THE Rialto is one of the most popular names of Venice, and the one that, with the Lido, recurs most frequently in her history and popular songs. Originally, the spot where the Rialto rises was the heart of Venice, one of those islets of that group of islands which at a later period were to form Venice (Rivo-Alto) ; and the Rialto, as the old chronicles say, designated in a general way the site of the city. It was for a long time the only bridge thrown across the Grand Canal, serving as communication between the two large groups of islands divided by this Canal. From time immemorial (at least from the Twelfth Century), there was a wooden foot-bridge there, constantly repaired, until the day when the Signory, deciding to make the Rialto harmonise with the beautiful monuments of Venice, resolved to call the aid of the great architects and engineers of the time.
I have had the curiosity to search in the archives of Venice for sketches relating to the Rialto; the documents are extremely numerous, but do not go back further than the beginning of the Sixteenth Century; they give, however, most interesting details upon the construction of the bridge that exists today and original matter enough to gather the history of the construction. For everything concerning the state of the building, or the history of the spot itself before the Sixteenth Century, recourse must be had to the Venetian chroniclers, and first of all to Sansovino. It is thought that from the Eighth Century, the necessity was felt for a more rapid means of passage between the groups of islands than by means of boats, and that, at a period which naturally remains uncertain but which must have been contemporary with the building of St. Mark’s, a bridge composed of flat boats called soleole was formed at the Rialto.
In 1180, an engineer, Barattieri, whose name has been preserved, made of this temporary bridge a permanent one, and in 1260, the system of boats being definitively suppressed, piles were driven in and abutments constructed to bear, not a stone bridge, as some historians say, but a draw-bridge; and this is the bridge represented in Carpaccio’s famous picture, The Patriarch of Grado healing one possessed by an Evil Spirit, which is in the Academy of Venice. In 1310, on the occasion of the conspiracy of Bajamonte Tiepolo, at the moment when the conspirators were about to seize the Ducal Palace, having found St. Mark’s Place guarded, they fled precipitately to the other side of the Canal, and cut the bridge behind them to make their flight sure. Naturally, the bridge had to be rebuilt at once, but the work was done too rapidly, and a little more than a century later, on the occasion of the marriage of the Marquis of Ferrara, the festival was so uproarious that the bridge gave way under the crowd and serious injuries resulted. This being the only passage it was too useful to remain interrupted for long ; and they substituted for the broken bridge a large edifice filled up with shops on either side of the footway, and a water-passage for the large boats.
It is very interesting to see the real appearance of the Rialto of that time in the fine canvas of Carpaccio that I have just mentioned; here is an invaluable bit of evidence for the history of Venetian architecture. One might have expected the reconstructed bridge to be permanent; but any one who knows Venice and her history intimately will under-stand that the perpetual traffic demanded a still more substantial construction. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi rises on the right, the palaces of Camerlenghi on the left; the Fabbriche nuove, and the jewellers who have their shops there and the fish and vegetable vendors who are collected on either bank create such a continual going and coming that a very strong bridge is required to resist the strain. From 1525, nothing but complaints were heard about the precarious condition of this important bridge, and promises were made to substitute a durable edifice. Nothing was done till 1587; Fra Giocondo, the designer of Gaillon and the bridge of Notre-Dame, had once submitted a plan; Palladio had also made one in his turn; at last, on the 6th of December, 1587, the Senate invited a competition. As customary in Venice, a commission of inquiry was nominated, composed of three personages, all senators, whose especial task was to collect information and look for the anterior plans signed by Giorgio Spaventi, Fra Giocondo, Scarpa Guino, Jacopo Sansovino, Andrea Palladio, Jacopo Barroccio da Vignola, and, it is said, by the great Michelangelo.
The best proof of the truth of the assertion that Michelangelo submitted a plan for this bridge, is furnished by the subject of a painting that adorns the Casa Buonarroti at Florence and which represents Michelangelo being received with honour by the Doge Andrea Gritti, and presenting to him a drawing for the Bridge of the Rialto.
Of the twenty-four plans of architects and engineers the committee pointed out to the Senate and Grand Council, the three that seemed most worthy, Scamozzi, Antonio da Ponte and Albisio Baldu. The work was entrusted to Da Ponte; it took three years to build and cost two hundred and fifty thousand ducats, or thirty thousand pounds of English money, which, at that time, was a considerable sum. Sansovino says that ten thousand pounds of elm timber would have to be driven in to a depth of sixteen feet; a large armed galley should be able to pass under the keystone of the arch with lowered mast, and withal the height of the bridge should not be great enough to render the communication between the two quarters of the town difficult.
The platform of the bridge is about twenty-four metres long; it is reached by an easy ascent of steps, and is wide enough to hold a row of shops under arcades, so that in reality it is a kind of suspended street, as lively as a market. The central arcade is left clear and forms an open gallery over the keystone of the bridge; between the parapet and the shops runs a balustraded passage supported on strongly projecting corbels. The span of the arch is twenty-seven metres, fifty centimetres, and its rise, from the usual level of the waters of the Grand Canal, measures seven metres.
The traveller who delights to linger on St. Mark’s Place in the Basilica, at the Ducal Palace, and in the museums and churches should also halt long and frequently upon the Rialto; for it is certainly a unique corner: here crowd together, laden with fruit and vegetables, the black boats that come from the islands to provision Venice, the great hulls laden with cocomeri, angurie, with gourds and watermelons piled in coloured mountains; here, the gondolas jostle and the gondoliers chatter like birds in their Venetian idiom; here, too, are the fishermen in their busy, noisy, black market, an assemblage of strange craft and types of humanity; and as a pleasant contrast, on the steps of the bridge and stopping before the jewellers’ shops are the girls, from the different quarters of Venice, from Canareggio, Dorso Duro, San Marco and Santa Croce, and from every quarter of the town, come to buy the coloured neckerchiefs with which they deck themselves, and jewellery of delicately worked gold, bright glass beads from Murano, or glass balls iridescent with green, blue and rose; while, wrapped in their old grey shawls that allow their wrinkled profiles and silvery locks to be seen, the old women of the Rialto drag their sandals over the steps and slip into the crowd, hiding under the folds of their aprons the strange food they have just bought from the open air vendors who sell their wares on the borders of the Rialto.