Rialto Bridge - History and Construction
The Rialto Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the Italian city of Venice, spanning the Grand Canal at its shortest part and connecting city
districts of San Marco and San Polo. Built in the late 16th century on the
location that housed older pontoon bridges, its eye-catching design, and
notable location made it one of the most celebrated bridges in all of the
Renaissance Italy. While originally it was called “Nicolò Barattieri,” this bridge soon became the
pride of all the Venice and became known as “Ponte di Rialto” or “Ponte de Rialto.”
This bridge was built between 1588 and 1591 with a task of
becoming a central crossing point in the increasingly
congested part of the city of Venice, and especially its nearby markets and
trading posts. With the wooden pontoon bridges demanding too many resources
to be constantly repaired and maintained, Venice officials searched far and
wide for best bridge builders, designers, and artists who could produce an
ageless bridge that will elevate the visual appeal of the city. After long
consideration, architect Antonio da Ponte was chosen to
create 31.8 meters (104.3 feet) long Rialto Bridge whose
arch elevates 6.4 meters above the Grand Canal.
The first permanent dry crossing of the Grand Canal in Venice was achieved
by Nicolò Barattieri who oversaw the construction of the wooden pontoon bridge called “Ponte della Moneta” in 1181. This structure
boosted the importance of that part of the city, enabling the formation of
larger markets and gathering of trade both near and on the bridge itself.
As with many other city bridges in medieval Europe, merchants saw the
appeal of the permanent water crossing as the perfect place for
establishing their stores. On some larger bridges, the shops were placed
directly on the decking (or immediately on the side of them, supported by
wooden beams above the water), or near bridge entrances.
As the Rialto market became larger and more developed, foot traffic on the
east side of the city increased so much that the pontoon bridge became
congested with travel not only during peak hours of trading but often
during the entire day. Additionally, water traffic across Grand Canal was
greatly affected by the pontoon bridge, which prevented ships of all sizes
from moving freely across the central waterway of the entire city of
The first solution for those problems was attempted to be made in 1255 with
the construction of the first permanent wooden bridge across the Grand
Canal. To enable boats to move across the canal easily, the bridge featured
two inclined ramps that met at a movable central section. This section
could be raised to allow passage of even tall ships.
The wooden bridge was renamed into Rialto Bridge during the 14th century, but in the
15th century, it becomes part of the market with the installation of shops
directly on the bridge structure. Shops were arrayed in two rows along the
sides of the bridge, with central decking being left for on-foot passage.
Even though the city officials collected taxes for funding and maintain the
bridge, the wooden Rialto Bridge did not manage to survive undamaged
between the time it was constructed, and the time it was replaced with a
permanent stone bridge. The bridge was partially burned during 1310 revolt
led by Bajamonte Tiepolo, it collapsed into the water during the 1444
wedding ceremony of Marchessa di Ferrara (plunging into the water all the
spectators), and it fully collapsed in 1524, decades after the start of the
movement that demanded complete replacement of the wooden bridge.
Construction of Rialto Bridge
In 1504 first ideas started to be voiced about replacing the Venetian
wooden bridge near Rialto market with a permanent stone structure that
would provide on-foot passage across almost 50-meter-wide Grand Canal, have
enough decking to house one row of shops, and provide enough space below
for passage of ships. After decades of deliberations, Venice officials
finally divided to fund development of fully stone bridge. For this
purpose, they contacted all the leading bridge constructors and structure
decorators of their time, including architects such as Jacopo Sansovino,
Palladio, Vignola, and even the famous Michelangelo. Their choice
eventually fell on the Antonio da Ponte who designed a very simple and
elegant bridge that was built over the span of four years between 1588 and
The design of the bridge featured an homage to the original wooden bridge, utilizing similarly
inclined ramps on both shores that led to the central portico passageway.
The bridge effortlessly housed rows of shops which are still there to this
day, and three passageways – two one the sides of the bridge and a central
walkway that is surrounded by two rows of shops.
