28 October 2010

The real Ponte Vecchio in Florence

The Ponte Vecchio bridge was first built in Roman times to span the Arno River at its narrowest point. Older versions of the bridge were burnt, flooded or destroyed by armies until the version that we see today was completed in 1345. From these earliest times, the bridge always provided shop-space for merchants who displayed their goods for customers walking past.

So what was the Vasari Corridor and how did it differ from the older parts of the Ponte Vecchio? A spacious corridor, nearly 1k in length, was built in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was just the man for the commission – he was an architect, to be sure, but also a painter and an art historian. And his finest building was Florence’s Uffizi which he had built as recently as 1560.
Ponte Vecchio, inc Vasari Corridor (top storey), seen from the Arno
It linked up the Pitti Palace, where the Duke Cosimo I de Medici of Florence (1519–74) resided, with the Uffizi/offices where he worked. The timing was excellent since Duke Cosimo’s son Francesco de' Medici (1541–87) married Joanna of Austria, youngest daughter of Ferdinand I Holy Roman Emperor, in a glittering ceremony in Dec 1565. But there is also the clear suggestion that this art loving duke was also an authoritarian ruler who secured his power through brute force. Secrecy and secure movement served Duke Cosimo I well.
The Vasari Corridor (and Uffizi) agreed with the idea of a nervous Cosimo, but they added another suggestion. The idea was to get the thirteen Guilds and Magistrates who administered the city under one roof, and in close proximity to Cosimo so he could control them better. As a collateral benefit the Medicis were to get the top floor for their art, theatre etc without extra costs.
As you can see in the map below, the Corridor goes on top of the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge over the River Arno that linked the Uffizi on the north bank with the Pitti Palace on the south bank. On the south side, the corridor actually passes through the interior of the church of Santa Felicita, over the top of the Guicciardini family’s houses and gardens, and ends at the Boboli gardens and Pitti Palace.
Self-portraits section of the Vasari Corridor

Even if you have seen every gallery and cathedral across Europe, and even if you have shopped till you dropped on the Ponte Vecchio, the probability is that you will never have visited this art space. Organised tours begin in the Uffizi itself. Small group are taken from room to room, then the guide opens a modest door into the Vasari Corridor.

The corridor itself is unadorned. But the collection of art is impressive and the views through the windows are even better. A Florentine in Florence has wonderful photos of the views from the small oval windows. Apparently the windows were built into the corridor so that Duke Cosimo I de Medici could walk across his parts of the town safely AND see what was going on from the vantage point well above Ponte Vecchio. These days, if the visitor looks out, he will see nothing more subversive than hordes of tourists and shopkeepers, haggling with each other.

Vasari's own self-portrait c1567

The art contents of the Vasari Corridor are not a mere continuation of works hanging in the Uffizi's galleries. Rather there are two very interesting collections in the Corridor that deserve separate attention. The smaller collection is of charming miniature paintings, amassed from over the centuries of art history.

The larger collection is of artists’ self portraits. This gallery includes 2000 works from all important artists, including many of the masters whose works appear on the walls of the Uffizi eg Titian, Giorgio Vasari, Antonio Canova, Bernini, Jacques-Louise David and Chagall.

Museums of Florence say that this unique group of self portraits was created by Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici in the mid 17th century, although it is still receiving regular additions to the collection. Three Pipe Problem connects to a fine BBC video where Andrew Graham-Dixon examines the development of these art objects over the generations. A corridor is therefore a fitting shape, since the very best way to discuss a linear progression would be via a long, straight line. My favourite self portraits weren't even painted when Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici assembled the first works: Rosalba Carriera 1709, Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun 1790 and John Singer Sargent 1907.

expanding map, Uffizi-Ponte Vecchio-Pitti Palace

I have walked all over Florence many times, and had never heard of the Vasari Corridor until my son went to a wedding there. In any case the corridor was only restored and reopened to the public in 1973, and even now it can only be visited in groups who plan well in advance.

As the corridor will be closed for 3 years from late October 2011 for a major restoration work, I recommend that would-be viewers book quickly. For those who cannot get to Florence, I recommend the book by Ann J. Reavis called Walking in the Footsteps of the Duke: The Vasari Corridor in Florence, 2003.


Unknown said...

Great post Hels :)

I sadly missed out on seeing the corridor when I was in Florence recently due to illness :(

For those interested - I posted a video clip from Andrew Graham-Dixon's 'Travels with Vasari' documentary where he takes us on a quick tour through the corridor


Kind Regards

Karena said...

Hels, this has to be for me one of your most fascinating posts!! I will watch the video clip, and search out the book.

I would most love to see the artists' self portraits! This corridor of art to have been kept so "secret"....

Art by Karena

ChrisJ said...

I have not seen the corridor, nor heard about it, but as Florence is one of my favourite cities, I will indeed visit someday.

The shopping is wonderful on the bridge and elsewhere in the city - well deserving of the one or two extra bags that had to be purchased to carry everything home!)(And thank goodness for the occasional power outage in customs at YVR.)

Kristin H said...

