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The Rialto Bridge

In the 16th century Venice’s city planners had a problem. Ever since the main market had moved to Rialto over 400 years ago, the area had steadily turned into Venice’s trade and commercial hub. With a large number of Venetians going to and from Rialto every day, they had built the only bridge spanning the Grand Canal between the districts of San Paolo and San Marco in order to facilitate the movement of people. The problem wasn’t the bridge, it was that the bridge kept collapsing. On three separate occasions the wooden structure gave way and not only sent unlucky people into the Grand Canal but put a major dampener on the all-important commerce that kept Venice alive.

Venice’s city planners addressed their problem the way all self-respecting Renaissance politicians did: by holding a competition in 1551 to see who could submit the best design for a stone bridge. Everyone from Sansovino to Michelangelo was considered for the spot of lead architect, but the commission eventually went to a relatively unknown architect named Antonio Da Ponte. The difference between his design and his competitors’ was in the arches. While most of his competitors designed bridges with multiple arches in the classical style, Da Ponte’s daring single arch was so unorthodox some thought it was sure to collapse. Needless to say, Da Ponte had the last laugh: as the only bridge over the Grand Canal for some 300 years and still one of only four, it has withstood the test of time admirably. Crossing the bridge today is an action that unifies both local and visitor alike as it is still probably the most important non-watery thoroughfare in the city.

Visiting the Rialto Bridge: Things to See

The Arch

A well-built arch is one of the strongest and most useful shapes for an architect. The curve of the arch distributes the weight above it into the ground in such a way that it can support much larger loads pressing down on it than a similarly-sized flat surface – which would bend and buckle. The problem with arches is that the wider they get the more buttressing you need on either side to make sure that they don’t collapse. Put another way, a narrow arch can take more weight than a wide arch if they both have the same-sized columns supporting them. All of the other designs in the competition for the Rialto bridge commission boasted multiple arches to distribute the amount of force – which bridge builders call “thrust” – needed to keep the bridge from collapsing. The downside was that multiple arches would limit the all important river traffic, or so the thinking went. Antonio Da Ponte’s single arch may have been a risky investment – given its width, the amount of thrust needed to buttress the bridge on either side was much greater – but it certainly allowed more river traffic to float underneath. As is often the case in Venice, the flow of commerce over the water was considered the paramount consideration and some 12,000 wood pilings were driving into the banks of the canal as supports for the bridge whose formidable feet jut far out from the banks in order to provide the necessary thrust.

The Statues of St. Mark and St. Theodore

These two statues sit on one side of the bridge. Although St. Mark often takes pride of place as Venice’s patron saint with his extravagantly gilded cathedral, the city actually has two patron saints. The first was the legendary warrior and dragon-slaying saint, Theodore. His influence reflects Venice’s close link to the Byzantine Empire, Where Theodore is more revered than in western Christianity, during much of its early history. In fact, it wasn’t until the 9th century, when Venice wanted to distance itself from Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire that the Venetians elevated St. Mark to “patron” status.

The Shops

Small stores line the Rialto Bridge selling jewelry and other expensive souvenirs. Shops have always stood in these same spots on the bridge, yet another association the span has to trade and commerce. Mind you, its connection to the money flowing in and out of Venice has not always been completely positive. It took three years to build the bridge and costs climbed the entire time. Eventually, the price tag topped out at 250,000 Venetian ducats, which is roughly $19 million in today’s currency. In 2015 the bridge was refurbished to the tune of $5 million by the fashion tycoon Renzo Rosso

Tips for Visiting the Rialto Bridge

Hours:

As a public thoroughfare, the Rialto Bridge is open 24/7, though the shops maintain normal sales hours.

Tickets for the Rialto Bridge

There are no tickets to cross the Rialto Bridge. In fact, its very purpose is to help pedestrians avoid boat fairs when they cross the Grand Canal.

Rules

The bridge does not have “rules” as such, but it’s worth mentioning that occasionally someone thinks it’s a good idea to go for a swim in the Grand Canal. It’s not. Not only is the water less than clean, it’s subject to strong currents and full of boats at most times of the day.

The Best Time to Visit the Rialto Bridge

Venice is notoriously crowded at all times of the year and the Rialto Bridge is one of the Venice’s main thoroughfares; ergo, it’s usually crowded. The exception to this rule is in the early mornings, around sunrise. In fact, you can go almost anywhere in Venice in the early mornings and have it basically to yourself. If you’d like to experience a bit of tranquility on the Rialto Bridge, this is the best time to do so.

 

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