The night the bridges come falling down

When World War II ravaged Florence

Deirdre Pirro
February 8, 2007

Rumours were rife all over the city. Many said the Anglo-American troops had already reached the outskirts of the city. However, one thing was certain. On the afternoon of August 3, 1944, the German High Command in Florence had the following ordinance displayed on the street corners: Beginning from this moment, it is prohibited for anyone to leave their homes and walk in the streets or piazzas of the City of Florence. All the windows, even those in cellars, together with the entrance and hallways of houses, shall remain closed day and night. The population is advised to stay in their cellars, and where they do not have one, to go to a church or other big building. The patrols of the German armed forces have been ordered to shoot at anyone who is found on the street or who appears at the windows.

 

 By dusk, the city was completely deserted. That night five of the then six bridges crossing the Arno—Ponte Santa Trinità, Ponte delle Grazie, Ponte della Vittoria, Ponte della Carraia and the Ponte di Ferro—were all blown up, effectively cutting the city in two.

 

Only Ponte Vecchio was spared. Some say it was considered too fragile to support the weight of Allied tanks; others believed it was because Adolf Hitler had admired it so much on his visit to Florence in 1938. Nonetheless, to block the passage giving access to and from Ponte Vecchio, the two neighbourhoods leading up to it, on both sides of the river, including Por Santa Maria, via dei Bardi, Borgo San Jacopo, and via Guicciardini were also mined and blown up.

 

An old friend of mine, Pietro B. vividly remembers his mother telling him that the Germans had given residents in these areas four hours to leave their homes. At the time, his family lived in an apartment in one of the famous antique towers in Borgo San Jacopo. Believing this measure to be merely a temporary one, his father created a make-shift safe which he cemented into the wall to hide what was left of the family jewels until they could return. Little did they know that all that would be left the following morning was rubble.

 

In fact, the explosion of the mines began at eight o’clock at night on August 3 and lasted right through the night, the worst blast being heard at four in the morning. The next day, the Allied troops reached Porta Romana, and the battle to liberate Florence began and lasted until the end of the month when the city was finally freed.

 

In his book and photographic record entitled 50 War-Damaged Monuments of Italy (published in 1946), Emilio Lavagnini looks at these events that ravaged Italy’s artistic heritage. He maintains that  Ponte Santa Trinità was probably ‘the most important piece of architecture, from the point of view of art, that was destroyed by the war in Italy’.

 

The first Ponte Santa Trinità  had been constructed in 1252. The original structure was replaced between 1566 and 1569 by the bridge built by Bartolomeo Ammanati, based on a design by Michaelangelo, and adorned, at its two ends, by marble statues representing the four seasons.

After the war, it was rebuilt, according to Lavagnini, by using every element of the original bridge that could be ‘fished out of the Arno’. This was done by damming the river. Several pieces were immediately recuperated while others remained in the river’s depths for years. The statue of the Primavera for example, remained headless until 1961, when the head was finally found and restored to its rightful owner.

 

The reconstruction project was entrusted to flamboyant architect Riccardo Gizdulich. He researched photographs and the original drawings left by Ammannati. Studying the fragments dragged up from the bottom of the river, Gizdulich concluded that the original masons must have used special chiselling and cutting implements when building the bridge. He designed similar tools and had them made. A group of artisans then painstakingly fitted together the old pieces of the bridge with new stone taken from the same quarry in the Boboli Gardens that Ammannati had used.  The new bridge took three years to complete and was inaugurated in 1958.

 

The work was paid for by a citizens’ committee headed by the art historian Bernard Berenson, which raised $100,000 abroad, by the Florentines who contributed $30,000 and by the Italian government, which added a final $350,000.

 

So the next time you cross Ponte Santa Trinità or wander along Por Santa Maria, via dei Bardi, Borgo San Jacopo, or via Guicciardini, look up at the mishmash of architectural styles in the buildings there and spare a thought for the night they blew up the bridges.

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