Odysseys' Hidden Gems: Florence's Vasari Corridor

Odysseys' Hidden Gems: Florence's Vasari Corridor

Posted September 16, 2016

There’s nothing like a good secret passage. From the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia to Harry Potter’s Platform 9¾ to the passages connecting the corner rooms in the board game Clue, these hidden corridors bring a dash of mystery and intrigue to any situation. And they’re not strictly confined to the realm of fiction.

One of the finest secret passages in the world is hidden in plain sight, in one of the oldest and most historic cities on earth: Florence, Italy.

The Vasari Corridor was built nearly five hundred years ago, in 1565, at the behest of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the second Duke of Florence. Unlike many secret passageways, the Vasari Corridor (named for its architect, noted artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari) runs aboveground – in fact, well above it.

Starting from the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall and the former home of the Medici family, the Corridor joins the world-famous Uffizi Gallery, from which it can be accessed by an unmarked door. Exiting the gallery on the second floor, the Corridor turns right and runs along the banks of the Arno River on a series of arched supports, then turns 90 degrees left and crosses the famed Ponte Vecchio. From here, it’s a straight shot (almost, as you’ll see below) through the heart of Florence to the Palazzo Pitti, the elaborate palace that the Medicis purchased for their residence after leaving the Palazzo Vecchio in 1549.

The elevated passage was created for the same reason that private air travel and tinted windows exist today – to shield the famous from the prying eyes and hands of the many. Construction was completed in five short months, just in time to celebrate the marriage of the Duke’s son Francesco to Joanna of Austria. After completion, the corridor allowed members of the ruling family to move freely between their home and their ruling palace without being accosted by the citizens of Florence.

Interestingly, while the Duke was loathe to mingle with the common folk in person, he did enjoy convening with them from on high. A portion of the corridor passes through the upper façade of the church of Santa Felicita, and a grated window allowed the corridor’s occupants to follow the services from their perch.

The corridor is still operational today, and though it’s only accessible via private tour, it is fairly evident if you know where to look. Along the banks of the Arno it stands alone, a second-story covered walkway separated by a sidewalk from the buildings across from it. And the corridor’s pale façade and regularly spaced windows make it easy to identify as it crosses the Ponte Vecchio:

As with so many things in Florence, the tenants of the Ponte Vecchio were influenced by the Medici. When the Vasari Corridor was built, the span was occupied by a variety of butcher shops. Not wanting to deal with the smell and clamor, the Medici banned butchers from operating on the bridge in 1593, and a variety of gold and jewel merchants moved in.

During the building of the corridor, the ruling Medici family forced several prominent families to permit construction through their homes – that’s why the corridor seemingly disappears into the sides of some buildings and reappears on the other side. One notable exception: the Mannelli family, who owned the tower at the corner of Via Bardi and Via de' Guicciardini. They were none too pleased about having a secret passageway bisect their home, and stood firm until the Medici agreed to snake the corridor around the outside of the Mannelli building. You can still see this protrusion today:

These days, the Vasari Corridor acts as an extension of the Uffizi Gallery – covered wall-to-wall with 16th- and 17th-century artwork, as well as one of Europe’s largest collections of self-portraits by famous artists. Book lovers may recognize the passage from its inclusion in Dan Brown's latest novel, Inferno, which is set mainly in Florence. Guests on our Italian Landscapes, Northern Italy, and Portrait of Italy tours have free time in this historic city, and may visit the corridor (along with the famed Uffizi Gallery) by booking a tour through Visit Florence.

Passage image via Flickr

Arno River image via Flickr

Santa Felicita image via Flickr

Ponte Vecchio image via Flickr

Mannelli tower image via Flickr