Florence’s riverfront, like the rest of the city, was fortified with walls and towers until well into the 15th century.
Palazzo dei Giudici (formerly Caslani and now the Science Museum) and Palazzo Spini-Feroni, built in 1290 for the Spini family, the Florentine wool merchants, who dominated this side of the bridge, are relics of the grim facades that once lined the Arno’s banks. Many palaces rose sheer from the river bed so that it was of course impossible to walk alongside the river as we can today. However a Lungarno, or street along the Arno, already existed in the late 13th century between the Ponte alle Grazie and Palazzo dei Giudici, in order to provide access to the cloth drying shed in Santa Croce. The neo-classical Borsa stands on the site today but we can still see the steps in front that once led down to the river. The short stretch between the Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Spini-Ferroni was paved in 1472. All the other streets parallel to the Arno were internal passageways. Built in the 19th century, Lungarno Serristori, for instance, was once a canal (la Mulina), while Lungarno Torrigiani was a field with the tiny Church of S. Maria sopr’Arno at the Via dei Bardi end. The ancient tower houses were gradually replaced by patrician palaces, with open loggias and large windows, from the 15th century onwards. Note pretty Palazzo Coverelli, whose architect is unknown, on Lungarno Guicciardini. The little street beside it (Via del Presto S. Martino) was once known as Via dei Pizzicotti (Pincher’s Alley) because the local yobs used to pinch anyone who ventured into the alley! Right opposite, the bank is dominated by the golden-yellow fa.ade of Palazzo Corsini, built in grandiose Baroque style by Pier Francesco Silvani and Antonio Ferri between 1648 and 1656. The river and its bridges were used for staging festivities of various kinds from the Middle Ages onwards. The spectacle of the Inferno, organised by the ward of S. Frediano in May 1304 was performed between the Ponte S. Trinita and the Ponte alla Carraia. There were so many spectators on the Ponte alla Carraia that it collapsed with a heavy loss of life. Three centuries later, on New Year’s Eve, a festival on ice was given on the same stretch of river, with decorated sleds, madrigals and the nobility decked out in exotic costumes. Another epic spectacle was the Argonauta, staged for the marriage of Cosimo II. The Arno between the same two bridges was transformed into a giant theatre with grandstands set up along the Lungarni so that the public could watch Jason’s capture of the Golden Fleece, while Cosimo’s bride was presented with six apples, symbolic of the Medici coat of arms. Marvellously decorated boats were transformed into a fire-breathing hydra, a peacock and a dolphin and an artificial island was set up in the middle of the river. The last great performance on the Arno was a fireworks display from the Ponte alla Carraia for the Feast of St. John, though in 1870 this display was transferred to Giuseppe Poggi’s newly created Piazzale Michelangelo. It would be nice to see a return of such events on the Arno, especially in the summer when the gentle evening breeze brings a pleasant respite to the heat of the day. It is possible to take short boat trips (ask the Renaioli – tel. 347.7982356 www.renaioli. it) and often small performances (music, poetry readings, even short plays) are included. The frivolous events of the past however were quite another thing.
Massimo Parlanti – Head Concierge Westin Excelsior