Rialto, a symbol, a story

Images of objects or artefacts which have the power of identifying a location are few. The Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty are inextricably linked to Rome, Paris, New York. And what would the symbol for Venice be?

If we were to look at its long history, the winged Lion, an image of Mark the Evangelist, or the Basilica, which represents him in any case.

But today, Venice might be recognised more due to its bell tower, the erstwhile tower which served as a guard against possible invasions from the sea, or the gondola, a sophisticated boat connected par excellence to the town and its waterways, or again, a bridge, the most famous of them all, the Rialto bridge, an important work of architecture but above all a symbol, which ideally represents a city born of and made up of islands.

Historically, Rialto, with its ancient name Rivus Altus (deep channel in Latin), is that strip of land precisely defined by a loop crossed by a deep canal, where the first settlement in the lagoon developed.

The first church in Venice, San Giacometto, which tradition deems to have been consecrated in the year 421 and the Market (1097), which soon became the hub of commercial activities in town, were built in this place, acknowledged as the cradle of the city.

The two banks, dividing the two vital centres of what had become a city by that time (the other one was its political and religious heart, at St. Mark’s), thus had to be joined by a bridge facilitating pedestrian and vehicle crossings.

So the first bridges were born: made of boats, on wooden stakes, with a drawbridge to allow the passage of masted boats (it was 1250). Severely damaged in 1310 and collapsing in 1444 due to overcrowding, after a number of renovations, the Rialto bridge was later rebuilt as we see it in “The Miracle of the Cross”, an extraordinary painting by Vittore Carpaccio, visible today at the Galleries of the Accademia.

Thus the history of the wooden bridge continued, until the Most Serene Republic issued a proclamation for a project in stone, which Andrea Palladio, one of the leading architects of the time, also took part in, among others.

The winner for this work was finally Antonio Da Ponte, a proto (i.e. a Director of Public Works) at the Basilica of San Mark. Two years later, in 1591, the bridge could already be crossed… and it was what we can still see today, massive, imposing, totally unique in its lines.

In four centuries, it has experienced the terrible epidemics of the Seventeenth century, the splendours of the Eighteenth century, the fall of the Republic (1797) and Habsburg rule, the Kingdom of Italy and Nineteenth century decadence, the modern era and the ground-breaking transition to the 21st century.

Millions of people have leant on its massive stone balustrades to admire the scenario of the Grand Canal and its palaces, literally immersed in one of the most stunning waterways in the world.

In over four hundred years of history, the Rialto Bridge has hardly needed any care, but age and wear became evident. Therefore careful restoration work was planned, with the intention – in Mayor Brugnaro’s words – to preserve the bridge from natural degradation and ensure its functionality and splendour. This goal has been made possible thanks to a well-known Venetian clothing entrepreneur, Renzo Rosso, who funded the work with a total investment a full five million euro.

Today, after three years, it may be said that its restoration is finally ended and that the Bridge, the symbol of the city, has returned to its magnificence, offering the world its spectacle of yore once again.