Wretched Excess, 1564 Style; The Vasari Corridor in Florence, Italy, the Original Grade-Separated Pedestrian Skywalk

credit: Lloyd Alter

When I first saw the famous Ponte Vecchio inhabited bridge in Florence last month, I admired all the jagged-roofed shops in the foreground, (I love the idea of inhabited bridges), but wondered about that straight, even, newish stuff behind it. How did they let that happen? I felt pretty stupid when I learned that the new stuff was built in 1564 by the richest man in town, the Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, in just five months by architect Giorgio Vasari. it is in fact, a pedestrian grade-separated skywalk like you see in cities all over the world today, but instead of separating people from cars below, it separated the Medici's from the plebeians below and essentially connected their home to their office.

credit: Lloyd Alter

In fact, what you see on the Ponte Vecchio is only the most dramatic portion of the 1 kilometer (2/3 mile) enclosed corridor, built to connect the Pitti Palace, on the south side of the river Arno, to the Uffizi Palace on the north. The Pitti was a fancier pile of stone built by Luca Pitti, who wanted to build one more impressive than the Medici's. His family's wealth declined after his death and they were forced to sell out to the Medicis. Today, the very wealthy have private elevators and armoured cars. Back then, it was hard to lift an armoured palanquin, and to avoid being mugged or knifed, Medici ordered up the most extravagant, grade separated private corridor ever built. Such an ostentatious, in-your-face example of occupation of the public realm for private purposes has never been matched since.

credit: Wikipedia

Here you can see the start of the corridor near the Uffizi, where it creates a collonade along the river's edge. It then turns left and goes across the bridge, built in 1345. The bridge was inhabited by butchers, convenient because they could just dump all their waste over the side. Cosimo I de' Medici didn't like the smell and evicted them all, replacing them with jewelry shops that remain to this day.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The corridor is not open to the general public; only to small groups by appointment and after paying a big fee for security; stepping into it from the crowds of the Uffizi was like stepping into another world. The corridor itself is rather bland, until you remember that it is 450 years old. It's lined with self-portraits of the artists displayed in the Uffizi. Hundreds of them.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Most of the windows are tiny and round, with iron bars protecting them. Security was a big issue.

credit: Lloyd Alter

At one point, mid-span on the Ponte Vecchio, there are large, newer windows with a great view downstream. These were installed by Mussolini to provide a panoramic view of the river for a state visit by Adolf Hitler. He must have liked it; when the Germans retreated from Florence in 1944 all the other bridges were blown up, but the Ponte Veccio was spared, purportedly on direct orders from Hitler. I apologize for the quality of the photos; we were told at the beginning not to take pictures, but they relented later on the tour. Here, I was shooting from the hip.

credit: Lloyd Alter

At one point at the south end of the bridge, the corridor narrows down to almost nothing and takes some bends; that's where I could get this photo looking north up the bridge. It turns out that the Manneli family, which owned the tower, refused to allow the Duke to build his corridor through it.

credit: Lloyd Alter

So the duke and Vasari installed brackets on the side of the tower and built the little jog around it. I suppose the Mannelis could have told them to get lost and build their own structure instead clipping to theirs, but hey, it is Cosimo I de' Medici we are talking about.

credit: Museums in Florence

The Medicis didn't even have to go outside to go to church; they ran the corridor across the end of the Santa Felicita church and blew an opening through to their private balcony.

credit: Lloyd Alter

After this point the corridor takes a long, sloping descent down to the garden of the Pitti Palace.

credit: lloyd Alter

We exited through this modest door beside a crazy grotto; the Medici's could have continued up some stairs and into the palace without going outside at all.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Today, separated pedestrian skywalks are pretty common, particularly in cold cities like Calgary and in others where they want to separate pedestrians from cars. It was amazing to see how one family could build their own skywalk to separate them from the plebeians below, and to connect their home to their office. I wonder if anyone would have the nerve to try that now.