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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Rialto Bridge in Venice

What is Rialto Bridge?

Rialto Bridge is a 16th-century stone footbridge that was designed by Antonio da Ponte to replace an earlier wooden crossing.

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge History

More than any other structure, the Rialto Bridge symbolises Venice. In today’s time it’s hard, however, to appreciate the stunning feat of engineering that was required when construction began in the late 16th century. One of the great architects of the era, Vincenzo Scamozzi, who was involved in building the Marciana Library, initially doubted that a single-span stone bridge could be achieved. A competition had been held to design a replacement for the wooden bridge, which had stood on the site for over 250 years, and had in turn replaced a 12th-century ‘pontoon’ bridge. A stone crossing was necessary as the wooden bridges kept collapsing or burning and, where previously a pulley system had allowed large sailing ships to pass, by the 16th century all seafaring ships docked further away, near Saint Mark’s basin. The most renowned architects in Venice, as well as other Italian-speaking states – Jacopo Sansovino, Andrea Palladio, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, and even Michelangelo – submitted plans. But these all included multiple arches: Palladio’s, for example, was comprised of three arches and a grand pedimented colonnade. After dithering for some time, the authorities chose none of these celebrated figures but instead selected the lesser-known, but aptly named, Antonio da Ponte. His bridge, completed in 1591, would remain the only pedestrian crossing until the mid-19th century. Da Ponte won the competition because his proposed design offered simplicity, innovative engineering, and most of all commercial viability.

The Venetian lagoon is a salt marsh. What seems to be a floating city actually sits atop millions of timber pilings driven deep into the alluvial silt. If you could see the underbelly of Venice, you would be gazing upon a vast fossilised forest. Starved of oxygen in the mud underwater, the wood (oak, alder, or conifer) petrifies and becomes extraordinarily solid. Da Ponte knew this well, and what allowed his single 48-metre arch design to work was over 12,000 pilings discreetly hidden on either side of the canal supporting and spreading the weight of the heavy masonry above. Yet despite this feat of engineering, da Ponte’s bridge, with its odd proportions and a sense of top-heaviness, cannot be called very attractive in purely aesthetic terms. It does, however, with its three passageways, allow shops to occupy the highly valuable commercial real estate – just like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. They pay rent to the government and take advantage of the bottleneck of traffic.

The Rialto is thought to be the oldest inhabited part of the city and with its rivo alto (or high bank) became the city’s commercial centre. Renaissance Venice’s largest trade was in woollen textiles and silks. It exported lace made in Burano and glass from Murano. It was also, as many travellers admired, an entrepôt of manuscripts, fabrics, spices, and jewels from Asia. Today, its markets can still be visited for fresh fish, fruit, and vegetables early in the morning. This is a city that has always thought first in terms of commerce. The Rialto Bridge’s design, selected for its practicality rather than its beauty, is a living testament to that fact.

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