Tag Archive: Ponte Vecchio


When you consider the fierce fighting throughout Italy during WWII between the allied forces and the retreating German army, it’s a minor miracle that so much of Italy survives intact to this day. Mortar rounds and aerial bombs could have leveled everything and so much would have been lost forever. If you haven’t done so, try to see the documentary film “The Rape of Europa” on the nazis and European art. It’s an amazing film that tells the true story of art theft in WWII by the Nazis, and the allied attempt to rescue and restore the greatest works of art.

Amazingly, the retreating german army didn’t put up a fight in Rome, and the city was spared war destruction. They retreated to Florence and Pisa in the north and prepared for battle. The allies knew that those cities were delicate time capsules of art and architecture, and they faced a difficult problem. They knew that many soldiers would lose their lives in street to street combat with the enemy hidden in the maze of medieval buildings. They also knew that they couldn’t just wipe the town away with bombs. In Florence, they made the decision to take out the train station, which was a newer structure and a critical supply line for the Nazis. This was long before laser guided precision bombs. There was no guarantee that the bombs would land where they were supposed to, but amazingly, they did. In one of the most successful bombing raids of the war, the train station was gone, and the nazis had no way to receive critical supplies.

After a year of occupation, the nazis left Florence. Before they did, they set about destroying all of the cities historic bridges over the Arno river in an attempt to slow the Allied advance. They destroyed a famous tri-arched bridge designed by Michelangelo. One bridge, called the Ponte Vecchio, survived destruction, supposedly because it was so beautiful. Today, it’s one of the most famous bridges in the world.

The Ponte Vecchio has been rebuilt many times over its history, and has been in its present state since the 1300s. It too is a tri-arched bridge, lined with shops on either side of a central corridor. In medieval times it was a center for butcher shops, and the open space of the river on either side allowed for air to control the smell. Today, the shops are all jewelry stores. Supposedly, the term “bankrupt” was originated here, based on the words “banco rotto.” When someone couldn’t pay their debts, they would physically break (rotto) his table at the Ponte Vecchio.

Thankfully, the nazis decided not to blow up the Ponte Vecchio. Instead, they leveled the historic medieval buildings on either side of it, creating a mountain of rubble blocking the bridge. While it certainly was tragic to lose large parts of the neighborhood, they have since been rebuilt and modernized. Florence certainly suffered great destruction during the war, but amazingly the greatest of buildings and historic structures made it through.

The nazis also put up a fight in nearby Pisa, which was not so lucky. Known primarily for its famous leaning tower, Pisa was a wonderfully preserved medieval city until the war, when much of it was destroyed by bombing and fire. The leaning tower and famous cathedral in the center of town survived, but not all historic structures were so lucky.

Right next to the famous leaning tower and the cathedral is a cemetery called the Camposanto. In the 12th century, knights of the fourth crusade brought back loads of soil from Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion in Jerusalem, and created a sacred burial space in Pisa. Over the centuries, the Camposanto became the cultural center of Pisa and the region. Many were buried there, and priceless Roman sarcophagi and statues, along with biblical relics, were housed there. The walls were completely decorated in immaculate frescos, and were beautiful beyond description. In short, the Camposanto was the one of the most important and priceless historical structures in all of Italy. The painting seen here shows how it looked.

On July 27, 1944, a wayward Allied bombs started a fire nearby that quickly spread to the Camposanto. The wooden rafters burst into flame and melted the lead on the roof, which dripped down and completely destroyed everything inside. It was a great loss to the entire world. Along the front lines of the allied troops, cultural/art historians rushed in to assess the damage. They were devastated to find the Camposanto ruined, and set about preserving what they could. The frescos had been melted off the walls, but in some areas a faint trace of the fresco remained. Today, work still continues at the Camposanto. Though it will never be as it was, burnt fragments of the paintings have been pieced back together and can be seen on display.

Here’s  a video on the Camposanto as it can be seen today- Enjoy

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There is a very interesting episode that happened in Florence in 1503. By then, the Renaissance was in full swing and Florence was the place to be. Leonardo Da Vinci was there, a highly respected master then in his 50s. Michelangelo was also there, much younger and gaining fame after recently completing his “David” and “Pieta”. What we must understand is that most of these Florentine artists didn’t care for each other- they were all in competition for the best commissions and  sole title of “greatest artist”. This was a huge benefit to the world of art, because the competition only made the masters push themselves harder. There’s a great article HERE that explores an interesting theory: that Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” and Michelangelo’s “David”, arguably the 2 greatest works of art in the world (made the same year in Florence), were made in response to such competition and awareness of other artists. It’s an interesting thought- both are total opposites in every way when you think about it.

