Monday, September 22, 2008

The Ponte Vecchio

Bridges always fascinated me. The fact that a road spanning water can be so iconic of a city, while being such an essentially utilitarian structure, is intriguing. Take, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge, London's Tower Bridge, Paris' Pont Neuf and Florence's Ponte Vecchio.

When I arrived in Florence, it was to visit my sister, who was living there at the time as part of a study abroad program through her college. She was lucky enough to get an apartment right in the center of the city, and the Ponte Vecchio was a short walk away.

Most bridges today serve solely as a means to transport people and vehicles across a body of water, beautiful though some of them may be. What I never realized before reading a few novels set in the middle ages was that, throughout history, bridges were often lined with houses, shops and other buildings.

The Ponte Vecchio (literally meaning 'old bridge') is one of the few examples of this practice left standing today.

Standing on the bridge, it was easy to forget that I was over the Arno river and not in an everyday street, since the buildings lining each side give that impression. Only in the center could I see the water below.

At first glance, I didn't like the bridge. It doesn't have the grace or style of others I've visited, and I wasn't exactly familiar with its history.

It wasn't until I saw it lit at night that I suddenly realized how beautiful it actually is. Standing under a clear sky, with my jacket pulled tight against the wind, I stood on the banks of the Arno and just gazed. The lights reflected in the water gave it a surreal feeling, and I suddenly felt a connection with the bridge.

Walking across the crowded structure, I passed shop after shop, mostly selling jewelry. At the time of construction in the mid-1300s, most of those shops belonged to butchers, but the fact that each opens like a treasure chest makes the current residents seem more appropriate.

Walking the bridge is an interesting experience. I was at once dazzled by the expensive jewelry and fine art in the shops, and annoyed with the beggars hawking cheap trinkets. It's the same junk you can find at the Trevi Fountain, Eiffel Tower and half the other attractions in Europe.

Legend has it that when the Germans pulled out of Florence in World War Two, the Ponte Vecchio was spared the fate of demolition Florence's other bridges were sentenced to because Hitler had a particular affinity for the Ponte Vecchio. True or not, it adds to the mystique.

Though I still don’t find the Ponte Vecchio to be the most beautiful bridge in Europe, I can say that it serves as an excellent example of a medieval bridge that retains some of its originality.

As always, whenever I’m in a historically significant or just plain old spot, I feel somehow connected with the people who laid the stones, using technology we would laugh at today for its simplicity. Despite the lack of heavy machines, concrete that set underwater, and modern materials, the men who layed the original roadbed on the Ponte Vecchio managed to get it right. The fact that it still stands is a testament to their craftsmanship, and I find myself wondering if I’m capable of creating something that will last for 700 years.

1 comment:

NorCal Cazadora said...

Interesting! Part of me salutes the builders for taking advantage of the prime pedestrian space; part of me thinks they wasted a good view. But I guess they left the other bridges alone, so what the hell.