A century on, the wonder of water has returned to the ramps designed by Giuseppe Poggi.
The water system resumed its original function on May 17 as Florence’s mayor Dario Nardella and Fondazione CR Firenze’s president Umberto Tombari pressed the red button in fittingly “wet” weather. It took 10 minutes for the water to cover the 54 metres between the coat of arms at the top of the hill to the fountains by the San Niccolò tower.
The restoration, which cost approximately 2.5 million euro, was financed by the Fondazione CR Firenze and was managed by Florence city council.
“It’s a joyful occasion to see this massive feat of architecture resume operation like it did a century ago,” commented Nardella at the opening ceremony. “I’d like to thank everyone who made it happen: the Fondazione CR Firenze for financing the project, the council for managing the restoration, everyone who worked on it everyday, and Florentines who spurred us on to revitalize the ramps. We’re truly happy about this unforgettable and historic day.”
“It’s been a very challenging project to complete in nine months,” emphasized Tombari, who subsequently finished his mandate as the foundation’s president on May 23. “Credit must go to the experience, expertise and enthusiasm demonstrated. Florence is home to true excellence without which this project would not have succeeded in such a timeframe…I’m proud to finish my presidency with this proof of the city’s ability to work together.”
The ramps, built between 1872 and 1876 after Florence’s spell as the capital of Italy, wind their way across three levels: the grottos, which consist in stone recesses dug into the walls covered with plaster work and sponges (the restored sponges come from the sea off Livorno) across the first two levels of the ramps; the main tank, consisting of several stone basins covered in sponges, rocks and mosaics; and the cliffs and the little grottos, dotted along the wider sections of the paths, made of stone from the Monte Ripaldi quarries. The function of the ramps was not only embellishment, but first and foremost to stabilize the hillside, given the soil movements documented in the past by Leonardo da Vinci and Giuliano da Sangallo.
The restoration, which began in July 2018, proved to be one of the most complicated in the last 50 years in Florence. 27,000 hours of labour, 100 quintals of materials removed and 1,200 plants up- and re-rooted. The project consisted in three steps: restoring the architecture, creating a new water system and replanting the vegetation. In quiet juxtaposition with the Arno, water flows from the top of the ramps, marked by the city’s fleur-de-lis and a shell, into the first basin before running down to the grottos and into a second basin. An eight-metre-long cascade flows into the final basin constructed in Impruneta, and then into the upper part of the five grottos before reaching an oval tank. The system ends in the massive tank by Torre di San Niccolò and the two basins beside the tower with their cascades. All the water is re-circulated by its own management system, which works independently of the city’s mains supply.
Although no documentation tells us precisely which plants Attilio Pucci, Poggi’s right-hand man, had in mind for the original project, his son Angiolo gives some clues in his Enciclopedia orticola illustrata - Dizionario generale di Floricoltura (1915). As a result of a modern readaptation of this research, water lilies, ivy, jasmine, irises and abelia have been planted in addition to new grass borders in piazza Poggi.
On June 1, the renovation of the ramps will be celebrated with Le Rampe in Festa. From 4 to 11pm, expect free family fun, live music and guided tours of the ramps. At 9.30pm, check out the light and sound show starring the revamped fountains and Torre San Niccolò.
“On the occasion of considerable and extended rainfall, care must be taken to ensure that the rocks don’t fall, and that they can be duly restabilized if necessary, in order to avoid any hazardous land movements which could occur as in the past. Moreover, it is necessary to check that the cascades and water basins are dry during freezing weather, in order to avoid any changes in the masonry and plaster. Regardless of whether not much or plenty of water enrich the cascades of the ramps, they must be deviated during freezing weather, due to the northerly exposure, soil conditions and the state of the masonry that form and support the different basins consisting the ramps.”
—Giuseppe Poggi’s maintenance advice on delivering the original project to the Florence art department
A household name, Giuseppe Poggi’s impact on the city is wide-reaching. The architect’s role was to rethink the city for the nascent bourgeoisie in the 19th century, as Florence began the capital of Italy (1865-71). Known as the risanamento, Poggi’s scouring pad was applied to some of the most beautiful medieval areas, creating piazza della Repubblica, piazza della Libertà and piazza Beccaria, and creating the viali, or ring roads, where the city’s walls once stood. It is thanks to Poggi that we have piazzale Michelangelo, the impressive panoramic point above the city, as well as the “Rampe” that were part of an essential retaining wall on this side of the Arno, whose pedestrian walkway permitted Florentines to stroll up and admire the view.