Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is famous for its numerous goldsmiths and jewelers shops
and today it seems normal that one of the “symbolic places” of Florence is now home of precious and luxury goods stores. However, it was not always so, and what today seems normal to us is actually the result of an accurate measure aimed to “dignify” the oldest more important bridge of the city.
But let’s start from the bottom: in 1593 the Grand Duke Ferdinando I, son of Cosimo I and Francesco’s brother, issued a decree by which he “evicted” craftsmen and traders who occupied the warehouses of Ponte Vecchio: they were butchers, greengrocers, fishmen and other “small” traders, which had installed there since 1345, the year in which, after the disastrous flood that had swept it, the main bridge in Florence was rebuilt on three solid arches.
For decorum reasons of such important hub of transportation – and perhaps also because they could afford to pay higher taxes – Ferdinand I decided to give these spaces located in a privileged setting to goldsmiths and silversmiths, preventing of placing activities different from these valuable trades. Thanks to his edict of September 1953, the Grand Duke foresaw Ponte Vecchio was rid by all “vile arts” the next May 2, 1594 (practically the day after the traditional celebrations of Calendimaggio, on May 1), because the bridge was a “place much frequented by gentlemen and strangers”.
A very natural solution for one of the most famous monuments in the world
visited by thousands of visitors every year. Also today, more than four centuries after the Grand Ducal measure, the traditional “MADIELLE” (i.e. cabinets with wooden doors) shines with flashes of the most precious metals.
In addition to the more plausible explanations about the Grand Ducal decree, other versions have been proposed, perhaps less credible but still tasty.
A first variation of the “official” version of the event, and maybe the most anecdotal, is the presence of butchers and other traders disturbed, with the uproar caused by the multitude of people called, the walk of the Grand Duke, who decided to place a better show for the eyes and his its peace; however it’s not very likely, because the Vasari Corridor existed since 1565 (at the behest of his father, Cosimo I) and it had the function of preserving the path to the sovereign.
Another variant refers about the sanitary situation created by the activities present above Ponte Vecchio
and it’s linked to the motivation of “decorum” which seems the most credible. It seems the presence of butchers and fishmen were source of a very bad smell and the Arno water pollution thanks to wastes of fishes and animals, while noble arts such as trade of precious scraps were not generate wastes, smell or pollution.
The funny thing is the butchers, in 1442, were forced to move to Old Bridge, in order to segregate their unhealthy activities (which generated miasma, carcasses and meat wastes) from the city center: so a place initially represented a situation of “segregation”, a century and a half after became a “fine” point. Anyway the butchers, within a relatively short time, were evicted.
Everything remains today of the preexisting business of supplies and food, a little more than four centuries from the “Call of expulsion” of Ferdinand I, is a tiny square of triangular shape which located right at the entrance of Ponte Vecchio, from “di qua d’Arno”: bordered by via de ‘Gerolami and Lungarno Archibusieri, this square still shows the old name denoting its function, i.e. “Piazza del Pesce”.
Actually, fishmen were moved from that square first in Mercato Vecchio (located where now stands Piazza della Repubblica), then in the Piazza dei Ciompi, together with Loggia del Pesce, which came dismantled and remounted in the new location.
The “butcher”, ie the concentration of butchers’ shops, was instead moved to Mercato Vecchio where remained until the reclamation of nineteenth century, leading the sale of food to the actual Mercato di San Lorenzo.