a walk through nineteenth-century Florence
Poggi’s ramps, connecting Lungarno Benvenuto Cellini with the Piazzale Michelangelo has been recently restored and inaugurated on 1 June 2019. This conservation project retrieved a piece of the city, which for such a long time remained inaccessible. Today we can again climb the ramps, enjoy the shade of this beautiful urban garden decorated by fountains and grottos, and reach the Piazzale Michelangelo at their top. The construction of the ramps was a part of a much wider project of urban renewal of Florence, set up during the brief period when the city was the capital of Italy. Let’s discover Poggi’s ramps!
Florence as capital city
The story of Poggi’s ramps begins on 19 November 1864. On that day the MPs of the young Kingdom of Italy decided that the capital of this young country would be moved from Turin to Florence the following year. The bill became law on 11 December 1864 and with it the authorities were obliged to transfer all the administrative apparatus of the state to Florence within the next six months. In fact, in 1865 King Victor Emanuel II with his court, the dignitaries and the public administration arrived to Florence.
A medieval town or a modern capital?
In 1864 however, Florence was still a rather medieval town, surrounded by the city walls, densely and often chaotically built. Various palaces owned by the state became the seats of the ministries and public offices. The king himself occupied the most prestigious building in town, the famous Palazzo Pitti, which in past functioned as the Medici Grand Dukes’ primary residency.
In 1864 the population of Florence stood at 120 000 people and it was expected to grow to 150 000 with the arrival of the members of the public administration and their families. In consequence, very soon the rentals in Florence increased and many Florentines could not afford a decent housing anymore. Numerous families were temporarily hosted in some of the Florentine convents and nunneries.
Foreseeing the difficulties that could be caused by this rapid move, the Florentine authorities started to elaborate a plan of urban development, aimed at the improvement of the housing conditions and at the enlargement of the city. In November 1864 Giuseppe Poggi was appointed to develop a plan of the urban enlargement of Florence. The project was ready in January 1865 and Poggi began his activity as the main architect of the new capital of Italy. Poggi’s ramps connecting the newly built Piazzale Michelangelo with the Arno river, were part of this ambitious project of urban renovation of Florence.
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Poggi’s plan for Florence envisaged a deep transformation of the city and included:
- demolition of the medieval city walls and the construction of the wide boulevards surrounding the historical centre
- creation of new neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the historical centre
- modernization of the sewer system
- hydraulic works aimed at the limitation of the flood risks
- construction of the new panoramic boulevard on the southern bank of the Arno, the so-called “Viale dei Colli” with the Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the historical centre
- construction of the ramps connecting the Piazzale Michelangelo with the river
- construction of Campo di Marte, a vast area for military manoeuvres and parades.
At the same time the local government promoted the project of the new Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II (today’s Piazza della Repubblica), which brought to the demolition of the Florentine ghetto and deeply modified a vast area of the historical centre, between the Baptistery and the Mercato Nuovo.
The project of Poggi’s ramps was in fact an element of a much wider conception of a general renewal of Florence. The investments made possible by the displacement of the capital, were supposed to improve also sanitary conditions among the Florentine population, who in 1864 lived in the city devoid of a proper sewer system and often occupied poor and unhealthy buildings.
Even if the improvements were needed more all less everywhere, the attention of the govenors focused on the new neighbourhoods. Actually, the approach of the local government and of the experts, like Poggi himself, to the general renewal of Florence was often characterized by disdain towards the members of the lower classes. To some extend the creation of the new, healthy and spacious neighbourhoods, panoramic boulevards with neo-Renaissance villas, allowed the local elites to separate from the poor, who still occupied the tiny apartments in the historical districts like San Frediano. In some way Poggi’s plan resulted in a creation of a new, bourgeois Florence, whose inhabitants enjoyed spacious, panoramic apartments located in the new neighbourhoods surrounded by greenery and by the lavish Tuscany countryside.
One of the most significant changes in the Florentine urbanistic was the demolition of the medieval city walls and the construction of the spacious boulevards. These wide circular alleys, inspired by Haussmann’s boulevards in Paris and by the project of the Viennese Ring, connected the “old” Florence with the “new Florence”, that was growing on the outside of the circle.
With the demolition of the medieval city walls, Poggi deeply altered the structure of Florence. Parts of the wall remained on the Southern bank of the Arno river, where still today we can understand what it meant to live in a walled city.
