Venice – The Rialto, on the Grand Canal

We have not often had the privilege of seeing a nobler bridge than this. Notice how artistic and substantial it looks standing there in the sunlight, throwing its colossal yet graceful curve over the quivering waters. Anciently, a bridge of boats stood here, but this was succeeded in the twelfth century by a wooden structure which was destroyed in the Quirini-Tiepolo conspiracy in 1310. It was rebuilt but broke down in 1450 on the occasion of a great festival, resulting in considerable loss of life. This bridge was succeeded by another wooden bridge on which were double rows of booths. But the structure was not considered safe, and was replaced in 1592 by the present bridge of stone. All the great artists of that period, including Michelangelo, con-tended for the honor of designing the new bridge, but Antonio de Ponte won the prize, and from his plans the present structure was built. At first the bridge was severely criticized, but this was soon succeeded by universal approval and admiration, and it became known as Il Famoso Ponte, the famous bridge. It is but just to its designer to state that in the original plan the bridge was intended to be more adorned than we see it now. It is built of Istrian marble and is one hundred and fifty-eight feet long and fifty feet wide, with a span of ninety feet, and at its highest point it is thirty feet above the water, dimensions which, at first sight, seem somewhat exaggerated on account of the graceful symmetry of the proportions of the structure; but if you will compare it with the gondola and its rower, seen beneath the bridge, you will readily accept the statement. This arch rests upon twelve thousand elm piles, each forty feet in length, driven down into the banks of the canal. Marble balustrades run along the outer edge of the bridge, the one nearer us being plainly seen. The structure is divided longitudinally into three passage ways, one running along each side of the bridge next the balustrades-you may see people crossing the bridge on the footway nearest us – and one in the center between two rows of shops. There are twelve shops on each side, or twenty-four in all. These shops are roofed over, and each arch, except the center, contains one.

Look closely into that central arch and you will see the center footway which is open to the sky. If you will look into the upper portion of the arches, on the side of the bridge toward us, you will perceive small windows set in the upper part of the inner wall to give light and ventilation to the shops. At either end of the bridge notice the broad marble steps leading down to the level of the streets bordering the canal at this point.

All the land on the right belongs to the island of St. Mark, that on the left to the island of the Rialto, the latter being the site of the ancient city. Even as late as the sixteenth century, the district on our left alone was considered in all legal documents the city, as distinguished from the State of Venice.

Close to the left-hand entrance of the Rialto Bridge is the site of the first church ever built in Venice, erected in 420, where now stands the church of S. Giacomo di Rialto. The present church is closed, the building being considered unsafe, and its curious works of art have been removed. Between the front of this church and the bridge is what is known as the Campo di Rialto. There is only one Piazza in Venice, that of St. Mark. All other open places are called ” Campo,” or field. In this campo is an old broken statue of a crouching figure, called Il Gobbo del Rialto, and near it a red granite column from which the laws of the Republic were promulgated.

After the town extended, this section was still the center of trade and finance, with vast warehouses rising out from narrow canals. It is to this district, and not to the bridge, that Shakespeare alludes when, in the Merchant of Venice, he makes Shylock say,

“Signor Antonio, many a time and oft In the Rialto you have rated me About my moneys.”

This was once the scene of busy life, long since frequented daily by Florentine, Genoese and Milanese merchants, as well as by those from Spain, Germany and Turkey ; for this spot was the financial center of the whole world. Here all the Guilds of foreign merchants congregated.

Cast your eye over the right-hand portion of the bridge and you will see a large, dull-colored building with a pointed cornice. That is one of the most interesting structures in Venice. It is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, built by Girolamo Tedesco in 1507 for the German merchants, in obedience to a decree of the Senate. This structure is connected with the commercial supremacy of. Venice, and is a warehouse and headquarters for German merchants. The front of the building, which faces the canal, was decorated by Giorgione, and originally it was brilliant with rich and glowing colors. The side of the structure facing us (only one end of which we see), was painted by Titian, whose efforts were so far superior to those of his fellow artists as to excite the jealousy of the latter and resulted in breaking an old friendship that had lasted for many years. Time has obliterated these masterly paintings, and nothing of them is left. Did I say nothing? That is not quite correct, for if you will direct your glance above the two windows nearest us in the top row, on the side facing the canal, and look just under the cornice, you will see all that remains of Giorgione’s splendid work ; and that little darkened spot, that bit of colored wall, that fragment of all that once was so fair, speaks eloquently and pathetically of how the old Venetians coupled the highest artistic genius with business enterprise, and mingled the commonplaces of trade with the glories of art. And the result was not to lower or vulgarize the noble productions of immortal genius, the fascinating and rapturous glow of brilliant color and exquisite form, but rather to transfuse with their own bright radiance the dull neutral tints that pervade the office and the shop, and that fall so thickly into the everyday experiences of business life; for, remember that these ” fondachi ” were factories or warehouses of different nations, very similar in object to those still possessed by the French in the Levant and by Europeans in China ; buildings in which merchants had offices, where their goods could be stored, and apartments in which they could dwell together in case they were so disposed. Over these factories the merchants had jurisdiction among themselves, being allowed to make their own laws when these did not conflict with those of the Republic. Many of these warehouses have fallen into decay, or have been converted into public offices for the transaction of municipal business. This present structure stands on the site of an earlier one which was built here in the thirteenth century.

