This article is based on extracts from Chris Dobson’s eBook The Ponte Vecchio. The Old Bridge of Florence. For more details about the book, which covers the whole story of the Ponte Vecchio and the Vasari Corridor, follow the links at the end of the article.
In 1540, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and his new Spanish bride Eleonora of Toledo moved from the Palazzo Medici in the Via Larga to the Palazzo della Signoria. For Centuries the Palazzo had been associated with the seat of government by the Florentines, so this reinforced Cosimo’s claim to absolute power, but it was also much easier to defend than the old family home, and had more space for the Ducal retinue and Cosimo’s personal bodyguard of 300 Swiss mercenaries. With their move, it became known as the Palazzo Ducale: the Ducal Palace.
The couple spent over ten years in residence there, but Eleonora disliked the cramped old Palazzo, but in the February of 1549/50* Eleonora got the opportunity to acquire the new home she wanted: 9,000 gold Scudi from her dowry were used to purchase the Palazzo Pitti over the river in Oltrarno. This 15th Century property had never been fully completed, and a great deal of work would be necessary to bring it up to the standards required by the Duke and Duchess, who intended to expand it to be a suitable home for their growing family, and a fitting official residence for themselves and their retinue, set in beautiful terraced gardens reaching up onto the Boboli hill to the rear.
*According to the Florentine calendar pre-1750 the New Year fell on March 25th, so this was still 1549 for Cosimo and Eleonora, but the year is 1550 by modern reckoning.
Eleonora was planning a family home for a dynasty, but Cosimo was thinking of architecture as an expression of his Dukedom: he wanted it to bring harmony to the urban fabric, but it was also intended as an unmistakable expression of his absolute political power. In the 1540’s he was already planning to unite all the various offices of government in one administrative centre, and in 1546, he opened up a street down from the Palazzo Ducale to the river Arno, beginning the demolition of many houses and workshops in that densely-populated area, all with an eye to building the new government offices there. The death of Pope Julius III in 1555 gave him the opportunity to bring his vision for the architecture of Florence into being. The Pope’s death freed two individuals from his service: Giorgio Vasari and Bartolomeo Ammannati. Cosimo sought Vasari as both artist and architect, and Vasari introduced Ammannati to the Duke for his skills as both sculptor and architect. Cosimo took them both into his service, and while Vasari began work on the Palazzo Ducale, Ammannati was engaged on the Palazzo Pitti. In Cosimo and Vasari we have one of those perfect meetings of minds between artist and patron, and Vasari is at pains in his writings to stress the rapport between his artistic ideas and the will of the Duke. The two developed a lifelong close relationship, and Vasari acted as Cosimo’s Superintendent of Works in the modern sense. In early 1561 work commenced on the new government administrative centre that Vasari had designed for Cosimo, which was at first called the Magistrati (the ‘Magistrates’), the building that we now know as the Uffizi, or ‘Offices’, today one of the greatest art galleries in the world. In the same year Cosimo and his family moved to the Palazzo Pitti. With the move to their new palazzo, the Palazzo Ducale became the ‘Old Palazzo’, or Palazzo Vecchio, the name that it bears to this day.
Sadly, Eleonora had precious little time to enjoy her new home and gardens after the family had moved in. In October 1562 Cosimo embarked on a tour of fortifications and engineering projects in the Maremma, and he took Eleonora with him, as well as three of their four sons: Ferdinando (13 years old), Garzia (15) and Giovanni (19). Malarial fever was raging through the area, and disaster struck the ill-fated trip: first Giovanni came down with malaria, to which he succumbed at Leghorn on the 20th of November, being followed first by Garzia on the 12th of December, and then Eleonora on the 17th, who died in Cosimo’s arms. Ferdinando alone survived the fever. Cosimo himself was untouched, but only physically. He had suffered the grief of losing children before, but the tragedy of losing his dear companion and two of their children within the space of a single month left him absolutely inconsolable.
It was said that Cosimo “threw himself into a hundred follies” to distract himself from his grief, and he certainly poured his energy into his building projects. Work on the Palazzo Pitti was ongoing, and the Uffizi was making progress quickly. Although Cosimo devoted himself to these projects, he seems never to have fully recovered from his grief, and in June 1564, whilst retaining the title of Duke, he delegated most of his duties to his son Francesco. Being the heir apparent to the dynasty, a suitable bride would have to be found for Francesco, and a match was arranged with Joanna of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and Anne of Bohemia and Hungary. Francesco travelled to Innsbruck to meet Joanna, and on the 17th of October 1565 one of his entourage, Bartolommeo Concino, wrote to Cosimo in Florence, describing the meeting of the young couple, and in doing so, he mentioned Cosimo and Vasari’s next great building project:
“Today His Excellency [Francesco] gave her one of the medals of Your Excellency with the Magistrates on the reverse, adding that he was showing her that reverse so that she might comprehend the Corridor from the Palace to the Pitti, which your Excellency was having made at her instance. She received it most happily.”
This was what Giorgio Vasari was later to describe as the “great corridor”, the ‘umbilical cord’ that was designed to link the official residences of father and son with the new seat of government, by passing right over the Ponte Vecchio. History has given it his name: it is now known as the Vasari Corridor.
The reason for this corridor takes us back to the Pazzi Conspiracy and the later assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici in 1537. Cosimo himself survived several assassination attempts, dealing with the culprits brutally, and his own agents had caught up with Alessandro’s murderer, Lorenzaccio, in Venice in 1548, stabbing him to death in public. To an absolute ruler like Cosimo, this risk of assassination was ever-present, and in public he wore a mail shirt beneath his doublet and was surrounded by an armed bodyguard. How much simpler then, to have your own aerial walkway raised safely above street level, keeping you out of the mud of the streets and the inclement weather, and without the need to arrange an armed retinue to accompany you, horses to ride, or even a carriage?
