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The Navigability of the Arno 04/08/2011

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‘There is a background here which it is well to remember; thinking, as one sees the boats still moving on the stream, of what that movement once meant to the city; how it linked her with Pisa and the sea, and how Florence was great very much because of her place on this open water-way. The matter does not lie altogether beyond the memory of living men. I heard of a case in which the furniture of an English family moving from Leghorn to Florence, as late as 1863, was brought up all the way by water in a barge to the old city port at the Pignone. There, indeed, a basin and shelter had long been contrived for the ‘gondolas’ of the Grand Duke – you may still see the plans of it in the Archivio – and thence the Court used to drop down-stream in these state barges on their way to a villeggiatura at the Ambrogiana of Montelupo, or some other country resort. If you would add to the impression, and know what serious use was made of the river in the sixteenth century, go to the Piazza of Santa Trinita, and measure the great column of Justice that stands in front of the Church. This mighty shaft of granite, once part of the Baths of Caracalla, was a gift of Pius IV to Cosimo I and came all the way by water from Rome to Signa. The journey might have been completed in the same way had the season not been summer: a trial to the patience of the Grand Duke and of his architect Vasari, who chose to have the monument dragged by road these last eight miles to Florence rather than wait for the rains and the rising river. Such was the capacity of the Arno and the use made of it in 1562.’

Trade on the Arno 17/07/2011

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c. 1910

The Mugnone now falls into the Arno much lower than it formerly did, reaching the greater stream only at the western end of the Cascine: a change which may be reckoned with the rest as one of the causes why commerce no longer comes to Florence by water. Pass this confluence, however; pass the shallow of Marcignana, which the alkuium brought down the Mugnone has formed, and the river begins at once to show what it can do still, in the manner, if not the measure, of the greater past. At Ugnano, scarcely a mile below the Cascine, a true cargo-boat, though of small size, lay waiting its load in the winter of 1909; I suppose this is now the highest point reached by the existing river trade.

Such boats, however, you will find in growing number as you follow the growing river; at Signa, where it has already received the Bisenzio; at the Golfolina, where the Ombrone falls in, and, definitely, at Montelupo, where the Pesa joins the Arno, and where manufactures of earthenware and glass are set on the stream and use it as a means of transport. Empoli sees the confluence of Arno and Elsa, and its match factories bring custom to the growing trade. It is not difficult to understand that, if the river is to compete with its rival the rail, its advantage will lie here; in the transport of fragile things like pottery and glass, or combustibles like sulphur and lucifers, on which the railway levies high charges for so dangerous a freight.

Another advantage appears at Calcinaia, between Pontedera and Pisa, in the canal which runs directly from this point in the river toLeghorn, offering a shorter route thither than the rail can show. Calcinaia is therefore a prosperous place, and here, or at the neighbouring Fornacette, you may see for the first time the really heavy boats of the lower Arno; built to carry bricks or grain to Leghorn, and to return with loads of coal for the kiln, or sulphate of copper for the vineyards. This canal is called the Fosso del Arnaccio, as if the river itself once followed the very route the canal keeps to-day.

Strabo, in fact, speaks of the Arno as ‘threefold’ ; hinting at a considerable delta towards the mouth, and thus it may well be that the present traffic by water is not merely a survival of the past, but that, in a singular persistence, it still keeps the ancient line of passage, a branch of the river once followed across the Pisan plain. Not that the same boats may not be found at Pisa too, lying in the Medicean port with its great sluice and roof, or crowding the canal of the Naviglio for which that port was built in 1603. They are of precisely the type we have already studied atFlorence, with a rather exaggerated sheer fore and aft, which, in the stern, leaves room for a great earthen water-jar under the curve of the tiller. The chief difference is in the size of the boat, for these of the lower Arno may run to twenty-five or even thirty tons as against two or three at Florence.