Almost anyone taking a walk on the Ponte Vecchio is aware of the fact that Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, transferred his residence in Florence from Palazzo Vecchio to the Pitti Palace and asked his architect, Giorgio Vasari, to build a private passageway, the Vasari Corridor, that allowed the prince and his family to move from one building to another without even having to go into the streets.
Few, however, are probably those who have noticed a little curiosity, among many, that concerns the famous Corridor: If you look at the gallery designed by Vasari at the point where the bridge touches the shores of Oltrarno, you’ll notice that, because of the existence of a medieval tower, the path of the Vasari Corridor describes a loop deviating from its straight path. That tower is the Mannelli Tower.
In case this sounds new to you, here is the short story: Florence has been a Republic for some centuries, then in the 1400s a rich family of bankers, the Medici, start to rule the town. At first it’s an unofficial domination, let’s call it a big influence, which will last until 1532. In this period of over one century, the Medici will face many conspiracies. In 1532 Pope Clement VII (a family member), with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, names Alessandro de Medici (his illegitimate son) Duke of Florence. The Duke is assassinated in 1537, and the next Duke is Cosimo de Medici. Cosimo will take possession of Palazzo Vecchio (the seat of the institutions) but later on his wife will also buy the Pitti Palace. In 1565, Cosimo asked Giorgio Vasari to connect the two buildings with the Vasari Corridor. Reason? His own safety.
The Mannelli Tower
At the time of construction of the Corridor, the powerful ancient family of Mannelli, owners of this tower which was one of the four “bridgeheads”, opposed to expropriation which was ordered by Cosimo I de Medici. Architect Vasari couldn’t but turn the corridor around the Tower, with the help of sandstone corbels.
The Mannelli Tower wasn’t the first building obstructing the planned path of the Vasari Corridor. Several more buildings were bought by Cosimo I de Medici and destroyed to make space for his private passageway: traces of this can be seen walking on Ponte Vecchio where, just below the Vasari Corridor, you can see some windows that once were full size but then were “cut”, together with the building they belonged to. It was a delicate operation: consider that Florence had banned the Medici family to restore the Republic no more than 38 years before and Cosimo, a smart person, didn’t want to raise further problems. He paid good money for the properties he bought, and in some cases he even provided a replacement: for example, he ordered the construction of the Loggia del Pesce, to hold the new fish market after the fish sellers had to move (they were on the right bank of the river, between the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio).
We don’t know exactly how things were done. Sure the Mannelli Tower was the last remaining of the four ancient towers that defended Ponte Vecchio, as such it was a building that Florentine people didn’t want to be destroyed. The Mannelli were also one of the most important families in Florence, probably one of the few families that could legitimately oppose to the House of Medici. At the same time, Giorgio Vasari was given just five months to complete the construction: Cosimo I de Medici wanted to impress his guests at the wedding of his son Francesco with Giovanna of Austria. Of course, finding a workaround was much less time expensive.
Along with these factors, there are two theories on the Mannelli Tower: one thinks that the Mannelli possessed important documents on Cosimo, that the Grand Duke preferred to keep secret; the other theory is that Mr. Mannelli’s daughter was the secret lover of Cosimo.
The Mannelli Tower today hosts an ice cream shop: so many people eat gelato here, without knowing about this story, and even less take a look at the other side of via de Bardi, where they would see the opposite example: the Ubriachi Tower stands there and it’s crossed by the Vasari Corridor. Unlike the Mannelli, the Ubriachi family was very happy to sell his tower to the Grand Duke. It was also a chance to move away from an area of the city that, at that time, wasn’t considered prestigious.