Considering Cosimo’s great vision for the development of the Uffizi and his official residence over the river, the decision to physically link them must have pre-dated the betrothal of Francesco and Joanna, but the planned celebration of those nuptials in December of 1565 meant that the project had to be completed in record time. The newlyweds were to move into the Palazzo Ducale after the ceremony, which was to be linked to the Uffizi by a single arch on one side, while the main part of the corridor was to run down the Lungarno, across the Ponte Vecchio (passing over the shops and houses on the bridge), and through Oltrarno to the Pitti, a distance of around 400 metres/433 yards. On the 12th of March 1564/5 the project was begun: Tommaso de’ Medici, Florentine patrician and Knight of the Order of Jesus Christ drew up an agreement in the name of Duke Cosimo, with “Maestro Bernardo Esquire son of Antonio, alias son of Milady Mattea, builder.” Maestro Bernardo was in fact the Ducal Builder, who Vasari says worked on all his projects “with great excellence”. Work began almost before the ink was dry on the contract. In his Diario Fiorentino, Agostino Lapini wrote:
“On the day of the 19th of March 1564 , on Monday around the 18th hour [midday], they started to lay the foundations of the first column of the corridor, and step by step all the others which head towards the beautiful Palazzo de’ Pitti, and which crosses the Ponte Vecchio”.
The very next day though, the haste with which the project was being pushed forward led to fatalities: Francesco Settimani mentions in his diary that a mason and two labourers were killed when three columns collapsed on them as the loggia of the Fish Market just to the north of the bridge was being taken down to make way for the Corridor, “which was the fault of the Masters of Works”. Just a week later however, Cosimo was pushing to get the project completed even faster. He wrote to Vasari from the town of Serravazza, instructing him to make as much use of peasant labourers from the countryside as possible before they went back to their fields for the autumn harvest, and to spend whatever it took to get the work done.
In the end the Corridor was finished early as Cosimo wished, and more than a month ahead of schedule, but it had taken its toll on Vasari. At the end of a letter to Don Vincenzo Borghini on the 22nd of September he wrote: “I have nothing else to tell you, if not that I am very gloomy. The giant is close to the fountain, regarding the corridor one can pass through it, the Duke was there, and it satisfied him.” The ‘giant’ that he mentions is the statue of Neptune that Ammannati had sculpted for the fountain in front of the Palazzo Ducale. In the following letter the same month he added: “...and I am tired and vexed, with great heaviness of head; I would like to be free of these paintings, to be able to get out for eight days, because I am half dead.”
Writing later about his own work in his Lives Vasari described the Corridor with obvious pride for what he had achieved:
“And it was not a little time that I spent in those days taking matters forward, from when I first commenced [the project], the loggia and very large fabric of the Magistrates, which stand on the river Arno; of which I have never built another thing more difficult nor more dangerous, to be built over the river, and almost in the air: but it was necessary, beyond any other considerations, to join them together, as it was done, the great corridor, that crossing the river goes from the Palazzo Ducale to the palazzo and garden of the Pitti: that corridor was constructed in five months [according] to my order and design, although it is [such] a work that one would not think it possible that it could be constructed in less than five years.”
Vasari might have been hoping for some respite in his work schedule, but he wasn’t going to get it. With the approach of the wedding, he was engaged on a whole series of related projects, but one way or another, the city was ready in time. On the 16th of December Joanna made her formal entry into Florence through the Porta al Prato, and her entourage processed through a city decorated with triumphal arches. The couple were married in the cathedral on the 18th. Domenico Mellini, who was in the service of the Duke, wrote an account of the entry of the “Queen of Austria”, which detailed the festive “apparatus” prepared for the nuptials. He describes Vasari’s various contributions in glowing terms, including the Corridor:
“...which he similarly did with the most commodious and beautiful corridor, with which he has united and joined together the Palazzo in the Piazza and that of the Pitti, in the space of five months, to the amazement of anyone who sees it.”
Completing the project in five months would mean a date in early August, but the diarist Agostino Lapini gives us a different date for completion. In the same entry where he mentions the start of the work on the arches down the Lungarno, he says:
“The corridor was finished, at all points, as far as the Palazzo de’ Pitti, by the beginning of November 1565...”
Which would mean that the work was instead finished in just under eight months, instead of five. This discrepancy can be explained by the convention that the completion date could be calculated as the end of the building work, but of course the Corridor had to be fitted out inside afterwards. The walls had to be given two coats of plaster as stipulated in the contract, and ceilings made of plastered wicker panels needed to be fitted. Those surfaces then needed to be painted, and there would have been doors, locks, windows and fixtures for lighting to be installed. That would have been quite enough to keep a team of artisans busy for another couple of months. Originally, Cosimo had calculated that two hundred gold Scudi a week would be necessary for the work on the Corridor (which would have totalled nearly 6,400 gold Scudi), but by the time the last of twelve warrants for payments had been issued on the 7th of December 1565, the total made available to pay for wages and materials had exceeded ten thousand gold Scudi.
The eBook The Ponte Vecchio. The Old Bridge of Florence tells the amazing true story of one of the most famous bridges in the world. Whilst the title of the book might suggest it is about just one bridge, it is actually about a whole series of bridges that were built on, or close to, the site occupied by the Ponte Vecchio today, in the heart of the beautiful city of Florence. To get your copy of the eBook as a PDF file click here, or purchase it for the Kindle on Amazon here.
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