Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Arno River and the Bridges of Florence

When in Florence, it's hard to miss the Arno River.

This magnificent river flows from Mount Falterona (in the Apennines mountains), down through Florence, Empoli, and finally Pisa, where it deposits into the sea.

Several bridges span the Arno in Florence, all of which can be crossed a piedi (on foot) and all but the Ponte Vecchio permit cars to cross. From east to west, the bridges in order are:  Ponte alle Grazie, Ponte Vecchio, Ponte a Santa Trinita', Ponte Carraia, and Ponte Amerigo Vespucci.

Ponte alle Grazie

Originally built in 1227, it was rebuilt in 1345 and over the next two years had buildings attached, much like the Ponte Vecchio.  These buildings were removed in 1876 when a railway track was installed.  In 1944, German troops, retreating out of Florence, destroyed all but one of the bridges crossing the Arno, including the Ponte alle Grazie.  The current version of the bridge was completed in 1953 and is much more modern in design than the previous bridges.

Ponte Vecchio

The most famous bridge of Florence, the Ponte Vecchio (translation: "Old Bridge") is what is pictured on many postcards and travel brochures.  This bridge, in its current form, has been spanning the Arno since 1345 and is the only bridge in Florence that wasn't destroyed by the German Army in World War II.  For more on this bridge, please see my blog post from last November: here.

Ponte a Santa Trinita'

There has been a bridge at this location since at least 1252.  Originally built from wood, flood waters knocked that one down and a second bridge was built, but this version was also destroyed by a flood in 1333.  It was rebuilt once again, this time designed by Taddeo Gaddi (designer of the Ponte Vecchio) who used stone in the construction.  However, once again, it was destroyed by a flood in 1557.  Again, it was rebuilt.  Bartolomeo Ammanati designed it using stones from a local quarry.  Ammanati's version was finished in 1569 and 39 years later, four statues were added to the ends of the bridge in celebration of Cosimo II de Medici's wedding.

Unfortunately, this bridge was destroyed as well in 1944.  This time, it was not flood waters to blame, but war.  Once again, the bridge was rebuilt in the same location.  Thanks to Bernard Berenson, an American art historian living in Florence at the time, donations were gathered to rebuild it using the original materials.  This current version of the bridge is what stands today and is the world's oldest elliptic arch bridge.

Ponte alla Carraia

Originally built from wood in 1218 by the architect Lapo, the Ponte alla Carraia was destroyed by flood in 1274.  It was rebuilt with stone and wood, but this version of the bridge was also destroyed...this time not by flood waters, but by the weight of spectators, several of which died, in 1304 as they gathered to watch a show on the river.  It was rebuilt after the flood of 1333 (the first of the bridges of Florence to be rebuilt at that time), but was destroyed once again in 1557.  The next version of the bridge was designed by Bartolomeo Ammanati (designer of the Santa Trinita' Bridge), who was commissioned by Cosimo I de Medici.  The current version of the bridge was finished in 1948, after Ammanati's bridge was destroyed by German troops in 1944.

Ponte Amerigo Vespucci

Ponte Amerigo Vespucci in the distance
This bridge was originally built in 1949 with materials from the other bridges of Florence which were destroyed in 1944.  The current version of the bridge was built in 1957 after a competition was held for a new design.  What stands today is a very modern looking bridge, compared to the other bridges of Florence.  It has three spans and is supported by two piers.  With very clean lines and modern design, it resembles a ribbon stretched from one shore to the other.

To the west, the Parco delle Cascine runs along the Arno.  There, you can stroll along the Viale Abramo Lincoln and the Viale Giorgio Washington, which follow along the shoreline.

West of the Piazzale Kennedy in the Parco delle Cascine, you can find a pescaia, or "low dam", in the Arno, regulating the flow of the river.  (Note: there is another pescaia further upstream, betwee the Ponte Amerigo Vespucci and the Ponte Carraia.)

As you walk along the Viale, ending at the Piazzaletto dell'Indiano, you will see the Ponte all'Indiano, the first earth-anchored, cable-stayed bridge in the world, which was completed in 1978.  The bridge has two levels:  a level for pedestrians below and a level for cars above.

The Arno, itself, is a beautiful thing, yet it can also be quite temperamental.  There have been many floods over the centuries - the most recent being in 1966, which killed around 100 people and destroyed many priceless works of art after the river rose to above 6.7 meters (more than 22 feet) in less than 24 hours.

Simone pointing to a sign indicating the crest of the Arno on 4 November 1966

Since the flood of 1966, several engineering developments have taken place, such as the construction of the Bilancino Dam along the River Sieve, which is a major tributary to the Arno River.  With these projects, it is hoped that the devastating floods which happened in the past will be avoided in the future.

When visiting Florence, take some time to stroll along the Arno.  Take plenty of photos and be on the lookout for birds and wildlife who make the Arno their home.  It's a beautiful river that is well worth your time!

A Florentine Beaver at home on the Arno!

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