The scene at the Ponte Vecchio is the same one everyday. Tour groups following the flag of their country shuffle down the bridge. Cameras pop up everywhere as people incessantly snap pictures. Couples pose and students group together. Shopkeepers clean their windows, keeping them spotless for the curious people looking at the dazzling displays of glittering jewelry the bridge shops are famous for.
Hidden above the bridge, however, is something many of these people don’t realize is there.
An overhead passageway connecting the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti on opposite sides of the River Arno, the Vasari Corridor runs over the Ponte Vecchio, sitting right above the bridge’s famous shops. The corridor, which also crosses through mansions, churches and galleries, is almost one kilometer in length.
The corridor began as a passageway for Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Tuscany, and was designed in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari, Cosimo’s official architect. In the 1540s Cosimo and his wife Eleonora de Toledo lived with their family in the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florentine government since the 13th century. Eleonora, who disliked living in the Palazzo Vecchio, bought the Palazzo Pitti across the river and had the family moved there.
Each day Cosimo and his entourage of bodyguards had to travel almost 500 meters through the crowded Florence streets to reach the Palazzo Vecchio. Cosimo, who wasn’t particularly fond of the large crowds of the general public, especially disliked crossing the narrow Ponte Vecchio every day. In the 1550s the bridge was lined with butcher shops and tanneries, the stench of which greatly upset Cosimo’s sensitive nose. In fact, the reason the Ponte Vecchio is lined with jewelry shops today is because during the 1590s the butchers were prohibited from doing further business there and so the shops were taken over by gold and silver merchants instead.
Using the wedding between his son Francesco I and Joanna of Austria in 1565 as an excuse, Cosimo commissioned Vasari to build a walkway connecting his home to the government offices at Palazzo Vecchio. Vasari, a Renaissance artist, architect and art historian, had the corridor designed and completed in just six months, in time for the wedding.
Cosimo claimed the corridor was for the wonder and amazement of the wedding guests but, in reality, the corridor provided him with a hidden escape route from work and home away from the busy Florentine streets below him.
Today the Vasari Corridor is home to a collection of 17th and 18th century paintings by Italian and other European artists. The corridor also houses a large number of self-portraits, though only a small number of them are on display at one time. The collection was started in the 17th century with additions made every century up to the 20th. Self-portraits by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt and Vasari himself are some of the many in the collection.
In 1973 the corridor was restored and opened to the public. A special guided tour known as Il Percorso del Principe is led by Uffizi personnel and takes small groups of usually no more than 30 participants through the corridor. The tour of this relatively unknown treasure of Renaissance art and architecture begins either in the Palazzo Vecchio or in the Uffizi Gallery and goes along the corridor all the way to the Boboli Gardens of the Palazzo Pitti where the tour and corridor end.
The corridor is frequently closed for months at a time and it is unknown when it will be reopened to the public. Private tours can be arranged through Città nascosta (firstname.lastname@example.org). When the corridor is open for tours, tickets usually cost about 28 euro with reduced admission for European Union citizens. For information and future bookings contact Firenze Musei, Tel: +39 0552654321.
Book Guided Tour for the Vasari Corridor and the Uffizi Gallery