A Walk Through History on the Other Side of Florence
The Oltrarno—literally “across the Arno”—stands apart from Florence’s busy central and eastern quarters. Traditionally a blue-collar district, it retains a peaceful atmosphere, full of artisans’ studios, antiques stores, bars and small restaurants. At the same time it features plenty of sights tied to its historical past, like the art-filled Palazzo Pitti and the church of San Miniato al Monte.
The City of Florence was founded in the 1st century BC on the northern bank of the Arno and its central square corresponded with today’s Piazza della Repubblica. First settlements on the southern bank of the river date back to the 4th century AD, when a Cristian community established itself in the area 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, and in the 13th century the powerful Mozzi family built a palace in today’s San Niccolò quarter which for many years was the biggest in Florence. Other noble families built 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 beginning of the 11th century. Between the Old Bridge and today’s Gate of Porta Romana, many hostels for pilgrims heading to Rome were opened on Via Romana and two new bridges were built to ensure proper communication between the two banks of the river: the Bridge alle Grazie in 1257, which was destroyed by German mines in 1944 and reconstructed as a modern bridge in 1957; and the famous Bridge a Santa Trinita in 1252, which was repeatedly wiped away by floods.
In Florence in the 11th century, so-called “borghi” (neighborhoods) were built. Two of them were in Oltrarno, around Borgo San Jacopo and Borgo di Piazza. While many of the borghi of Florence had protective walls, the Oltrarno did not until the 14th century, and only wooden palisades and facades without windows stood between the inhabitants and invaders. In 1333, a city wall was built around Oltrarno, along with gates which can be found still today.
Oltrarno’s residents during the 14th century were mainly ciompi (“workers” who in 1378 rebelled because of the harsh treatment they endured and set to fire many wooden houses near Via Maggio) and craftsmen, who still today have here their workshops. Oltrarno underwent a transformation at the end of 15th century, when rich merchants and noble families began building their palaces, which included the Palazzo Guadagni in Piazza Santo Spirito, Palazzo Capponi delle Rovinate on Via dei Bardi and many palaces on Via Maggio, the broadest street in Florence at that time. The most important palace is without a doubt the 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 and Via San Niccolò offer many Renaissance palaces which may be lesser known than some palaces on the other bank of the Arno, but are no 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 goldsmiths, as well as restorers and carpenters.
Another transformation for Oltrarno occurred in 1860, when Florence became provisional capital of the newly unified kingdom of Italy. The Savoia royal family chose Palazzo Pitti as its residence. 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, the walls were completely dismantled in order to make room for broader streets and new buildings. Today, the only surviving parts of city walls in Florence can be seen in Oltrarno.
The most significant events for Florence in the 20th century were the fighting during World War II and the flood of 1966. In Oltrarno, one can still find buildings carrying signs of them. In August 1944, retreating Germans destroyed all bridges (except the Ponte Vecchio) and large parts of Via Guicciardini and Borgo San Jacopo, which were then rebuilt imitating colors and shapes of the medieval buildings. In November 1966, Arno flooded the city and houses, shops and monuments in the quarters of Oltrarno suffered heavy damages.
Through it all, Oltrarno has preserved a truly Florentine atmosphere made of history, art and piazze which are not only empty spaces, but places where people meet and live together. These quarters welcome visitors with shops and unique workshops, cafes and restaurants, world-famous and lesser-known museums and monuments, and a way of life that cannot be found in other quarters of Florence.