In his project Poggi used the monumental gates to the city, Porta al Prato, Porta San Gallo and Porta alla Croce, to create panoramic squares, similar to London’s circuses. Today’s transformation of the viali, introduction of the tram and the division of the alleys into various car lanes, reduced the panoramic effects of these squares. According to Poggi’s idea, for example, Piazza Beccaria, created as a vast roundabout with the Porta alla Croce in the middle was supposed to remain open towards the Arno and to offer a panoramic view towards the buildings of the old mint, which Poggi wanted to transform in a bathhouse.
This panoramic setting was destroyed first in 1938 with a construction of the fascist Casa della Gioventù Italiana del Littorio, which was demolished in 1975 to make space for the new state archive. The new Archivio di Stato was inaugurated in 1989.
Similar panoramic squares were designed around Porta San Gallo (today’s Piazza della Libertà) and Porta al Prato.
The Viale dei Colli
The so-called “Viale dei Colli”, designed on the Southern bank of the Arno, was one of the seminal elements of Poggi’s urban renewal of Florence. Poggi’s idea was to design a wide boulevard, which would connect the Arno with the Porta Romana, passing through the hills of Arcetri, Giramonte and Monte alle Croci. If the boulevards on the North were designed to connect the new neighbourhoods with the historical centre, the Viale dei Colli had the ambition to become the “most beautiful walk in the world”.
Along the sinusoidal avenue developed a prestigious housing district composed of the wealthy neo-Renaissance villas for the aristocrats and the Florentine bourgeoisie. Poggi, together with the gardener Attilio Pucci, designed the distribution of trees and bushes and forbade the construction of thick walls around the private properties. Their aim was to create a continuous “urban garden”, a panoramic walk in the nature, which culminated with the magnificent Piazzale Michelangelo.
Since the very beginning, the panoramic square overlooking the centre and dedicated to the glorious Michelangelo Buonarroti, laid at the centre of Poggi’s idea for the hills. The architect wanted to display on the square some of the copies of Michelangelo’s works, creating also a monumental loggia dedicated to the artist. This initial project was subsequently reduced. The loggia was transformed into a cafeteria and the square was decorated by the bronze copies of David and of the four allegories from the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo.
Poggi’s sagacity and foresightfulness is confirmed by the fact that until today many Florentines use the Viale dei Colli for their Sunday walks with the family. Everyday numerous runners exercise along these tree-lined avenues, and hundreds of visitors take pictures from the Piazzale Michelangelo. The view from the top of this panoramic square became the most iconic view of Florence.
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Poggi’s ramps and the river
The idea to connect the Piazzale Michelangelo with the Arno river with a system of ramps did not appear in the first version of Poggi’s plans. Subsequently, however, the architect developed the project of this vertical garden with grottos and fountains, which bond the Piazzale with the Lungarno.
The idea to open the city towards the river was yet another fruit of Poggi’s interventions. It is difficult today imagine Florence without the panoramic streets, called Lungarni, which run on the both sides of the Arno. However, before Poggi’s urban renewal, the riverbanks were built-up by various, often poor constructions, which used to shield the view on the river. Despite the importance of river for the development and growth of the local economy, the Arno has always been seen as a dangerous neighbour, responsible for recurring floods and disasters. The flood destroyed Florence in 1333, then in 1557, in 1844 and then in 1864, the year when the Italian government decided to move the capital to the town.
Giuseppe Poggi had the ambition to modify this centenary habit of the Florentines to divide the city from the Arno. The architect wanted to improve the Florentine defence against the water. His plan included the cleaning and deepening of the river beds, construction of the walled riverbanks and of the Lungarni, the panoramic streets running along the Arno.
Poggi’s ramps were a monumental conclusion of this ambitious project, as they constitute a fluid and harmonious connection between the river and the hills on the South of the city.
Poggi’s ramps and the gardens
Poggi’s ramps, designed by the architect in collaboration with the gardener Attilio Pucci, wind their way across three levels. Along the walk the wayfarer meets the fountains and the grottos surrounded by the wilderness of shrubberies. The design of the fountains and the grottos remains strongly inspired by the Florentine manneristic tradition. Natural sponges, stalactites and shells clearly refer to Buontalenti’s Grotto in the Boboli Gardens and to his project for the Medici villa in Pratolino.
Attilio Pucci took care of the garden design and he introduced into the grottos various types of plants, such as ivy, wild blackberry or ferns.
Poggi’s ramps create a fascinating itinerary, which surprises with the diversity of views, astonishing water effects, colourful vegetation and wilderness of the surrounding woods. The ramps offer a moment of relax and reconnect us with nature.
Thanks to the recent restoration we can once again enjoy this panoramic walk, getting lost between the fountains! During your stay in Florence remember to climb Poggi’s ramps on your way to Piazzale Michelangelo!
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