The Rialto Bridge: the history of the most famous bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice
The Rialto bridge was considered the eighth wonder of the world in the year 1594, just a few years after it was erected, between 1588 and 1591. It really cost a lot of money: more than 250,000 ducats, as Francesco Sansovino wrote in his guidebook published in Venice at that time. It was for many centuries the only bridge built across the Grand Canal or Canalazzo, as we call it here.
It is nowadays one of the most iconic buildings in Venice, although now the shops located on it do not sell exclusively gold and jewels.
The first toll bridge built here in the 12th century was called ponte de la moneda (bridge of coin). May be they called it so because it was close to the first mint.
Rialto was a hub of international commerce, a cosmopolitan emporium, but also a centre of intellectual exchange. In the 15 century a philosophy school had been instituted at the Rialto: in his guidebook written about Venice Francesco Sansovino described painters, musicians and craftsmen giving lessons to the young around the marketplace. No fewer than three bookshops were located on the old bridge and this witnessed the supremacy Venice had in book printing.
The old wooden bridge so vividly described by Vittore Carpaccio’s memorable painting made for the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista and nowadays visible in the Accademia Galleries was in a perilous state. The Rialto bridge was used during Ducal visits to the churches of the Rialto market during solemn feasts: Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday. State processions could go under the Rialto bridge to escort important visitors, who were lodged at the palace now known as the Fondaco dei Turchi (known in the Renaissance as the palace of the duke of Ferrara).
This wooden bridge is also represented in the bird’s eye view of Venice by Jacopo de Barbari.
The Rialto market burned down in a great conflagration in 1514.
The new bridge was designed by the elderly Venetian proto Antonio da Ponte and it was particularly famous for its large span.
Like the Doge’s Palace, the buildings of the Rialto were under the responsibility of the Salt Office, which gave big revenues to the Venetian Republic.
In 1546 the Proto al Sal Pietro de’ Guberni suggested a single-arched wooden bridge topped by four rows of shops, but the project could not be realized.
The Council of Ten proposed rebuilding the Rialto bridge in stone in 1507. A special magistracy was suggested to supervise the project a few years later, but no one was elected to the office for almost three decades, and when it was at last inaugurated in 1551, two of the elected were known to be fervent supporters of Jacopo Sansovino, who was born in Florence, but was considered naturalized Venetian. Later the Venetian Senate re-elected the three magistrates on a regular basis, but with the constant rotation of officers the project stagnated. There is no evidence about the execution of a project for the new bridge by Sansovino, nor does any trace survive of the designs supposedly provided by Michelangelo and Vignola.
Andrea Palladio based his five-arched project about the Rialto bridge dated back from late 1560s on the Bridge of Augustus in Rimini. This idea could not be applied to the Grand Canal, as its four piers would have obstructed both navigation and the flow of water. This utopian project would have involved massive restructuring at either end of the structure. It was reminiscent of the project made by the Veronese humanist, architect and engineer Fra Giocondo who had made an idealistic proposal for a square piazza based on a Greek agora for the Rialto market area.
You can see from Canaletto’s capriccio showing Palladio’s design (XVIII century) how steep would have been the flights of steps at either end. Imagine how this would have affected the processions involving confraternity members and elderly Senators crossing the bridge.
Well, let us go back now to the moment when the Rialto bridge was about to be reconstructed.
In 1587 the three magistrates elected by the Senate who were obliged to remain in office until the completion of the new bridge were Marcantonio Barbaro, his close friend Giacomo Foscarini and Alvise Zorzi.
They decided that the bridge should have had two rows of shops, like the old wooden bridge, but with additional openings facing outwards towards the canal fronted by walkways with balustrades. They could not realign the bridge along the line of the Drapperia as this would have necessitated the demolition of existing buildings at the San Bortolomio end and the compensation of the owners. Barbaro with the support of Foscarini supported the construction of a triple-arched bridge, Zorzi instead favoured a single arch bridge. Barbaro was a supporter of classicism.
As in the case of the Redentore church and of the reconstruction of the Doge’s Palace, Barbaro was defeated. Instead, the Senate approved the Capi di Quaranta’s compromise proposal to base the decision on advice gathered from various proti and experts.
At first sight the appointment of Antonio da Ponte, then aged about seventy-eight, could seem surprising because he was less literate than his colleagues and he was not a supporter of the single-vault option at the outset, but his skilful restoration of the Doge’s Palace after the great fire of 1577 had impressed the Salt Office.
Antonio offered to finish a strong wooden barrier to fence off the area and pump out the water on the Grand Canal at his own expense. The foundations were laid in a few months and even some orange sellers, sausage makers, wine merchants from the Riva del Ferro were questioned to prove that the pile-driving for the foundations was effective. Barbaro criticised that stones in the foundation had been laid in an angle and he recommended the reconstruction of the abutment using horizontal masonry.
Antonio da Ponte was also responsible for the building of the vault, but he was not involved in the detailing of the superstructure of the bridge. The templates for the balustrades and cornice were the work of Benedetto Banelli and Antonio Contin, the latter was active in the construction of the bridge of Sighs.
In Venice the voice of experience had triumphed over theoretical concerns. In Florence, for example, public patronage was less democratic: the Grand duke Cosimo I took personal control over the reconstruction of bridges destroyed in a terrible storm in 1557.
In October 1590 the Senate granted da Ponte a patent for the bridge’s innovative technology and nobody could sell views of the bridge for twenty years. Vincenzo Scamozzi claimed authorship of the design.
The Rialto bridge still fascinates us with its stories and beauty: the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, the gondoliers, Clint Eastwood.
Romanticism, business and daily life. Past, present and future.
Best Venice Guides