Sunset on the Arno: Historic Tales of Florence’s Bridges

Aug 1, 2022 10:00:00 AM / by Ashley Feiler

Get onboard and go on a water tour of the city with Ashley. She tells us 3 tales of bridges around Florence and their significance historically as well as how you can experience them in the here and now like a local.

Depending on where you stay in Florence, the Arno River may or may not be a big part of your daily experience. Those that live in Oltrarno will likely cross the river nearly every day to get to Piazza del Duomo or, as a study abroad student, the CAPA center. (Fun fact: “Oltrarno” literally means “beyond the Arno” and refers to the same physical location regardless of which side of the river you’re actually on!) My apartment is on the same side of the river as the CAPA center, so I don’t see much of the Arno unless I seek it out. When CAPA made one of their My Global City events a boat tour of the Arno River, I jumped at the chance to further explore this part of the city.

Boats on the Arno River

Caption: Preparing the boats for the tour.

On the day of the tour, my roommate and I headed to the pier at 8pm to meet our guide with I Renaioli, the organization providing the tour in the historic boats they work to restore and maintain. We filed into the first of two boats with seven other CAPA students I didn’t know, but this turned out to be a great opportunity to meet new people. This summer, there are actually multiple different study abroad programs running through CAPA. I’m in the general CAPA Florence program through my university, but on our boat, I ended up getting to know students from education and engineering-specific programs that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to meet.

CAPA students on a boat on the Arno River in Florence

Caption: The other CAPA students on our boat!

The Ponte Vecchio

Once we were settled in the boats, we set off down the Arno, heading downstream toward the setting sun. We first passed under the Ponte Vecchio: this is the oldest bridge still standing across the Arno as it was the only bridge not destroyed during WWII. If you’ve heard of any of Florence’s bridges, it’s probably this one! You may also know that this bridge is famous for its jewelry shops and goldsmiths, but I was surprised to learn the reason why those shops are there today. According to our guide, in the past, the Ponte Vecchio was host to primarily butcher shops because it was easy to throw unwanted scraps of meat straight into the river. However, the horrible smell from these shops came to be too much, so the butchers were replaced by jewelers to make the trip across the bridge more appealing. 

As we listened to these stories, music from the bridge above us underscored the already picturesque scene. Crowds were gathered on the Ponte Vecchio to watch the sunset, but I’d argue that we had the best view!

Ponte Vecchio at sunset in Florence

Caption: The Ponte Vecchio at sunset.

The Ponte Santa Trinita

The second bridge we passed, the Ponte Santa Trinita, featured two ram heads on its sides, one facing upstream and one facing downstream. The rams are best visible from a boat – their central location on the side of the bridge makes them difficult to see from on the bridge itself or from either shore, so it was awesome to get a closer look at something I probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Not to mention, they’re more than just a simple decoration. Our guide described how the ram facing upstream was said to be worried about floods, especially for the sake of the Ponte Vecchio, while the ram facing downstream was said to be angry. This ram was sending a warning to Pisa, an enemy of Florence in the past who would have had to approach Florence from that direction.

A slightly more well-known aspect of the bridge is its four statues: one on each corner to represent each of the four seasons. One of them, the Spring statue, lost its head in WWII, but it was recovered in the depths of the Arnoyears later. I’ll definitely be making the walk back to this bridge another day to check out these statues from on land!

ram on the Ponte Santa Trinita

Caption: This ram on the Ponte Santa Trinita faces upstream to watch for floods.

The Ponte alla Carraia

By the time we reached the third bridge, the Ponte alla Carraia, the sun was just beginning to touch the edge of the water on the horizon. The sunset lit up the bridges in a golden hue as we turned around to return to our starting point. On the way back, our guide was happy to answer our many questions about any buildings or restaurants along the sides of the river that we found interesting as we soaked in the incredible sights.

Sunset behind the Ponte alla Carraia

Caption: Sunset behind the Ponte alla Carraia.

Taking this boat tour of the Arno was an amazing opportunity to get a new perspective of the river, both literally and figuratively. There’s a ton of history within its bridges alone and so much I never would have known without our incredible guide. If you have the chance, I would absolutely recommend this excursion with I Renaioli, but if not, just taking a walk along one of the bridges at sunset is an experience you don’t want to miss!

View of the Arno River from the boat

Caption: View of the Arno River from inside the boat.

Thanks, Ashley!

Ashley Feiler

Ashley Feiler is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2022, sharing his story in frequent posts on CAPA World. An English Writing and Linguistic major from University of Pittsburgh, she is studying abroad in Florence this semester.

Ashley's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA Florence Program

Topics: Florence, Italy, Local Culture