Farther up the canal, and on its left bank, is still standing the Fondaco dè Turchi, a magnificent palace of the twelfth century, which the Senate rented to the Turkish merchants at the rate of two hundred dollars a day.

In the old days of her commercial glory, whenever Venice subjected a city or a province, she always reserved for herself the monopoly of its salt mines, a precedent followed by the present Italian Government, which levies a heavy duty upon salt so that the poorest people in Italy are forced to do without it to such a degree that, by many, the increase of insanity in Italy is attributed to this cause.

All this calls vividly to mind the fact that Venice was a nation of exchangers, not producers. Sur-rounded on all sides by water, she sought to do, and partially succeeded in doing, what England has more recently attempted on a larger scale, to acquire territorial power through her merchant marine and commerce; and so steadily and victoriously did she sweep onward in this path, that she planted the Lion of St. Mark as far distant as Constantinople and, for a time, her galleys were victorious on every sea. Here she had an arsenal which employed twenty thousand men and turned out a complete ship of war every day. Venice very largely supplied the sinews of war for the Crusades and gave long and desperate battles to the Turks. Exhausted at length by her conflict with the Turks, who menaced her trade in the Levant, and the discovery of the shorter route to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope having diverted commerce to Genoa, her power steadily declined, and even the opening up of the Suez Canal did not give her back her commercial supremacy. Yet she is still a prosperous city with a population of one hundred and fifty-four thousand (at the close of the fifteenth century it was one hundred and eighty thousand), and her manufactures amount to more than a million dollars annually. They consist of jewelry, gold and silver chains, lace and velvet; but the principal productions of Venice are articles made of glass, Venetian glass having been famous for centuries. Anciently a flexible glass was made here, but the secret of its manufacture is one of the lost arts. A visit to one of these glass factories is exceedingly interesting. The process was very accurately represented at the Venetian glass-blowing furnace at the Columbian Exhibition at Chicago. It is curious to stand and watch them spin glass, drawing out the heated material into a thread of silver upon a spinning-wheel, from which they weave it into unbreakable mats, girdles and ornamental work of various kinds. A great number of the inhabitants depend upon fishing for their living, and the trade is carried on by a fleet of vessels owned here, whose capacity amounts to forty thousand tons.

The Campo, or open space on the right-hand side of the bridge, contains the house in which the artist Vincenzo Catena lived. The building is the low one this side of the Fondaco dè Tedeschi the eaves of whose roof may be seen just over the right-hand extremity of the bridge (those eaves appear like a slight projection from the wall of the Fondaco dè Tedeschi). You may see a part of one of its ancient Venetian windows, with a balcony in front, just to the right of the upper portion of the bridge and between it and the row of buildings.

To the left of the Rialto Bridge is seen, standing in the shadow, a heavy but handsome structure. It is the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, or Palace of the Treasurers, erected by Bergamasco in 1525, in the early Renaissance style of architecture. This palace was built by the Senate when the Republic began to be anxious about her accounts, and here dwelt three of its Chamberlains, or Treasurers.

In this square, to the left of the bridge, is a fruit and vegetable market in which one may see the market women from Mestre with their huge baskets running over with ” an appetizing luxuriance of luscious fruit and fresh vegetables.”

Over the left-hand portion of the bridge is seen a spacious structure, with round-topped windows, projecting out to the edge of the canal. That building is a modern restoration of an earlier structure by Sansovino. Between that building and the Palace of the Treasurers extends a narrow street, famed for its Venetian jewelry and called the Frezzeria. Tourists generally are not aware of the fact that articles bought in the Piazza of St. Mark cost double what they do here and are not any better.

