Rialto bridge was the first one built on the Grand Canal and it is the most famous bridge of the city. Why?
It all began with the foundation of Venice. The first settlements took place in this very area that was called Rivoalto, literally high land. With the development of the city, Rivoalto became the headquarter of the political and commercial life. The area was full of markets, storehouses, shops of jewels, precious fabrics, spices and so on. At that time people used a boat, called “traghetto”, to cross the Grand Canal. They had to pay a toll for this service; they built the first bridge in this location in 1180 and it was called the “toll bridge” because people still had to pay in order to cross it.
The bridge was made with boats that were connected together with some wooden tables and in the middle it was a drawbridge, in order to allow big boats to pass underneath it. They completely rebuilt it in 1255, with wood, piles as foundations, the drawbridge in the middle and with shops on both sides. People started calling it the Rialto bridge, from the contraction of the area’s name Rivoalto.
This bridge will remain unaltered until 1310, this year sadly became famous because of the conspiracy of Bajamonte Tiepolo: some Venetian aristocrats organized it as they wanted to rebel against the Doge.
Their plan was to attack the Doge’s palace (headquarter of the government) and to kill the Doge but it failed: the army of the Doge discovered the conspirators and forced them to retire. They crossed Rialto bridge during their escape and, in order to stop the army that was after them, they set the wooden bridge on fire. The army caught all the members of the conspiracy and exiled them from Venice; they condemned the leaders to death and repaired the Rialto bridge.
The bridge was then able to survive until 1444 when Venice hosted the wedding of the marquis of Ferrara; they set a beautiful parade of boats on the Grand Canal and everybody wanted to see the bride. A lot of people gathered on the bridge to see the parade… so many that the bridge collapsed! Luckily there were no victims, except for the bridge
Antonio da Ponte
They rebuilt the bridge with wood in 1450 but still, it wasn’t so stable, so the Republic of Venice finally thought: why don’t we built a bridge made of stone, that maybe will be stronger than wood?
They announced a contest to choose the architect that would have been in charge of the entire project. There were different participants, a lot of them were great names of Italian architecture such as Palladio, Michelangelo and Sansovino.
The winner was Antonio da Ponte (it’s ironic that its surname actually means bridge in Italian) who proposed the best solution to all the requests of the Republic. They completed the bridge in 1591, they made it with Istrian stone and based it on 12000 wooden poles; the arch measures 28 meters and there are 24 shops (12 per side).
Rialto bridge is divided in three lanes: the central lane is 10 meters wide and with bigger steps; the two lanes on the sides are 3 meters wide. Here the steps are lower and smaller in order to facilitate the transit of men with carts that transport and deliver goods all over Venice. To built this bridge the Republic of Venice spent 250,000 ducats. That means 10 times the price that they paid for the previous wooden bridge.
Today you can admire the bridge in all its magnificence because they recently restored it. It is also one of the most photographed sites of Venice and a must-see for all visitors. Come and discover more curiosities and legends about Rialto bridge and the area nearby during one of our tours! We have plenty of stories to share with you!