Uncovering the Secrets of Florence

The beautiful Ponte Vecchio bridge is a place of romance, yet it once contained secret tunnels to protect a fearful Duke from his would-be assassins.
The beautiful Ponte Vecchio bridge is a place of romance, yet it once contained secret tunnels to protect a fearful Duke from his would-be assassins.

If the stones of Florence could talk, they would speak of love affairs and murderous plots, jealousy and treacherous consequences. The narrow bricked streets would still echo with the footsteps of the famous artists who once called Florence home, for it was here that creative masters like Michelangelo, Donatello and Brunelleschi gave birth to the Renaissance.

Thousands of visitors crowd into the medieval center of Florence each year, hoping to glimpse the work of these artisans. Yet there is much more to see in Italy’s former capital. Just across the River Arno, on the city’s left bank, lays the “other side of Florence”—the Oltrarno.

With its winding streets lined with bakeries, barber shops and apartments, the Oltrarno offers a glimpse at the Florence of the past. Some places, such as Via Toscanella, have not changed much in the last 500 years.

“The Oltrarno is off the beaten track of mass tourism, and it’s my favorite neighborhood in Florence,” says Eve Borsook, an American who came to Florence 50 years ago and never left.

“The area presents Florence at its best: a classless society where artisans and patricians still live and work side by side,” says Borsook, who wrote “A Companion’s Guide to Florence” (Boydell & Brewer, 1997).

In order to get beyond the city’s touristy surface, it helps to step into the past. The Oltrarno first came into fashion in the 12th and 13th centuries, when noble families and wealthy merchants built family palazzi in the area.

Yet for all its trendiness, it took a 15th century murder to get the Medici, the ruling family at the time, to move into the neighborhood.

Duke Alessandro de Medici, who made his home at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in West Florence, had a known weakness for women. His jealous rivals put that to use in 1537. While the duke waited in bed for another of his secret trysts, an assassin arrived instead of a lover. The amorous duke was stabbed, and 18-year-old Cosimo de Medici was named leader in his place.

Unlike Alessandro, the young Cosimo was faithful to the woman he loved. His wife, Eleanor of Toledo, was beautiful, but in constant frail health. Hoping that more sun and fresh air would heal her, she convinced her husband to move into the Pitti Palace in the Oltrarno.

The couple and their 11 children eventually made the palace their home, expanding and improving the grounds. Today, Palazzo Pitti, with its sweeping approach and awesome size, is overwhelmingly Florence’s most “palatial” palace. The residence and its eight museums make up the largest museum complex in the city, and one could easily spend all day there.

With its intimate feel, the Galleria Palatina is the most unique Pitti museum. There are works by Raphael and Titan on display, but one interesting exhibit is the lavish bathroom designed by Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister.

Although the move to Palazzo Pitti improved Eleanor’s health, it meant that the duke had to commute to his offices at the Uffizi (which were originally built as government offices, but now house the works of Rembrandt, Raphael and others).

Like his brother, the duke had enemies, and he was always looking over his shoulder.

Someone had already placed barbed spears in the water near his favorite diving spot, so the duke wasn’t taking any chances. He asked his court architect, Giorgio Vasari, to come up with a covert passageway into town.

Vasari designed a covered walk and series of secret tunnels on top of the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s most famous bridge. At the time, Ponte Vecchio was home to several hog butchers, and the smell offended the Duke’s fine nose. The solution? The hog vendors were tossed out, and jewelers were invited in their place. Today, the bridge remains filled with jewelry vendors.

During WWII, fleeing Germans blocked access to Ponte Vecchio by bombing nearby buildings, but the bridge itself survived. With its picturesque location across the Arno, Ponte Vecchio is the perfect place for a dreamy afternoon stroll.

Many have found romance in Florence, and 19th-century English poets, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were no exception. Though Barrett’s father disapproved, the secret lovers spirited off to Florence, where they settled in the Oltrarno at Casa Guidi. Their home, which is now a museum at Via Maggio n 9, contains original furnishings, love letters and an extensive collection of their books and writings.

One of the most romantic spots in Oltrarno is the scenic Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace. With its fountains, lush greenery and lovely flower gardens, the Boboli was—and still is—an island of tranquility. The gardens’ beauty is a direct result of the Duke Cosimo and his wife, Eleanor. The couple spent hours with the architect Tribolo selecting fountains, gardens and statues. The Boboli design eventually became the basis for royal gardens all over Europe.

The multitude of statues in the Boboli and the rest of Florence is no coincidence. The Florentines of the Middle Ages and Renaissance carried statuary into battle, and until last century, many believed that spirits were imprisoned in the unformed stone, and that sculpting the statues freed them.

Michelangelo himself was taught Neoplatonism—a philosophy that regards the body as a trap for souls longing to return to God. Many believe his works demonstrate this idea, with human figures longing to break free from the stone that imprisons them.

Though known for his sculpture, Michelangelo was also a poet, painter and architect.

As a teenager, he spent hours in Santa Maria del Carmine’s Brancacci Chapel drawing the frescoes of Masaccio, a master of Renaissance painting. In 1963, a mysterious crucifix, a wooden sculpture featuring a nude Christ, was discovered in the nearby Santo Spirito (Holy Spirit) Church.

Experts debated its origins for 40 years, until July 2001, when experts determined that it was indeed the work of the then 18-year-old Michelangelo. The muscular detail (the artist was allowed to study anatomy on corpses exhumed from the church cemetery) was a signature of the artist’s work.

Such treasures are not surprising in a city like Florence, where the world’s top artists once lived. While most of the region’s creative masterpieces are in central Florence, others, like the newly-discovered Michelangelo crucifix, can only be found in the Oltrarno, the side of Florence that most visitors miss.

It’s a place that is well worth the visit. When you’re ready for a respite from throngs of tourists, leave the crowds behind, and make your way to the sultry Arno River and across the Ponte Vecchio. Follow the ancient footsteps of Duke Cosimo as he made his way back to the Pitti Palace, viewing the wonderful city he had helped to create, and never once imagining how the Florence of his lifetime would forever change history.

A piece of that extraordinary era can still be found in the Oltrarno, for it is here—in this quiet neighborhood of window-boxes, cobble-stone streets, tower houses and medieval churches, that the stones of the past are still waiting to reveal their hidden stories.

If You Go

Italian Tourism Office