The Ponte Vecchio goldsmiths who once were butchers

Once you arrive at the end of Por Santa Maria, Ponte Vecchio, one of the better known symbols of Florence, will appear in front of you.

The structure dates as far back as 1177. Through the course of the following centuries, it collapsed and was rebuilt. The architecture with the three arches that we see today is the one built in 1345.

After this date, the bridge still “experienced” tragedies and wars, such as the ones closer to our time, as World War 2 when the Germans decided to put mines onto the bridge, or the flood of 1966. It is a unique structure, with shops “suspended on the Arno”.

Here, the perception of a passed time is preserved and made realistic by the shops’ typical heavy wooden shutters and by the Renaissance counters that are a unique and precious characteristic of this place. The old windows show magnificent, lavish, shiny and elegant objects.

Handmade golden pieces, antique jewels and precious stones capture the eye of women of all ages, and transform Ponte Vecchio into a privileged destination. The craftsmanship of certain ways of working has a very ancient history, a tradition dating back to the Etruscans. They had developed a great aesthetic sense and a crafting wisdom, which could not be found in any other population. To work the noble metal they had perfected the so-called granulation, where the melted gold would be turned into small spheres, called grains, through a procedure for long maintained secret. When these grains were assembled together, they would give life to luxurious jewels.

Goldsmiths in Florence were part of the rich “Arte della Seta” (Art of Silk) and had laboratories at the Uffizi thanks to the Grand Duke Francesco I Medici’s great passion for jewels and the crafting of metals.

During the Renaissance, the art of working gold became so important that it was directly connected to the Medici family, which appreciated the precious artifacts as symbols of great power and wealth. The beauty of objects made of silver, gold, hard and precious stones can be seen in the Museo degli Argenti (Museums of the Silvers) in Palazzo Pitti’s museum system. An enchantment for the eyes, a form of art that too often is defined by scholars as minor but that has all the qualities to express the beauty and emotions of any artistic masterpieces. Amongst the many artists who started their apprenticeship in a shop, was Benvenuto Cellini, who brought to the highest standards the work and mastery of the precious metal.

Not only was he a very famous sculptor, but his fame as chiseler, as well, reached the King of France, Francis I, who called him at court in 1540. In Paris, he created the marvelous Salt Cellar, which is now held in the Kunstmuseum in Vienna.

The goldsmith tradition was passed on in the shops. These were lively centers and professional exchange places. This is where apprenticeships for young people took place and where they learnt the craft starting from the simplest job to the mounting of stones and the chiseling, which are the most difficult phases of the creation process and which give life and beauty to the jewel. Near the goldsmith shops, one could find the stone carvers’. These were artists who took a rough piece of amethyst or of a ruby and bring out of it shininess, faceting and forms that were intended to marvel the aristocratic or rich bourgeois buyers and, obviously, all of the Medici family.

In 1593, Grand Duke Ferdinando I decided to transfer all the goldsmiths’ shops and laboratories onto the Ponte Vecchio.

What a change! From the moment in which the bridge was built, it had always been destined to the use of the butchers as the health inspectors thought that they could keep as far as possible from the important parts of the city all the putrid exhalations.

This solution, which initially appeared to be a good fix, with the course of the centuries had become unbearable. Imagine the nauseating atmosphere in that place near the Arno, where in the summer the water levels often reduced drastically, and where all the butchers’ scraps were thrown. These made the air heavy, spread illnesses and offered an infernal vision to anyone who would visit the area. When the Grand Duke would walk through the Vasari Corridor, he would be appalled by the awful smell and, thus, he decided that after “reclaiming” the Ponte Vecchio, he would destine it to the workers of silver and gold.

Therefore, gold became, together with the Florentine coin, the “Fiorino” the material that if well-crafted would form rings, bracelets and necklaces. Throughout the centuries, the magnificence of these jewels competed with the ones created in the other gold centers of Italy, Rome and Naples.

Consequently, to make the production even more original, a unique type of craftsmanship was introduced, called mosaic, in which small pieces of hard stones would become decorations for rings, earrings and lavish necklaces, recreating scenes or stylized images of Florence.

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