Monuments, museums, churches, palaces, parks: Pitti Palace, the Old Bridge, Santo Spirito Square, the Gardens of Boboli – just to name a few…
And then mosaic-makers, wood carvers, gilders, goldsmiths…
The wonderful history of Florence lives on in Oltrarno, not only thanks to the so rich historical and artistic heritage, but also in the daily life: in the many restaurants and cafés maintaining the typical atmosphere, in the artisan workshops carrying on a century-old tradition of both spirit and working methods.
Florence was founded in 1st Century b. C. on the northern bank of the Arno and its central square corresponded to today’s Piazza della Repubblica. First settlements on the southern bank of the river date back to 4th Century A.D., when a Cristian community established itself in the area at the beginning of Via Guicciardini and Borgo San Jacopo and founded the church of Santa Felicita.
During the Middle Ages the dwelling “oltre l’Arno” grew and flourished: in the Square of Santa Felicita an important market was held, in 13th Century the powerful Mozzi family built in today’s San Niccolò quarter a palace which for many years was the biggest in Florence, and other noble families built raging towers in the area between the streets of Via Santo Spirito and Via dei Bardi: some of them can still be seen today, while many others have been demolished or merged with other buildings. On the “mountain” of San Miniato the church of San Miniato al Monte was built at the beginnings of 11th Century. Between the Old Bridge and today’s Gate of porta Romana many hostels for pilgrims heading to Rome were opened in Via Romana, and two new bridges were built in order to ensure good communication between the two banks of the river: the Bridge alle Grazie (1257; it was destroyed by German mines in 1944 and reconstructed as a modern bridge in 1957) and the famous Bridge a Santa Trinita (1252), which was repeatedly wiped away by floods.
In Florence so-called “borghi” (neighbourhoods) were built at that time: two of them were in Oltrarno, around Borgo San Jacopo and Borgo di Piazza (now Via Guicciardini); other neighbourhoods had important churches like Santo Spirito and Santa Maria del Carmine as their centres. Until 14th Century this part of the city was not protected by walls: wooden palisades and façades without windows were the only defence against invaders. In 1333 the sixth city wall was built around Oltrarno, along with gates which can be found still today.
Oltrarno’s inhabitants where at that time mainly «ciompi» (“workers”, who in 1378 rebelled because of the harsh treatment used on them and set to fire many wooden houses near Via Maggio) and craftsmen, who still today have here their workshops; Oltrarno underwent a deep change at the end of 15th Century, when rich merchants and noble families begun building here their palaces: Palazzo Guadagni in Piazza Santo Spirito, Palazzo Capponi delle Rovinate in Via dei Bardi and many palaces in Via Maggio, the broadest street of Florence at that time. The most imposing palace is without any doubt Pitti Palace, built by the banker Luca Pitti who demolished part of Borgo di Piazza in front of the palace and created the Gardens of Boboli behind it.
In 1550 the Medici chose Pitti Palace as their residence: Pitti Square as well as Via Maggio and other streets of Oltrarno gained further importance and other palaces were built there: streets like Via dei Serragli, Via Santo Spirito or Via San Niccolò offer to visitors many Renaissance palaces which may be lesser known than some palaces on the other bank of the Arno but are not less beautiful. The Medici and the many families of their court further boosted art craftsmanship of Oltrarno: they all wanted to decorate their palaces with precious and refined artworks and needed not only painters and sculptors, but also cunning gilders, engravers, etchers, mosaic makers goldsmiths, as well as restorers, smiths and carpenters.
A new, deep change for Oltrarno was in 1860: Florence became provisional capital of the newly unified kingdom of Italy. The Savoia royal family chose Palazzo Pitti as royal palace, Piazzale Michelangelo and the alleys leading to it were built on the hill of San Miniato, and the medieval city walls were partly demolished. On the other bank of the Arno they were completely dismantled in order to make room for broader streets and new buildings; the only surviving parts of city walls in Florence can be seen in Oltrarno.
The most striking events for Florence in 20th Century were the fightings in 1944 and the flood in 1966: in Oltrarno one can still find buildings carrying signs of them. In august 1944 retreating Germans destroyed all bridges (except the Old Bridge) and large parts of Via Guicciardini and Borgo San Jacopo, which were then rebuilt imitating colours and shapes of the medieval buildings. In November 1966 Arno flooded the city, and houses, shops and monuments the quarters of Oltrarno suffered heavy damages.
Oltrarno preserved until today a truly Florentine atmosphere made of art and artisans, squares which are not only empty spaces but places where people meet and live together: these quarters welcome visitors with shops and unique workshops, cafés and restaurants, world-famous and lesser-known museums and monuments – and a way of life you cannot find in other quarters of Florence.
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