Venice has the Rialto, Florence has the Ponte Vecchio. The bridge that famously survived the war is surely the sight most snapped in all the city. Yet perversely, of the five bridges in what I consider the city centre, the Ponte Vecchio is the one I tread the least. Partly because, in Normal Times, it’s always choked with people; partly because I’ve never much liked its landfall on either bank; and partly because, aside from the short middle section without any jewellers, there’s no view.
I used to live in via dei Serragli, the district border between San Frediano and Santo Spirito. The house was disintegrating, the landlord was a cretin, and the two brothers who lived above us bawled at each other and obviously hadn’t washed for decades: you could smell them and their poor dog on the staircase. But it had one undeniable thing going for it. All I had to do was step out the door, turn right, walk a hundred yards, and I was standing over the Arno, with Ponte alla Carraia beneath my feet.
Ponte alla Carraia, unlike the Ponte Vecchio, does have a view, one of my favourites in the world. Back in August and September 2015, I was doing an Italian course at The British Institute and staying with an old signora in borgo Ognissanti, and most of those balmy summer nights I would cross the bridge for an ice cream from Gelateria La Carraia. Four years later, in via dei Serragli, I would approach it from the south side, reach its apex and just stand there, gazing downriver, hankering after the pale outlines of the Apuan Alps. Sometimes I’ve caught a whiff of salt on the prevailing wind, and thought that surely I’m imagining it: I’m too far upstream. But then again, we see seagulls even this far inland, wheeling over the nutrias on the backed-up river wood.
If the mountains form the backdrop to the view west, the foreground stars another bridge, Ponte Vespucci. Completed in 1957, it was christened after that man of the New World who began life very much in the Old one; Amerigo Vespucci also had the misfortune to lend his name to Florence’s airport. Hardly the prettiest transfluvial in Florence, looking at it is less rewarding than looking from it: the view over the weir of Santa Rosa is a feast for the senses, as the fringe of tumbling water roars in the ears and throws up that wonderful river smell. Over the last couple of years, however, Ponte Vespucci has been tainted by two things. A homemade plaque, tied to the railings, remembers 53-year-old Idy Diene, who was shot dead while crossing the river on March 5, 2018. Five months later, on August 18, Genoa’s Ponte Morandi collapsed, and the Comune di Firenze ordered repair works on Vespucci: in Riccardo Morandi the two bridges had shared an architect.
Flat as Ponte Vespucci is, it cannot match the plumbness of the bridge east of the Ponte Vecchio. My favourite crossing-point in terms of walking ergonomics, Ponte alle Grazie also gives a clear, unimpeded view up the Arno valley. Despite relatively brutalist appearances it dates back to 1227; though when we consider that Ponte Rubaconte, as it was called for centuries, had ten arches and was strewn with strutted chapels and oratories, its claim to originality is doubtful. Its modern name comes from the little oratory of Santa Maria delle Grazie on the north bank, a place whose favour with the lovesick betrays the romance even behind one of the city’s less romantic viaducts.
There is no doubting the romantic credentials, however, of the bridge in the middle of our five. Slender and bowed, but buttressed by the most massive buttresses, Ponte Santa Trinita was hailed by Mary McCarthy, the not-so-easily impressed woman of letters, as the most beautiful in Florence, perhaps the world. Eve Borsook, in her The Companion Guide to Florence (1966), called it “the keystone of the Florentine panorama” and of all the bridges “the only one which was conceived as a work of art in itself”. The famous elliptical arch that glides between the banks is said to have been sketched by Michelangelo, but the real pontifex was Bartolomeo Ammannati, working to the orders of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. Trinita was built between 1567 and 1569, and unlike Carraia, which had collapsed three times before 1334, it weathered everything until the German mines.
Its reconstruction took time; its flawlessness of design baffled everybody. The Italian Ministry of Public Works quietly approved a structure of reinforced concrete, but the Florentines would not hear of it: for them, a perfect bridge was an unalterable as one of nonna’s recipes. That perfection was painstakingly pieced together by a horde of architects and engineers, who were basically working from memory; funds were raised by auctioning off individual stones, purchased by those who wanted to see at least one part of their city restored exactly as it was. They got their wish. Now, as we try to lift Florence back to its feet, the resurrection of Ponte Santa Trinita is an example of the resolve and creativity with which Italians tend to confront a crisis.
It also shows us that the Ponte Vecchio is not the only bridge in Florence, and that the Florentines have never thought of it as such. On a broader level, it reminds us that there is so much more than what fills the Instagram stories and the Facebook cover photos.