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Rialto Bridge in Italy: History, Design & Construction

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Rialto Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in Italy. In this lesson, we're going to explore the history and design of this bridge, and see what makes it so remarkable.

Venice, the City of Waterways

Every city has its main byways and thoroughfares, which compose the major outlets for traffic. Of course, in most cities these principle roads areā€¦ roads. That's not the case in Venice. A city built on the water, Venice has waterways instead of highways, and none has been more important to the city than the Grand Canal. The principle waterway that curves through the city, the Grand Canal divides Venice's districts and markets.

So, how do you get across it? If you're not looking to travel across by boat, then your best bet is one of the four major bridges that span the major canal. The oldest and most famous of these is the Ponte di Rialto, or Rialto Bridge. Nearly everyone visiting Venice will cross either over or under this iconic landmark, making it one of the most visible and prominent spots along Venice's top highway.

The Ponte di Rialto
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History of the Rialto Bridge

Venice has always been a city on the water, and the question of crossing that water has always been challenging. The first attempt to create a permanent crossing over the Grand Canal occurred in 1181, in the same place where the Rialto Bridge stands today. It was a wobbly pontoon boat bridge, replaced by a more stable wooden bridge in 1255. This wooden bridge could be raised to let boats pass underneath, which was pretty sophisticated for the 13th century. This was the first structure to be called the Rialto Bridge, named for the Rialto market at one end.

Unfortunately, it collapsed in 1444, while it was crowded with people watching a boat parade. Another wooden bridge was built, but that one collapsed in 1524. A third wooden bridge was built, but it was becoming clear that wooden bridges were not sufficient for this key crossing.

So, in 1551 the city opened up a competition for a commission to design a stone bridge. Stone bridges can be very tricky to build, since the structure has to support its own weight over the crossing. However, by this point Venice was well into the Italian Renaissance, when such architectural and engineering challenges were met with enthusiasm. Entrants into the competition for the commission included some of the most famous architects in history, including Andrea Palladio and even Michelangelo. However, the commissioners of Venice didn't like any of their plans. The problem was that they all proposed building a Roman-style bridge, which would be supported by numerous arches and columns across the Grand Canal. The Venetians worried that these obstacles would interrupt boat traffic, and so their plans were rejected.

Antonio da Ponte

Ultimately, the commission was granted to a Venetian named Antonio da Ponte, whose name actually means Antonio of the Bridge. Apart from this fitting surname, da Ponte also came with an audacious proposal. He claimed that he could create a bridge with one massive arch covering the entire span of the Grand Canal.

The Rialto Bridge is supported by one expansive arch that crosses the entire canal
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There were plenty of people who laughed at the idea that a stone bridge could span that distance while still supporting its own weight. But Da Ponte started construction in 1588, and in 1591 proved his theory correct. The Rialto Bridge featured two inclining ramps, supported by a 24-foot tall arch crossing the entirety of the Grand Canal. Thousands of timber piles were driven into the soft soil of the lagoon to provide the support for this structure, which still stands to this day.

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