Nowadays the river Arno that cuts Florence in two is merely a small part of the beautiful scenery of the city, in earlier times however the river and its banks were buzzing with activity. The Arno was the lifeblood of Florence and it was used for transportation, fishing, but also as a supplier of sand and water and to do laundry. As can be seen in this photo from 1896, with the Ponte Santa Trinità and Ponte Vecchio in the background.
Looking out over the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio in the 19th century you would have seen dozens of flat-bottomed boats filled with sand and gravel on the water. Up to about WWII the river was the domain of the Renaioli. These men were named after the goods that they transported the most: rena (sand). For centuries, the sand and gravel that the Renaioli shoveled from the riverbeds were used to build the Florentine houses and palazzi. It was a hard life on the water during all weather conditions. The Arno may seem like a calm river, but history tells us of numerous floods in the past that caused major damage and the loss of lives. The last major flood took place in 1966.
In the 1950’s of the previous century the Renaioli had to make way for more modern methods such as dredging and the characteristic boats disappeared from the townscape. Until 1995 when the association “I renaioli” was established to preserve the historic boats. Several original boats were retrieved, in some cases literally from the bottom of the river and were restored so they could sail the river once more. Only this time not filled with sand, but with tourists.
During a 45-minute boat trip in an authentic boat steered by a Renaiolo you can cruise down the Arno from the starting point at Piazza Mentana, passing under the Ponte Vecchio and Ponte Santa Trinità and passing by impressive historic buildings such as the Uffizi, the Vasari Corridor, Palazzo Corsini and the S. Jacopo in Soprarno church.
I boarded a Renaiolo boat on a sunny late September afternoon for a guided tour with Artemide, a collective of 5 young city guides. Slowly we floated down the river while our guide Lavinia told us all about the buildings we passed.
The quays in the heart of the city, the Lungarni, were constructed in the 19th century and to create enough space several palazzi that were located near the water lost a piece of their garden and some buildings were even “shortened”.
Note that the Ponte Vecchio wasn’t always the prestigious shopping area filled with jewelry shops that it is today. Up until the 16th century the bridge was the domain of the butchers. Having the river below you makes it so much easier to discard the waste of your butcher shop. In 1593 Grand Duke Ferdinando I had all butcher shops removed from the bridge because he couldn’t stand the nasty smell that came from them when he passed through the Vasarian Corridor that is located on top of the bridge.
The S. Jacopo in Soprarno church is located on the Oltrarno side of the river, it stands out because of how it was built in by its surrounding buildings and it is almost in the water. The Florentines have therefore given it the nickname “the church with his butt in the Arno”.
Despite being in the middle of the city with all its noise, it was striking how much quieter it was on the water. The only other “traffic” on the water consisted of a couple of rowers from the rowing club that is located on the quay below the Uffizi.
I really enjoyed seeing Florence from a completely different viewpoint and it was quite the experience to pass under a seven centuries old bridge. As always the Ponte Vecchio was loaded with tourists and when we passed it people waved at us happily.
In the below video you can see how we passed under the Ponte Vecchio.
You can make the boat trip with the Renaioli from May till the end of September and it’s possible to have an English-speaking guide on board.
Click on the photos for a larger view.
Source historical photos: Vecchia Firenze Mia