To the right of the double row of posts seen near us, notice those four marble steps leading down into the water. ” Nothing very remarkable about them,” you say. Possibly not, but they belong to the Palazzo Manin (built in 156o by Sansovino), which is celebrated for two things, both of the greatest importance. This was the residence of the last Doge of Venice, the shadows of whose unhappy life always seemed to me to hover about the building. Subsequently the palace became the headquarters of the Bank of Venice, which had long been established near this spot, and which claims the distinction of being the first bank in the world corresponding at all to our modern banking institutions. It carried on a banking business for nearly a thousand years, and in all that time never went into bankruptcy nor uspended payment, and none of its numerous cashiers were ever known to take a trip across the border. This institution also deserves the honor of having issued the first bill of exchange. It is now the Banca d’ Italia- (Bank of Italy). Moreover, near this bank was started the first insurance company in the world ; all of which impresses us with the fact that the Venetians had the same remarkable genius for finance that the Romans had for law and government.

Just a word about that gondola. Notice on the front part of the boat, forward of the little cabin and on the side toward us near the gunwale, a little white card in a frame which is fastened to the boat. On this card is printed the tariff or rates of fare, such as cabs are compelled to carry in other cities. It is out there in plain sight so that there need not be any controversy as to the proper amount to be paid. The little white shed-like structure, seen over the empty gondola tied at the first row of posts and on this side of the bridge, is a landing place and waiting-room for passengers who patronize the little steamers plying on the canals.

A little to the left of the Rialto steps, where you see that crowd of people, is a letter-writer’s stand. The Venetian dialect is sweet and rhythmical, but it is not reduced to writing, hence, when the people have occasion to send written communications to their friends they must have recourse to the public letter-writers (who write in the literary language of the country), and who sit at their little tables and transcribe the sentiments of their confiding customers, while a crowd of people gather about and listen with unbridled curiosity. It is a common sight to see a young girl standing beside one of these small tables pouring out the secrets of her heart as spontaneously and, apparently, as unconsciously, as if she were in the midst of utter solitude ; or to witness a strapping young fellow dictating a letter to his sweetheart which the bystanders interrupt every little while with practical suggestions as to the most effective expressions and those best calculated to win the maiden’s affection and regard.

The following was the result of the combined efforts of the anxious suitor, the fertile letter-writer and the sympathetic bystanders. I give but a portion of the epistle :

” Adored star ! You amuse yourself much? But I live for you alone. A thousand kisses – small, medium-sized and great (bacini, baci, e bacioni). At least write. This long delay is reducing me to a powerful state of weakness. It makes me fear bad news. Heavens, what fears, what agony! I have doubts about an officer -. I have fearful premonitions ! ”

Scenes on the Grand Canal are especially picturesque and striking wherever a campo, or a narrow street (callè), approaches its edge. Here are always seen the ” facchini ” flirting with the gondoliers, and here too are always a set of hangers-on who pretend to draw your gondola to the bank and assist you to land, which you could generally accomplish to better advantage if they kept their hands off and left you to your-self. The gondoliers call these fellows ” gransicri,” or crab catchers. Yet even these are not vicious, like the lazzaroni of Naples. In fact, all classes in Venice are mirthful and vivacious, so different from the proud and lordly Romans, seeming as they do to reflect in their dispositions the laughing, dancing play of the rippled surface of their liquid highways.

This part of the Grand Canal is now the favorite quarter for curiosity shops, once confined to the Ghetto or Jewish section of the city. The entrance to one of these shops may be seen on the ground floor of the first house on our right, the one with balconies. Were you to enter that shop you would find, heaped together, marvelous collections of rare and curious treasures, jewelry, bric-a-brac and costly fabrics, which they bring out from dark and mysterious corners, all aglow with brilliant colors and wonderful designs. These dealers regard the authenticity of their wares as indisputable, and resent any insinuation to the contrary. A story is told by Mr. W. D. Howells of a lady who entered one of these bazaars on the Grand Canal. Pausing before a painting attributed to Titian, which pleased her greatly, she asked, ” Is it original? ”

” Si signora, originalissima ! ” (most original).

On this Grand Canal is an interesting shop, that of a wood-carver, and called The Atelier. It is only in Italy that you find the highest type of wood-carving, for though many of the artists in this line are uneducated, they possess unerring taste and, in the case of most of them, their ancestors for centuries have been wood-carvers, and their art is the sole object of their otherwise prosaic life. Much of this sort of work is done in Switzerland, but the Swiss are not naturally artistic and their efforts in this direction are of inferior merit.

This Rialto Bridge, as you may see by consulting the map, is situated half way between the Custom House and the railway station, so we are at present near the middle of the canal. Beyond the bridge the canal makes a turn to the left, and along this upper half of the celebrated thoroughfare are some of the most beautiful palaces in the city. We shall take our position a short distance beyond the Ponte dè Rialto and view one of these splendid structures.