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by Gloria Chiarini

The compulsive spell of the Arno

There is one protagonist that is never missing from the classic and much photographed view of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Right in the foreground, though almost ignored, this is the same silent presence that cuts the city and its plain in half when seen from the crowded panoramic terrace of Piazzale Michelangelo, one of the most famous tourist "balconies" in the world. We are talking about the long silent ribbon of the Arno, described in songs as of "silver", a cool and precious companion during many a hot Florentine summer. Over the centuries this river has devasted and nearly brought the city to its knees many times though it has also been the principal source of its existence: the Arno and Florence have always been linked together by an indissoluble bond for, like many hearts of civilization, the city was founded because of the presence of the river; from its source on Mount Falterona in the Casentino area, it follows a long winding course until it reaches Florence and from there flows quickly down towards Pisa and the sea.

The Arno is a basic element in the wonderful history of this city and - as in Rome - it once possessed its own fatidic ford that apparently allowed men, goods, technology and culture travelling to the north or south to regularly cross the banks of the river. We now know that the remains of ancient houses and the human presence unearthed beneath the old city centre date back to the 10th century B.C., almost 3000 years ago. We also know that the Ligurians passed through here and of the existence of a Protovillanovian settlement; the Villanovian traces later merge with the early Etruscan period and the town appears to have been used by the Fiesole Etruscans as a sort of trade centre on the Arno. We find the Romans officially confirming its presence in 59 B.C. by enclosing and redesigning the various pre-existing buildings with their "castrum". Although the Arno was left outside the walls of Caesar's Florentia, the remains of a Roman "fullonica", a plant for dying cloth that required constant running water, have been found by the river on its southern borders, in what is today Piazza Signoria.

G. Moricci: The Arno with Ponte Vecchio and the Tiratoio

The Arno was therefore to decide the origins of this type of activity here and later encourage the development of the manufacture of cloth, in particular wool, which was to influence the destiny of the city. The various stages of production became more and more refined from the Dark Ages onwards, bringing fame and fortune to the city so that Florence became reknowned for its merchants and bankers. Christianity also arrived in the city thanks to the Arno, brought from the South along the Cassia (the consular road) by converted Sirian, Greek and Armenian merchants; the Greek origins of the name of Miniato, the first Florentine martyr, and the early worship of the Palestinian maiden Reparata are clear indications of this. The churches of San Miniato and Santa Felicita are situated in the Oltrarno area, on the sites of the first Christian cemeteries. However three "villages" that had meanwhile grown up in the Oltrarno were not enclosed within the walls until the City Council came to power and built the fifth ring of walls (1172-1175), thus transforming the Arno into a fundamental part of the city centre. Although the fortification of the area was not fully complete until 1258, the river ceased to act as a natural border for the city and became instead the axis around which much of the economic life of the city was to gravitate for centuries to come.

The two banks were then fortified in the areas up and down river from the city centre, with the Castle of Altafronte acting as the main stronghold on the right bank; a series of other river-dependent activities developed alongside these defences: fish-weirs, mills, market gardens (as in the case of Orsanmichele) as well as the famous workshops producing wool (fulling mills and drying shops). We can still see these odd buildings bristling with special poles for hanging out the long lengths of dyed cloth to dry in the sun in many paintings of the 19th century. The last drying shop, which stood between Piazza de' Giudici and Piazza Mentana, was pulled down in 1860 to make room for the House of Commerce. This "productive" relationship with the Arno was later drastically interrupted by the construction of today's Lungarni, part of the new urban planning carried out by architect Giuseppe Poggi in the last two decades of the 19th century.

