in mind.
Above the shops of Ponte Vecchio, a secret passageway known as the Corridoio Vasariano, the Vasari Corridor, links the Uffizi Gallery to the then home of the powerful Medici family, the Palazzo Pitti. This elevated passageway was built by Vasari in 1564 for the Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici and shielded the Medicis from the Florentine mob, as they could safely walk from Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. The kilometer long passage is only accessible by guided tours and the corridor is lined with portraits of the city’s greatest artists. Sadly, it is currently closed due to renovations, but is scheduled to open again in 2018.
Battle of the genders
Back in the Renaissance, the battle of the genders were no different than today: Legend has it, that Eleonora di Toledo, Cosimo de Medici’s Spanish wife, disliked living in the Palazzo Vecchio and as she was in charge of the finances, she seized opportunity and purchased the Palazzo Pitti from the debt-encumbered Pitti family.
Moving the family out of the Palazzo Vecchio, which then both served as city hall and private palace for the Medicis, the Grand Duke was forced to commute almost one kilometer from his new home on the other side of the river through the city streets to the government offices at Palazzo Vecchio. Being a man with many enemies and one who did not mix well with the general public, Cosimo had the Corridoio Vasariano constructed. This is a fine example of Cosimo’s practical thinking: if you can’t beat the player, beat the game.
- Florence official Tourism website
- Palazzo Vecchio website
- Uffizi Gallery official Ticket website
- Vasari Corridor on Wikipedia
- Our article about the Medicis: part managers, part mafia