STROLLING THROUGH RIALTO
The monumental Rialto Bridge and its surroundings.
A MONUMENTAL LANDMARK. The Rialto Bridge is one of the most famous and widely photographed landmarks of Venice. Not only the undisputed icon of postcards and ‘selfies', but also the oldest bridge in the city (until 1854 it was the only means of crossing the Grand Canal on foot). Located in the picturesque Rialto neighbourhood, it is a heady mix of shops, eateries and architecture, where the days are marked by the cries of the vendors of its famous, bustling market and by the comings and goings of Venetians and tourists who are either in search of a traditional ‘osteria' or ‘bacaro' for an ‘ombra de vin' or a ‘cicheto', or looking to make a purchase from one of the innumerable artisanal ‘botteghe' that line its ‘calli' and ‘campielli' and flank both sides of the bridge.
With its markets, ‘osterie' and artisanal ‘botteghe', the ancient and picturesque neighbourhood of Rialto reveals one of the most authentic sides of Venice.
FROM HISTORY TO LEGEND. The history of this iconic bridge dates back to the year 1000 when it was built as a pontoon bridge at the canal's narrowest point. Due to increased traffic it was replaced with a wooden bridge in 1181, known as the ‘Ponte della Moneta' both due to the toll that people had to pay
when crossing it and because the city's mint was located at its easternmost end. In 1250, its wooden piles were replaced by a mobile structure and its name was changed to the Rialto bridge.
A dark period followed. In fact, during this time, the bridge collapsed and was damaged several times. It was only in 1588 that the Senate of the Serenissima decided to announce a competition to finally rebuild a stone bridge. Numerous renowned architects submitted their projects, including Sansovino, Vignola and Palladio. However the daring but scenically impact-making design submitted by the aptly named Antonio da Ponte was chosen. His bridge consisted of a single 22 meter stone arch span, supported by a broad rectangular deck carrying two arcades of shops and ‘botteghe' fronting on three roadways. Legend has it that da Ponte was visited by Satan himself who, in exchange for his help, asked the architect to pledge the soul of the first person crossing the bridge to him. The architect thought that he would trick Satan by having a cock cross the bridge for the first time. However, on learning about this deception, Satan vindicated himself by tricking da Ponte's pregnant wife into crossing the bridge. Her child was stillborn, and according to legend, its soul wandered haplessly, for years, on the Rialto bridge, until a gondolier finally helped it to cross over to the other side. Even the famous street market boasts a storied past. In fact, historic documents testify to its presence way back in 1097 when it was much larger than its current counterpart and sold exotic goods and spices and precious fabrics.
THE FAMOUS MARKET. Currently Venice's market par excellence, it is divided into the Pescaria, where fish caught in the lagoon are sold, and the Erbaria, whose vendors sell only the freshest, seasonal fruit and vegetables. Although a visit to this market means elbowing one's way among throngs of Venetian shoppers, the market nevertheless boasts two gems of historic and artistic interest: a loggia dating back to 1907 featuring a blaze of maritime and symbolic decorations, including a number of esoteric elements that are mixed in with the fish, lobsters and octopi sculpted on the capitals of its colonnade. More attentive visitors will also notice a marble plaque embedded in one of its red brick facades, which shows regulations set centuries ago for minimum allowable sizes for lagoon fish.
FOR SHOPPING ADDICTS. However, Rialto also means shopping. While strolling through the ‘rione's' tiny streets or when crossing its bridge, you'll come across several unusual shops that are imbued with the atmosphere of a bygone era. These include antique shops, artisans' workshops, old book binding shops where books are still bound according to time-honoured tradition, and jewelry stores selling original creations made from Murano glass beads. On the other hand, those in search of an amazing experience, should head to the old post office which now houses the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a lavish, highend department store and a magnificent feat of architecture that has been updated to brilliantly balance the old with new. The building boasts a marvelous terrace offering visitors a 360-degree view over Venice.
A HUB OF COMMERCE
The Rialto Bridge is the dividing line between the districts of San Marco and San Polo. It is lined on both sides by shops, and includes 120 steps. Right, the Rialto Market, a one-of-akind place crowded with Venetians and tourists. Below, the Erbaria market selling fruit and vegetables, and the Pescaria (fish market).