If you have ever been to Venice, you have probably seen its most famous bridge, known as the Rialto. You have probably photographed it, sailed beneath it on a gondola or vaporetto, or maybe even watched the sunset from it.
The Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) was the first bridge built across Venice’s Grand Canal, and for almost three hundred years, was the only way to cross the canal on foot. The original bridge, built in the late 12th century, was a floating pontoon bridge, built by Nicolo Barattieri. Its name then was Ponte della Moneta, named because of its proximity to the mint on the eastern shore.
The Rialto market began developing on the eastern side of the bridge, and this necessitated a replacement wooden bridge in 1255. Because of its connection with the marketplace, the bridge eventually became known as the Rialto. Built with two ramps that inclined and met at the center, the bridge opened to allow tall ships through, much like the familiar drawbridge.
In 1310 the bridge suffered fire damage during a revolt, and then in 1444, the wooden bridge collapsed due to weight of the crowds during a boat parade. Another collapse occurred in 1524. During the following years, it became evident that the bridge needed to be replaced. Proposals for rebuilding this bridge were submitted by many famous architects, and one was even a design from Michelangelo.
In the early 15th century, two rows of shops were built along the sides of the bridge, and the shop owners paid rent to the State Treasury, which used these funds for maintenance of the bridge. Today shops on the bridge continue to be a focal point for tourists.
The Rialto Bridge, as it exists today, is a stone bridge, similar in design to the wooden one it replaced, but without a center opening section. Completed in 1591, after three years of construction, the Rialto Bridge is one of the most recognizable sights in Italy, and is symbolic with Venice. Supported by 12,000 wooden pilings, the bridge measures 94.5 feet at its longest span, and 75.1 feet across. It is 24 feet high, and it connects the San Polo district to the San Marco district.
Over a million tourists and locals walk across the bridge every day, and is it is the oldest and the most photographed of the four bridges crossing Venice’s Grand Canal. The tiny shops lining the bridge sell hand-made lace, Murano glass, Venetian ceramic masks, linens, leather bags, and jewelry.
Note: The steps are fairly steep, and like many locations in Italy, this can be challenging for anyone with a disability.