The Old Bridge, better known as the Ponte Vecchio, is a world renowned monument that draws thousands of people to Florence every year. In a way, the history of the Ponte Vecchio marks the progress of Italy and Florence from the Middle Ages.The first bridge over the Arno River was probably built by the Romans in stone and wood and is mentioned in a document that dates from 996.
A little over one hundred years later the bridge was swept away in a flood. It was rebuilt in stone but two hundred or more years later it was destroyed by another flood, save for its two central piers. Consequently, the bridge was rebuilt again to a design by Taddeo Gaddi. The Ponte Vecchio has three segmented arches with the main arch having a span of 30 metres; the arches either side have spans of 27 metres. The bridge itself has always been a place to do business with shops and merchants buying and selling goods.
It is reckoned that the word bankruptcy originated from the trade that was carried out on the bridge. If a merchant ran out of money and was seriously in debt, the table from where he sold his goods known as a banco was broken i.e. “rotto” in two by soldiers in an act called “bancorotto” or broken bank or break the bank. Without a banco a merchant could not do business. The particular wooden store fronts that spill out onto the walkway were first home to butchers and vegetable sellers, until, in 1593 the grand duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici decided that this was too smelly. The problem was that the famous VASARI CORRIDOR (that links the Palazzo Vecchio to the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace – a handy escape route for the family) passes over the tops of the then-butcher-shops: if you look at the top level of the bridge you can see an even row of square windows lined with pietra serena (grey stone). In order to not pass above odors of mature prosciutto and rotting greens, the Duke decided that the new occupants should be goldsmiths – more appropriate to the luxury of the ruling family.
During the Second World War, the Germans retreated from North Africa into Italy and gradually withdrew back to Germany as the Allies made their way north. The Germans destroyed many fine bridges in Italy and all the bridges in Florence save for the Ponte Vecchio. Even Adolf Hitler recognised that to destroy the Ponte Vecchio was a bridge too many.
However, buildings were destroyed to prevent the Allies easily using the bridge.Following the war, the damaged Ponte Vecchio was repaired with a mix of original and new materials. However, in 1966, another massive flood swept away the shops on the bridge, but the bridge itself withstood the raging waters.