Architect Antonio da Ponte took great care to integrate Rialto Bridge into
surrounding city environment. To do that he elected to use Pietra d’Istra
(calcareous rock of bright white color) as the main building material which
very effectively gave a distinctive look to the bridge – a white stone that
is clashing with darkly painted wooden shops. The decking was paved with
grey stones that were paler near the edges of steps, which was an
intentional choice that helped bridge users to spot the position of the
steps more easily. The main deck of the bridge is inclined at a significant angle
(15°), which prevents pedestrians to see another side of the bridge from
each shore. This approach to bridge-building is not permitted in modern times.
In addition to the strongly angled decking and rows of shops that make the
top part of the ship quite distinctive, one of the defining visual features
of the Rialto Bridge is its low arch that spans the Grand
Canal with the width of 28.8m and height of 6.4m.
During the time of the construction, the bridge received negative comments
from some contemporary voices, most notably competing architect Vincenzo
Scamozzi who declared that the bridge would not last for long because it
was not made in the style of the traditional Roman design with multiple and
Modern architects praise the construction effort that original architect
Antonio da Ponte invested into the Rialto Bridge, especially its complex
superstructure, simple overall design with one arch, and the visual
adornments that are still as magnificent looking as they were in late 16th
century. After centuries, the bridge remains in excellent health, with only
minor color discoloration due to water damage and some staining on the
underside of the arch.
Rialto Bridge as Tourist Attraction
The famous fish market of Venice, located at the San Polo district has stood there for 700 years, and the
most popular part of it, a shining white Rialto Bridge, weathered all of
this time together with it managing to remain preserved in almost pristine
condition. As one of the main landmarks in the city that is crowded with
historic buildings and locations, almost every walking tour of Venice will
inevitably bring you to the steps of this ancient bridge. Nearby around the
Rialto Bridge are located some of the most celebrated locations of the “Floating City” of Italy – Bridge of Sighs, Doge’s Palace
and St. Mark's Basilica.
Since it is actively used as the shop market, the access to the bridge is
open to the public all year long. The tourists can visit it on their own,
or as a part of any number of sightseeing tours. The unique look at the
bridge can be of course be seen by booking Venice gondola ride or a boat
tour that visits all the landmarks situated near the Venice Grand Canal.
These boat tours are especially popular in the evening hours, because of
the several bridge myths that promise eternal love to lovers who kiss under
some of the city’s bridges at the exact time the sun sets.
If you want to visit Rialto Bridge personally, you can find it located
between the San Marco and San Polo districts, and can be easily reached by
Vaporetto water bus lines 1 and 2 via the Rialto stop. Numerous streets
near the bridge also feature easy-to-spot signage that points to the
location of the bridge. If you are traveling on small passenger shuttle
boats on Grand Canal, you should know that small pier is constructed
directly near Rialto Bridge.
During the spring, summer and fall months, and especially during the height
of the tourist season, the bridge and its surrounding area are home to the
wide variety of the street vendors, street musicians, and tourist-friendly
shops. The most crowded part of the bridge is often its central passage
which is lined with two rows of shops that famously sell local Murano
glassware, jewelry, and other crafts. At night, when the shops are closed
down, the bridge remains illuminated by the nearby floodlights that keep
the bridge in its shiny white state all up to dawn (which looks especially
pretty when observed from water gondolas).
Rialto Bridge in Popular Culture
Since it was a notable part of one of the most beautiful cities of Italy
for so many centuries, Rialto Bridge managed to become one of the most
easily identifiable icons of Venice. Today it is
celebrated not only as an important tourist attraction but also as an
important piece of Renaissance heritage and beautiful work
of architectural art. The visage of the bridge is represented in countless
paintings, tourist memorabilia, and historical works.
Films shot in Venice often feature this bridge. Most notably, the Rialto
Bridge appeared in the 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale.”