Is the Ponte Vecchio really paved with gold?

Modern metalsmiths and the historic monument

Phoebe Owston
November 30, 2018 - 17:16

She’s on the A-list of bridges, up there with Brooklyn, Tower, Sighs and Golden Gate. Most visitors to Florence will find themselves at some point crossing, photographing, admiring or cursing the Ponte Vecchio (the latter due to the amount of elbowing needed to get through the crowds). After more than 800 years of existence it’s just as hustling and bustling as it was when sixteenth-century butchers occupied the shops that line her deck. But the Ponte Vecchio isn’t just host to throngs of tourists, she’s a “trade” bridge, home over the centuries to varying professions and, since the Medici, has held the gold, silver and metalsmiths of Florence in her loving arms. A bridge, or crossing, has existed at the narrowest point of the Arno since Roman times. Part of the via Cassia, the ancient Roman road that passed through Arezzo, Florence and Pistoia before reaching modern-day Liguria, the traverse has always been a practical tool for movement within the city. Until the thirteenth century it was the only way to cross the Arno and shops didn’t spring up until the fourteenth century, when due to the flux of traffic, human and otherwise, it was the perfect spot for selling one’s wares. Its modern-day appearance was adopted after the 1333 flood when it was largely damaged like the Ponte alla Carraia bridge and was rebuilt, probably designed by the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella, who were known experts in building large vaults.


Ph. Eftihia Buffington

The local government began renting shop space on the Ponte Vecchio in the fourteenth century and the initial commercial enterprises were fish and meat businesses. Having bought Palazzo Pitti and coming into more frequent contact with the bridge, the Medici changed the status quo in the 1600s, banishing all the butchers before the gold- and silversmiths moved in. At this point, the coveted florin had been around for a few hundred years. The fiorino d’oro was the first European gold coin introduced in sufficient quantities since the seventh century and it played a significant commercial role, symbolising the Medici’s financial power. Today you can find necklaces, rings and earrings that reproduce this cute token for sale all over the city. While copies of the fiorino prove the perfect souvenir for tourists, the destiny of the serious gold and silver is often left uncertain, leaving us to ponder if browsing tourists ever commit to a sale or if it’s still a largely Florentine client base.

Speaking to Fratelli Piccini, one of the oldest gold and jewellery maisons on the Ponte Vecchio, founded over 100 years ago and having presented at the 1936 Venice Biennale, winning the 1958 Diamond award as well as surviving the Second World War, authenticity is still at the heart of their craftsmanship and at the heart of what the customer wants, tourist or otherwise. In the last ten years artisanal production on the bridge has significantly reduced, meaning that the artisan practises and knowhow of an atelier like Fratelli Piccini is no longer the norm. Many shops have turned to industrialising their methods as well as selling big name brands and introducing watches and other products. The concept of prêt-à-porter jewellery, which sits between high fashion haute couture and everyday wearable pieces created by artisans, is becoming increasingly desired with Fratelli Piccini reacting by changing up their stones, adding lots of colour by working with malachite, lapis lazuli and granite while maintaining the sense of story that every piece produced innately has. Imparting the history of the maison and providing bespoke customer care is central to why a client peruses the Ponte Vecchio for their purchase of a lifetime and ends up at this family-run business. The pieces go from drawing on paper to a jewel-adorned auric masterpiece through a process of client-based meetings where the ritual of trying on the piece and seeing it at various stages of its development is almost as important as taking it home.


Illustration by Nicola Giorgio

When it comes to the link between Florence and the material itself, Fratelli Piccini make it clear that the close ties are due to both the potential of the material and the deep appreciation for the artisan that brings the Florentine and the tourist here. Gold itself is a beautiful material but what one can achieve with gold is what makes it special. The malleability of the material calls for a certain dexterity in order for it to fulfil its potential, but it means that when used creatively, never-seen-before shapes, forms and structures can be created.

In Florence, what attracts the customer, despite the increased industrialisation on the bridge, is the relationship between the material and the artisan. Hundreds of years ago, the Ponte Vecchio became the seat of goldsmithing in central Italy and remains so today. Yes, the artisan workshops have had to adapt, but fighting back against industrialisation, by opening their doors and allowing visitors and customers to see the manual nature of working with the metal, means that going against the tide brings uniqueness and success, and proves the appetite of all customers for authenticity and for independent skilled craft. The type of customer, Florentine, tourist or otherwise, on the Ponte Vecchio matters not, as everybody who has an appreciation for the material and the work that goes into it can cross over the bridge into this halcyon world.


Tree of life

This Christmas, a sculpture will stand in the square in front of San Miniato al Monte to mark the millennium of the beloved basilica. The three metre tall Tree of Life was crafted by Florentine artist Roberta Cipriani in collaboration with historic Ponte Vecchio jewellers Fratelli Piccini, and symbolizes our time on the earth from our early roots to passage to heaven. The flower at the base stands for the transformative power of life, in which the flower becomes a trunk and stretches out its branches into the sky. “Fruit of justice is sown in Peace for those who do Peaceful deeds.” “I placed you at the centre of the world so that from there you could best observe all that is in the world.” “The sky reflects on the Earth and from the Earth a loving fire rises up towards God.” These are the three expressions chosen for the sculpture’s trunk by the abbot of San Miniato al Monte Bernardo Gianni, CEO of Fratelli Piccini Elisa Tozzi Piccini and the artist. The artwork will be inaugurated on December 2 at 4.30pm.

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