There was however, an infamous artistic duel that took place between the 2 greatest masters in 1503. Both were commissioned to paint murals of historic battles at the Florence palace, on walls directly across from each other. Today, all that exists are Michelangelo’s drawings of his proposed wall and a copy of Leonardo’s drawing later made by Rubens. Here they are:

Rubens copy of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Battle of Anghiari"

Michelangelo's drawing for the "Battle of Cascina"

The remaining text describing the competition is an article from HolidayCity’s Flash Travel website:

“In a closely-knit community as Florence, the two artists had crossed paths a number of times before, and had developed a strong dislike of each other that would rapidly become legend. There are many anecdotes describing their encounters, the cutting remarks said in each other’s presence, the snide comments tossed off at each other’s backs. They were two lions competing for space in the confines of the city, and all who knew them took note and waited for the outbursts. A few men did more than wait, eager to take advantage of the rivalry. Piero Soderini, the recently elected Gonfaloniere, was one of them.

The Commissioning of the Artists

In 1503, Soderini commissioned both artists to work, side by side, on the walls of the newly built Council Hall, with instructions to create two masterpieces depicting victories the Florentine Republic had achieved over its rivals. Leonardo was to paint the Battle of Anghiari (pictured above), immortalizing the war with Milan; Michelangelo was to paint the Battle of Cascina, commemorating an episode in the war against neighbouring Pisa.

Soderini has good reason for commissioning this work: the competition took place at a time when Florence was experiencing a rebirth of its identity as a Republic, and the spirit of civic pride was strong. Lest anyone think that the commissions were accidental, the contract the Gonfaloniere had drawn up specified the artists were to work ‘in competition with each other’, in order to push them both to produce their best works. The city fathers fully expected their leading artists to produce masterpieces of patriotic grandeur, as well as the entertainment of a public rivalry; unfortunately, they were destined to be disappointed.

Working on the walls

Leonardo progressed further than Michelangelo did; he at least managed to put up the cartoon, or the initial drawings, on the walls of the hall. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s own innovations did him in, as he attempted to use a new painting technique disastrously combining plaster and oils (based apparently on a recipe by roman writer Pliny the Elder). Michelangelo never got past the drawing stage (pictured right), though his tardiness might have been due to the fact that he was commissioned a year after Leonardo.

What the finished works would have been like will never be known, but from the cartoons and studies both artists prepared, the final forms can be guessed — and they would have been magnificent. There was little similarity between the works: the styles of the two masters were as different as night and day. Leonardo was known for the shadowy softness and ambiguity of his work; Michelangelo was rapidly becoming known for imbuing his work with a sense of vibrant energy and dynamism. These sketches were the first representations of war from either artist, and were arresting for the way they captured the emotions of the figures portrayed. Leonardo’s sketches captured the unbearable heat of the battle, in a horrific clash of desperate men and screaming horses; Michelangelo’s drawings showed the bizarre ordinariness and chaos swirling around the edges of the battle, as complacent soldiers were caught by the attacking enemy while bathing in a stream. Contemporary artists were astounded and proclaimed that both works would be masterpieces — when completed.

The Quiet End to the Competition

Unfortunately, despite their many differences, both artists had one devastating trait in common:neither were very good at finishing anything they started. This fact was well known about to da Vinci — he had left too many commissions hanging in the past to be able to escape the assessment. What would only later become evident was the Michelangelo, already a difficult, strong-willed and temperamental man, would also develop the same habit. The unkind might even suggest that he picked up the habit from Leonardo. It is more likely to be due to the unusually high number of commissions he accepted in this period of his life, which made it inevitable that he leave some uncompleted.

Ultimately, however, the halt in the competition was due to changes in political fortunes: In 1504, the Pope called Michelangelo to Rome to begin work on some previously commissioned pieces; Leonardo soon turned his attentions elsewhere; and most irrevocably, in 1512 Soderini was overthrown by a Papal army and the Republic fell. In those circumstances, continuing work on a painting dedicated to the glories of the Republic would have been somewhat imprudent. After 1530, Republicanism was a dead hope in Florence, and when Vasari deliberately painted over the remnants of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, he was removing all traces of the Republic, and its ideals.

So ends one of the greatest ‘What If — ’ episodes of art history. The only remaining traces of what might have been masterpieces from two celebrated artists of the Renaissance are painted-over walls and fragments of copied and uncompleted drawings. The legendary battle between Leonardo and Michelangelo never reached its culmination as the city fathers desired. Its failure is one of the greatest losses to the cultural history of the city; but its ghost still haunts the Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, conjuring up undying visions of the glory that might have been.”