You put me back to my early 20´s right now when I went to Florence for 18 days with three friends of mine, we were studying literature at the University of Oslo but got permission to live a bohemian life in Liguria for the semester. What a dream:)
In Florence we went to museums every day from morning to night and Ponte Vecchio had such a romantic touch to it, such a special place... but, I can´t remember us walking through the Vasari corridor, if we did I should have remembered, and now it will be closed for three years...
Thank you for another lovely post!

the foto fanatic said...

I love Florence too, although I've only been there once, many years ago. In my youthful ignorance, I was unaware of the corridor.

I have just gone back to my photographs of the bridge, and there it is, just as you describe! :-)


Hels said...

H Niyazi, perfect timing :) I was delighted to see your Graham-Dixon video and immediately added a link to your post. Many thanks.

Hels said...

Karena, ChrisJ, Kristin and foto fanatic,

my Australian son was invited to a wedding of an Israeli bride and South African groom, so of course they chose the most beautiful place on earth to have it - Florence.

If the Vasari Corridor was a secretive place in the Medici times because of their politics, it probably is now more an issue of protecting the structure and the art. The corridor is a VERY long, narrow space with precious objects that would be difficult to supervise. So only small groups can go through at any one time, and the door is locked behind them so no-one can sneak back into the Uffizi with a treasure.

columnist said...

Thanks Hels. I knew about the corridor connecting the Pitti and the Ufizzi, but not about the works of art. I enjoyed Florence very much, but went when it was quite hot - in May - so climbing up the Duomo for example was a hot and tiring experience, and not one for the faint-hearted. I also made the mistake of going to Venice before Florence, so in contrast it was a bit disappointing - and my recommendation to anyone would be to do it the other way round.

But it has been a few years, and I would love to re-visit; the right way round.

Alberti's Window said...

This is a great post! Very fascinating. I like your discussion of how the long corridor fits nicely with hanging the art in a linear projection.

I would have loved to have visited this when I stayed in Florence during a study abroad several years ago. I can see why my professors chose not to go here: there were about 45 people in our group. Just thinking about all of us in that space reminded me of the old Willy Wonka film (when Gene Wilder leads his group of golden ticket winners into a very small area in the factory). It would have been a disaster!

P. M. Doolan said...

I never heard of this before - a real eye-opener. Thanks a million.

Unknown said...

Actually, the corridor isn't entirely a pretty, straight line! As Vasari and the Medici charted the course of the structure, buildings in its way needed to be dealt with.

The most famous example is the Mannelli tower. In a show of political defiance, the Mannelli family did not give permission for their tower to be incorporated, hence Vasari had no choice but to loop around it. You can see a great pic of it here

Manelli Tower and Vasari corridor

Kind Regards

Hels said...

H Niyazi
great image :) Many thanks.

But it makes us ask how many of the other families, who DID give consent, were really bullied or threatened into it. The Mannelli family were brave; and they must have understood that their political power in the future might be severely curtailed.

Hels said...

columnist, M and PM Doolan, I also did my best work in study courses abroad :) More in Cambridge than in Italy, but I really LOVED those summer holiday courses. No work, no buying groceries, no paying bills, no washing dishes - just great lectures, great tours and pretty decent food/drink.

steam showers said...

I visited the corridor a few years ago and what an amazing location!

It has to be seen to be believed.

donkey and the carrot said...

I blogged it forward!

Viola said...

I went to Florence this year and I didn't know anything about the corridor! I did see the Pitti Palace which is truly splendid.

Thank you for telling us about it!

Hels said...

showers, donkey and viola

there is no way of knowing what treasures will come out of blogging!

Alberti's Window said...

Congratulations! This post was nominated to be included in the November Art History Carnival. I felt the nomination was very deserving. See below:


Elisa said...

Hi I'm Elisa from "A Florentine in Florence" and I want to thank you to have mentionned me in your post.

If anyone is interested in visiting it, please contact me cause I do organize tour of Vasari Corridor.

Grazie :)


Alexandra said...

Hi Hels!
Thanks for mentioning Tuscany Arts in your post. Right now there are no more slots to book; they open them up occasionally, and they go quickly each time. I'll certainly announce it when it happens (as these things are usually quick, I put it on the Tuscany Arts fan page on Facebook).

I've been through the corridor a bunch of times over the years. It's not actually that tight a space. There used to be some of the caravaggesque/ artemisia paintings in there, but luckily those have been moved to the new expanded space of the gallery itself. Some of the self-portraits are pretty cool though my favourites are the latest ones, especially the Chagall. The best part of the corridor IMO is looking into the church of Santa Trinita from the Dukes' private window.

student of history said...

Great site. I wonder if Grand Tourists were well enough connected to get access to what had been a private space.

Hels said...


good question! Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici feared assassination on a daily basis. So in 1564 he commissioned Vasari to build a corridor so he could walk safely from his residence in the Pitti Palace to his administrative offices over the river. I cannot imagine that the Grand Duke would allow even his own mother in the corridor, so fearful was he.

In later centuries, I hope the fear would have diminished. And in any case, the space wasn't turned into a gallery until the mid C17th. Hopefully the well heeled young lords of 1700-80 were invited up to see the family's treasures.

Hels said...

For an update on the reopening of the gallery and its new treasures, go to Tuscany Arts: