Art, History & Culture / Florence

Gone But Not Lost: The Bridges of Florence during World War II

By late July of 1944, Allied forces were very close to liberating Florence from the Nazis, who had occupied the city for the past year.

“The Allied forces are advancing on Florence,” warned thousands of leaflets dropped by American planes. “The city’s liberation is at hand. Citizens of Florence, you must unite to preserve your city and to defeat our common enemies… Prevent the enemy from detonating mines which they may have placed under bridges…” ¹

But different directives were coming from the German high command to the citizens of Florence. On July 29, 1944, residents along the Arno — around 150,000 people — were warned to leave their homes by noon the next day. Ultimately, the whole area was blocked off, with German paratroops standing guard at various posts.

On August 3, another warning was issued from the German high command: Beginning from this moment, it is prohibited for anyone to leave their homes and walk in the streets or piazzas of the City of Florence. All the windows, even those in cellars, together with the entrance and hallways of houses, shall remain closed day and night. The population is advised to stay in their cellars, and where they do not have one, to go to a church or other big building. The patrols of the German armed forces have been ordered to shoot at anyone who is found on the street or who appears at the windows. ²

Could the Florentines have known what was coming?

Around 8 pm on the night of August 3, when, in peacetime, the setting sun brings tranquility and calm over the Arno, instead, one by one, Florence began losing its historic bridges. By the next morning, five out of the six bridges spanning the Arno river were gone, blown up by retreating German forces to make it difficult for Allied forces — who would arrive at the city’s Porta Romana later that day — to reach the city center.

At about four o’clock in the morning of 4 August, a few hours after the demolition of the Ponte alle Grazie, a tremendous roar heralded the destruction of the Ponte Santa Trinita, whose statues were sent hurtling into the river. Florence’s other bridges were also blown up, with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio, the approaches to which were blocked by piles of debris from the mining of the buildings….. the shops on the bridge itself were mined and booby-trapped. ¹

The Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge, was saved by a last-minute order from the German officer in command. Destroyed in its place were adjacent historic buildings and streets, leaving enough devastation and rubble to render the bridge useless as a connector to the other side of the city for liberating forces. (For more details on how exactly the Ponte Vecchio was saved, read this piece)

Le macerie intorno al Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio amongst the rubble along Via dei’ Bardi

It must have been an overwhelming mix of emotions for Florentines to reconcile when the next day dawned: survival and liberation, but also, extreme loss.

Sheltering in the Palazzo Pitti, 400 meters to the south of the Arno and just a five-minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio, an exchange was heard between two citizens:

“Viva l’Italia!” cried one of the partisans. 

“Viva l’Italia!” I called back, but Italy no longer had the Ponte Santa Trinita… ¹

In fact, of the destroyed bridges, three stood where bridges had been since the 13th century: Ponte Santa Trinita, Ponte alla Carraia and Ponte alle Grazie.

But Florence, cradle of the Renaissance, is no stranger to rebirth. New life was yet to come for the bridges of the Arno.

File:Scenes in Florence, Italy, 14 August 1944 TR2290.jpg

Above: crossing Ponte alle Grazie.
Below: August 15, 1944, with a Baily bridge over Ponte Santa Trinita, constructed by 577 British Army engineers.

A British soldier observes the aftermath, August 11, 1944

“Yet, gradually Florence began to recover from its ordeal and to regain its former appearance. The scaffolding and sandbags were removed from its treasured monuments; shops reopened their doors; works of art, brought from their hiding places or recovered by Allies as they were being transported to Germany were returned to churches and galleries…” ¹

And through painstaking work, the bridges of Florence slowly reappeared.

20140929_182759_resizedJust two years after liberation, Ponte alla Vittoria was opened, and Ponte San Niccolò followed in 1949. Then came Ponte alla Carraia in 1951, Ponte alle Grazie in 1953 (shown above today), Ponte Amerigo Vespucci in 1957.

Finally, in 1958 came the beloved Ponte Santa Trinita, meticulously rebuilt by masons using copies of sixteenth-century tools and stone from the reopened Boboli quarries,¹ as well as stones from the original structure retrieved directly from the Arno.

 

IMG_20180503_194409 (1)

Today, Ponte Santa Trinita is a breathtaking beauty, likely a backdrop in countless photos of the 10.2 million visitors who flock to Florence every year. Visitors who stand atop the Ponte Vecchio, surrounded by the city of the Renaissance, six bridges once again spanning the Arno.

What now breaks the peace are throngs of tourists, bustling locals, cars and scooters zooming by; the buzz of humans and vehicles criss-crossing over the waters of the Arno on bridges strong and sturdy underneath. The beautiful cacophony of everyday life.

Rebirth, indeed.


Bridge History:

Ponte Santa Trinita (Holy Trinity Bridge), a Renaissance-era bridge just to the west of Ponte Vecchio, has been called the most beautiful bridge in the world, and is the world’s oldest elliptical arch bridge. Ponte Santa Trinita had a tumultuous early history, having been swept away by flooding waters from the Arno three separate times (1252, 1333 and 1557). It was after the 1557 flood that Giorgio Vasari was asked to oversee its reconstruction, who in turn consulted Michelangelo (the graceful arches seem to be attributed to him). Ultimately it was architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati who oversaw the bridge’s construction, completed in 1569.

To the west of Ponte Santa Trinita is Ponte alla Carraia, named for the carts (carri) which passed through the gates. It started as a wooden bridge in 1218, but also had a history of loss. Destroyed by a flood in 1274, it was soon reconstructed, but fell down again in 1304 under the weight of a crowd who had met to watch a spectacle. It was the first bridge in the city rebuilt after the 1333 flood, perhaps under design of Giotto. Again damaged in 1557, it was remade by will of Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, who assigned the project to Bartolomeo Ammannati.³

Ponte Vecchio’s neighbor to the east is Ponte alle Grazie, which began its life in the early 1200s and was known then as Ponte di Rubaconte, named for the man who commissioned construction. Prior to its destruction in 1944, the bridge underwent a variety of changes, including a new name, for a chapel of the same name built upon the bridge. 

This interesting photo shows Ponte alle Grazie in the 1860s. (notice Ponte Vecchio in the background). Until the 1870s, the house-like structures shown served as either chapels or a sort of nunnery, for women who “wished to avoid the scandals of some of the nunneries of the city.” Food was passed through small slots to the women by pedestrians on the bridge. source


Footnotes

Image credits

  • Image Credit: Ponte Vecchio and rubble of Via dei’ Bardi © Archivio Storico della Resistenza Firenze
  • Image Credit:  Ponte alle Grazie 1944
  • Image credit: Baily Bridge: By Menzies (Sgt), No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Image Credit: British solider observes Ponte Vecchio
  • Image Credit: Ponte alle Grazie, 1860s

Additional Sources and Recommended Reading

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “Gone But Not Lost: The Bridges of Florence during World War II

  1. What a wonderful blog! I’ve just been to Florence and taken in all the beauty the city has to offer. I never realized what I price the people there paid after the war to make it as beautiful as it is for us to enjoy today. I hope you don’t mind, but I will be reblogging this on my Conversational Italian! blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A compelling combination of thorough research and evocative writing. Thank you for the extent of the background work you did to describe the history and significance of the bridges, identify sources and locate photographs. My own first awareness of Florence as a place came just 8 years after Ponte Santa Trinita reopened, when the city suffered the catastrophic flood of ’66. A teenager, I remember newscasts playing on the irony that such a culturally significant place — only then starting to fully recover from the devastation of the war — saw many of its cultural artifacts damaged or destroyed in the flood. Visitors today still see the scars, like Cimabue’s cross. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Brad, I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece (and research!). It does seem that Florence was barely recovered from the war when the flood hit, I agree with you. The stories I read about how people came together to protect/restore the city’s art treasures is another testament to Florentine resilience. I think you would enjoy “Saving Italy” if you haven’t yet read it.

      Like

      • I’ll look it up, Stacy. Thank you. A woman I knew back in the midwest had been one of the horde of young people who picked up and headed for Florence in that time, from her home in Romania. Spent days standing in mud, in a bucket brigade line handing books out of one of the libraries.

        Liked by 1 person

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