A Secret Passageway………. Above ground!
Everyone who has been to Florence has crossed the Ponte Vecchio at least once during their visit. How many of you have looked up and wondered what is behind those beautiful circular windows? For years I have wanted to walk the famous Vasari Corridor and last Sunday was fortunate enough to finally admire Florence from the secret passage way that joins the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) to the Pitti Palace.
To really appreciate the Vasari Corridor, you have to understand the history behind it’s construction. We had the most wonderful guide, Mariogesu explain this to us in such a way that we really felt transported back in time to when royalty and nobles graced the palaces with their presence, festivities and corruption.
The Grand Duke, Cosimo the 1st of the Medici family commissioned this secret passageway to be built in 1565 leading from the Medici court’s political seat of power in the old palace to his new palace across the river. The completion of the corridor was to coincide with the marriage of his son, Prince Regent Francesco de’ Medici to Princess Giovanna (Joan) d’Austria and was Cosimo’s way of ‘showing off’ the Medici’s extensive art display, opulence and new ways after the banishment of the Republic. No doubt the foreign guests were all suitably impressed as the wedding procession moved through the corridor an they could admire Florence from this beautiful vantage point.
The Grand Duke also wanted to be able to walk freely from one palace to another without the entourage of his escorts and army. Also of course, probably the main reason was for his safety as he felt insecure moving around in public due to having replaced the Republic.
Cosimo commissioned architect Giorgio Vasari to build the passageway and it was completed in a record five months. (which is incredibly fast for construction even now in present time Italy!)
Before the passageway was built, the meat market was located on the Ponte Vecchio but to avoid the stench seeping into the corridor, Cosimo ordered it to be moved and replaced with the goldsmiths who still line the bridge today.
The Vasari Corridor was also the location of some infamous meetings between Mussolini and Hitler and it was in fact due to this alliance that Hitler ordered that the Ponte Vecchio not be damaged during the bombing of the city in the 2nd World War. Every other bridge along the Arno river was unfortunately destroyed by the persistent bombing.
The very first part of the Corridor can be seen while touring the Palazzo Vecchio but a locked door blocks the passage. Access to the rest of the Corridor is in the Uffizi Gallery which is where our tour began. Here the door between rooms 25 and 34 was ceremoniously unlocked for our private tour to pass through.
It has been eighteen years since I last visited the gallery and it was as impressive as always. The last time that I visited the gallery however was before the 1993 Mafia bombing when part of the gallery and the Vasari Corridor were damaged. Tragically, a family also lost their lives during the bombing. In the Vasari Corridor, several artworks were destroyed by the explosion while other paintings were terribly damaged. Some of these have been pieced back together and placed back on their original spot to serve as a reminder of the horrible attack.
This first section of the corridor contains primarily paintings by Caravaggio and some of his students. The next section, which follows Lungarno Archibusieri contains works from the 16th and 17th centuries and the section that crosses the River Arno above the jewelry shops contains the impressive collection of self portraits by Italian painters. It begins with Vasari’s self portrait and also includes self portraits by foreign greats such as Rubens and Velasquez.
Once past the bridge, the corridor winds around the ‘Torre dei Mannelli’ as the owners refused to alter it at the time of construction. This section features a beautiful balcony overlooking the alter of Santa Felicita, from which the Dukes could attend Mass without having to once again mix with the common public. I cannot tell you how many times I have passed this church on street level oblivious to the beauty hidden beyond the front doors. I had no idea that this church was the private place of worship for the Medici family.
The passageway then continues to the Pitti Palace but our tour exited down a stairway to a door beside Buontalenti’s Grotto in the Boboli Gardens. The whole tour lasted for about 3 hours and it was one of the most informative afternoons I have experienced during my travels in Florence.
The Uffizi does not open the Vasari Corridor all year round so you will have to check and see if it is open when you are planning to visit. There are private tours available which is what I was fortunate to do (Thanks Dad!!) and you can check availability at the Florence Town website. As mentioned earlier, we had the most wonderful guide whose passion for art was obvious as he gave us a very entertaining art history lesson and tour.