Italian Architect and Painter
Floods in 1333 destroyed a bridge, built in 1177, that crossed the Arno River in Florence, and 12 years later, the city unveiled a new bridge, designed by the painter Taddeo Gaddi. The Ponte Vecchio was the first segmental arch bridge built in the West, and, as such, represents profound engineering achievement.
Gaddi, whose full name was Taddeo di Gaddo Gaddi, was born in Florence in about 1300. His father was the mosaicist Gaddi di Zanobi, and his godfather the painter Giotto (1276-1337). Eventually Gaddi went to work for Giotto, and lived with him for 24 years. Later Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), who coincidentally designed a corridor for the Ponte Vecchio, would write in his famous Lives of the Artists that Gaddi "surpassed his master in color" and, in some works, "even in expression."
Though his most well-known paintings are in Florence, Gaddi's work can be found in other locations, including Pisa, Arezzo, and Pistoia. His earliest paintings, including The Stigmatization of Saint Francis, date from the 1320s and reflect the influence of his master Giotto; but by the 1330s, the most fruitful decade of his career as a painter, he had begun to show his own style in works such as the fresco cycle in the Baroncelli chapel of San Croce in Florence.
These and other works helped Gaddi amass an impressive fortune, and added to his growing reputation. He had meanwhile married Francesca Albizzi Ormanni, with whom he had three sons. Two of their sons, Agnolo and Giovanni, grew up to be painters themselves. Gaddi had also embarked on a second career as an architect, designing the Ponte Trinita, a bridge downriver from Florence that was destroyed in the 1500s.
As for the Ponte Vecchio ("old bridge" in Italian), work began in the mid-1330s. Gaddi's design called for fewer piers in the stream—just two—than did the traditional semicircular arch design handed down from the Romans, and this meant that the bridge created fewer obstructions to boat traffic, thus enabling a greater flow of commerce at the river port. It also permitted floodwaters to move more easily, which in turn reduced the threat of a great inundation. The Ponte Vecchio was designed as an inhabited urban bridge, with shops atop its three powerful masonry arches. In time it became a two-story roadway with the addition of Vasari's corridor, which connects the nearby Uffizi and Pitti palaces with other urban centers.
Gaddi continued work as a painter in the years following the completion of the Ponte Vecchio. Among the works from his later career are The Virgin and Child Enthroned (1355) and a fresco on the east wall of the San Croce refectory. Also exactly 600 years after the completion of the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge was one of the few spared by the Nazi army as it retreated through northern Italy in World War II.