By the mid 13th century the buildings along the riverbanks were already more highly populated, with a larger concentration of cottage industries, especially in the textile field. The Arno's importance as a productive resource and trade route, confirmed by the large number of workshops along its banks, is further corroborated by a series of "river ports" like those at San Frediano and Ognissanti. The growth of the city soon led to new bridges being built to add to the only one that had stood there until the 9th century, rebuilt after the flood in 1178 on the site of today's Ponte Vecchio (the previous bridge was a few metres upriver). These included the New Bridge (1218), or "alla Carraia", the Rubaconte bridge (1237), later called "alle Grazie", and lastly the bridge at Santa Trinita (1237), which made it possible to complete the linkup between the two banks. This road and bridge system has lasted to this day in spite of all the changes made to the various bridges since. Rebuilt for the first time after the great flood of 1333, which spared only the Ponte alle Grazie, these bridges were often "inhabited" by a series of shops and oratories built along the parapets, as we can still see on the Ponte Vecchio today and in a few old photographs of Ponte alla Carraia. It was not deemed necessary to create a new means of crossing the river until the third decade of the 19th century, under the Lorraine family, when the two metal suspension bridges of San Ferdinando and San Leopoldo were erected, one up and the other downriver from the previous four bridges, thus linking up the new urban development on both banks. They were followed in this century by Ponte alla Vittoria, Ponte Amerigo Vespucci, the bridge at San Niccolò and Ponte Giovanni da Verrazzano. Apart from being a basic part of the city's history, vital for its productive activities and a setting for life in the city, the Arno has often been used for important festivities, especially after the celebrations held for Cosimo II's wedding to Maria Maddalena of Austria in 1608 which officially trasformed it into the playground of the court. A Florentine artist, Mario Mariotti, used the river in the same way a few years ago in the more up-to-date form of a "happening".

The Arno at sunset

Parties, regattas, games, theatrical performances and all sorts of other events have been held on the banks of the Arno. The river reflects the firework display that is set off every year on June 24th from Piazzale Michelangelo to celebrate the feastday of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the city; Florence Rowing Club's traditional regatta is also held here on New Year's Day with roughly twenty boats competing in a race of about a kilometre from the fish-weir of Santa Rosa to the seat of the club, situated since 1933 near the Ponte Vecchio in the old stables below the Uffizi Gallery. The cool banks of the Arno are still the ideal place to spend the hot summer evenings though places of recreation are further upriver than they were a century ago, in the area around Ponte San Niccolò, between the tower of the Zecca in Piazza Piave and its twin on the opposite bank, the Gate of San Niccolò, one of the few surviving towered gates from the 14th century ring of walls. It is hardly wise to try swimming in its waters (though sunbathing is possible in various places along the banks); this is compensated by the many open-air theatres, clubs with dance-floors, restaurants and pizza bars overlooking the Arno and by the clubs and entertainment at the Park of Anconella to the south-east, where people can spend a pleasant evening beside the river. The great historical park at the Cascine, situated at the other end of the city on the opposite bank, can really only be visited during the daytime. This long green triangle covers an area of three kilometres from the last ring of walls to where the Arno joins the Mugnone. When Duke Alessandro de' Medici bought the estate in 1536, it continued to be called the "Tenuta dell'Isola"; it was turned into a park much later on, keeping much of its rural character, with its "cascine" (farm) and huge lawns. Pietro Leopoldo, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and son of Empress Maria Teresa of Hapsburg-Lorraine, in fact had the park re-designed as we can see it today in 1780; the pinewoods were replaced with limetrees and architects Paoletti and Manetti were ordered to add several delightful neoclassical constructions to the grounds like the pyramid, the fountain of Narcissus and the swimming pool at the Pavoniere, now property of the City Council. When it opened to the public, in the first half of the 19th century, the Cascine became a very popular place among the Florentines for their Sunday outings. Rich and poor rubbed shoulders here though the former preferred evening parties while the latter were quite happy to partake of a simple picnic on the grass. The Cricket Festival is still held here every year when children can buy brightly coloured wooden cages containing a traditional "singing cricket".

During the Belle Epoque the Cascine was a real theatre for high society on the banks of the Arno; it had its own flat racing track (from 1836), a shooting range (from 1859), and was also the kingdom of horses, whether mounted by men or daring ladies, or pulling the carriages of the rich or poor (the Omnibuses invented by Blaise Pascal).

If we walk right down to the end of the long boulevard that cuts through the park and heads towards the banks of the river, we eventually come to the far end of the Cascine; here the land is interrupted by the river Mugnone which meets up with the Arno at this point. A weird oriental style monument, a sort of aedicola containing a bust topped by a baldaquin, stands here: it is the tomb of Maharajah of Kolopoor, who died in Florence in 1870 and was cremated, in the Indian tradition, at the meeting of the two courses of water. Our exploration of the river comes to an end at this characteristic and unusual "belvedere" over the Arno which a curious case of destiny renamed the "Indian", in memory of this unfortunate prince.

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