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Rialto Bridge

Ponte di Rialto

The Piazza San Marco may be more famous, but the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) is the true heart of Venice. The current structure was built in just three years, between 1588 and 1591, as a permanent replacement for the boat bridge and three wooden bridges that had spanned the Grand Canal at various times since the 12th Century. It remained the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot until the Accademia Bridge was built in 1854.

The Rialto Bridge's 7.5-meter (24-foot) arch was designed to allow passage of galleys, and the massive structure was built on some 12,000 wooden pilings that still support the bridge more than 400 years later. The architect, Antonio da Ponte ("Anthony of the Bridge," appropriately enough), competed against such eminent designers as Michelangelo and Palladio for the contract.

Venice Italy Rialto Bridge

The bridge has three walkways: two along the outer balustrades, and a wider central walkway leading between two rows of small shops that sell jewelry, linens, Murano glass, and other items for the tourist trade. (Warning: The bridge consists primarily of steps, making it a challenge for tourists with strollers or wheelchairs.)

Over the centuries, the Ponte di Rialto has earned both praise and scorn from critics. Consider this description from Ian Littlewood's Venice: A Literary Companion:

"The bridge of the Rialto has had a mixed press. In the judgement of the Venetians, says Moryson, it 'deserves to be reputed the eighth miracle of the world.' Coryate, while deploring the 'vicious and licentious varlets' who worked the traghetto underneath it, was in agreement--'the fairest bridge by many degrees for one arch that ever I saw, or heard of.' But then both Moryson and Coryate were there within a few years of the bridge's completion. Others have since been less charitable, condemning it as top-heavy and ungraceful. The dispute is academic. Like the Eiffel Tower, the Rialto has acquired a symbolic status that puts it well beyond the reach of aesthetic judgements."

In The World of Venice, Jan Morris paints an affectionate picture of the Rialto Bridge:

"Structurally, it was a complete success--during rioting in 1797 they even fired cannon from its steps, to dispel the mobs; and for myself, I would not change a stone of it. I love the quaint old figures of St. Mark and St. Theodore, on the station side of the bridge. I love the Annunciation on the other side, angel at one end, Virgin at the other, Holy Ghost serenely aloft in the middle. I love the queer whale-back of the bridge, humped above the markets, and its cramped little shops, facing resolutely inwards. I think one of the great moments of the Grand Canal occurs when you swing around the bend beside the fish market and see the Rialto there before you, precisely as you have imagined it all your life, one of the household images of the world, and one of the few Venetian monuments to possess the quality of geniality."

Reaching the Rialto Bridge:

It's hard to miss the Ponte di Rialto. From the train station or the Piazzale Roma, simply follow the signs to "Rialto." The same applies if you're walking from the Piazza San Marco. (Just head for the clock tower, cut through the arched passage, and follow the upscale shopping streets known as the Mercerie until you reach the Grand Canal, then turn right and walk two blocks to the bridge.)

Another option is to approach the bridge by vaporetto, or water bus. The No. 1 local stops at Rialto on its way up or down the Grand Canal; for information on other boats, see our Venice Vaporetto Routes article.

If you need a place to stay in the area, see Venice Hotel Maps: Rialto Bridge. And for a satellite view of the bridge, visit Aerial Venice: Ponte di Rialto.

Next page: More Rialto Bridge photos


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