Love and Peace on the Ponte Vecchio
There’s hardly a more iconic image of Florence than the famed Ponte Vecchio bridge. Right in the center, at the absolute beating heart of the city, sits this tiny bridge with ancient-looking dwellings dangling over the serene Arno river. The view of the bridge in person, whether it is my first time or my 50th, takes my breath away every time. I’ve heard the whispers and legends, but I recently dug a little deeper into the fascinating history of the Ponte Vecchio to learn more. People have fallen in life-defining love on this bridge. Royalty has taken refuge along hidden parts of this bridge. Wartime truces have been brokered to save this bridge. The biggest take away from my research was that I’m far from the only one who loves it.
Dante Alighieri, the famous Florence-born poet, lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. His Divine Comedy is widely considered the most important poem of the Middle Ages and the greatest literary work in the Italian language. This and others of his work are notable for being written in Italian, rather than Latin, helping to establish the Tuscan dialect as the official Italian language. The Divine Comedy’s beauty and horror have captured and tortured imaginations for centuries.
The ceiling of the Baptistery next to the Duomo in Florence contains an intricate and stunning mosaic depiction of a Dantean heaven, purgatory and hell, which must be seen to be believed. Fast forward to Dan Brown’s 2013 novel Inferno, a fast-paced saga tied again to Dante’s imaginings of hell, and one can just begin to appreciate the scope of Dante’s influence.
As much as Dante was a master poet and a genius, he was also a tragic romantic. It should not surprise us that the man behind the gruesome tortures of hell lived a tortured life himself. The story goes that when Dante was young, he met Beatrice who became the lifelong object of his affection. He claims to have only met her twice, first when the two were children at a party, and years later when they passed on the street and may have exchanged a few words. He apparently did not know her well, they both married other people, and she died young. Despite all of this, he maintained a deep, respectful “courtly” love for her his entire life. She occupied prominent roles in his writing, including in The Divine Comedy where she was a guide through heaven. She has appeared in Renaissance paintings and is as elusive a character as Mona Lisa. Yet historians believe that she did in fact exist.
And now back to the Ponte Vecchio. Legend has it that it was on or near the Ponte Vecchio that Dante encountered Beatrice the second time, when they were both young adults. She died soon after, possibly carried off by the plague. This vision of her— a chance meeting— followed by her untimely death, affected Dante deeply and permanently and informed his writing. In 1295 (shortly after her death), he published La Vita Nuova, a set of love poems he’d been working on for a decade. The last sonnet abruptly ends at the time of her death.
The legend continues 650 years later during World War II. As the Allies advanced up the Italian peninsula in pursuit of the Germans, the German army swiftly destroyed anything that could aid the Allies, including any bridges crossing the Arno river. But no one wanted to destroy Dante and Beatrice’s bridge. The story goes that the Germans made radio contact with the Allies, offering to leave the Ponte Vecchio intact if the Allies would not use it. The promise was kept on both sides.
Is this incredible story true? I can’t say. Nearly every trail of research on this point led me to a self-help book by Robert Johnson called Inner Gold, and its chapter “The Figure of Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy.” The author says “We’re such hard-bitten people that we need hard-bitten proof of things, and this is the most hard-bitten fact I know to present to you. The bridge was spared, in a modern, ruthless war, because Beatrice had stood upon it.” Personally, I choose to believe it.
Returning to the Renaissance, a bit after Dante’s time, the Ponte Vecchio makes an indelible mark on history again. When the Medici family came to power in Florence, crushing the republic, the first thing they did was to kick the elected officials out of the old palace building and make it the seat of their government. They set up their offices next door (now the Uffizi Gallery museum), and moved their private residence to the enormous Palazzo Pitti across the river. Of course, the Medici dukes and duchesses did not enjoy mingling with commoners. So they commissioned a private passageway connecting their offices to their home.
This half mile-long corridor carves right through buildings, even a church, and sits inconspicuously atop the Ponte Vecchio. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll see it in all the photos- look at the line of windows along what appears to be (and is) a second floor of the bridge.
At this time in history, as had been the case for many years, the shops along the Ponte Vecchio were the city’s main meat market. The Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici apparently felt that the elevated corridor was not high enough to avoid the stench of the market. He therefore ordered the meat vendors off the bridge and invited goldsmiths and other metal workers. To this day, the bridge is lined with jewelry shops that charge tourist-level prices.
As for the corridor, it still exists as well and houses a staggering collection of self-portraits from artists all over the world. This collection is in the process of being moved for its protection, as the Uffizi Gallery has grand plans to open the corridor to the public for the first time soon. Historically, only visiting dignitaries and visitors willing to pay a steep price for a private tour have had the pleasure. I myself have been one of those splurging tourists, and while part of me mourns this change, I am also glad that the corridor will be more widely available to visitors.
During my family’s private tour a few years ago, our wonderful guide Freya of Freya’s Florence gave us many tidbits of history. At one point along the corridor she stopped us and told us to gaze to the west along the waters of the Arno. There was a series of windows at that spot that were clearly larger than the rest. Rumor has it that Mussolini ordered the windows changed to enhance the view for a visit by Hitler. We know from historical documents that Hitler did visit Florence in May of 1938. We also know that in 1944, to slow down the advancing Allies, the Nazis bombed all of the bridges in the area other than the Ponte Vecchio. Some say Hitler’s memory of the mesmerizing view from the Ponte Vecchio led to his order to spare the bridge.
I think it was Beatrice.