Saturday, October 2, 2010

Rialto Bridge

The Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) is the true heart of Venice. The current structure was built in just three years, between 1588 and 1591, as a permanent replacement for the boat bridge and three wooden bridges that had spanned the Grand Canal at various times since the 12th Century. It remained the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot until the Accademia Bridge was built in 1854.

The Rialto Bridge's 7.5-meter (24-foot) arch was designed to allow passage of galleys, and the massive structure was built on some 12,000 wooden pilings that still support the bridge more than 400 years later. The architect, Antonio da Ponte ("Anthony of the Bridge," appropriately enough), competed against such eminent designers as Michelangelo and Palladio for the contract.

The bridge has three walkways: two along the outer balustrades, and a wider central walkway leading between two rows of small shops that sell jewelry, linens, Murano glass, and other items for the tourist trade.

The Rialto area was the first part of Venice to be developed, and it soon became a centre for commerce. The town's principal market was transferred here at the end of the eleventh century. Trading of all kinds took place, and this would be where Venetians and merchants could buy and sell exotic imported goods just unloaded from ships. In the sixteenth century, after a destructive fire, a complex of squares and porticoes was constructed to the west of the Rialto Bridge, with areas dedicated to different products. These are still recorded in the names of the local lanes and squares: Erberia (fruit and vegetable market), Naranzeria (oranges), Speziali (spices) and Pescaria (fish). Fish, fruit and vegetables are still sold here, from a colourful array of stalls where you can buy provisions or just admire the spectacle. The fish market is housed in a covered hall, the Pescheria, with fishy decorative features.


The Ruga dei Oresi was called Drapperia or Drapparia (Drapery) since the ancient 14th-century market. The area was named after the shops selling precious fabrics along the porch connecting the Rialto bridge to the Church of San Giovanni Elemosinaro in Ruga Rialto.

Campo San Giacometo was the core of the textile trade, with a variety of fabrics and clothes on display. Afterwards, business would expand to other goods attracting more craftsmen, including goldsmiths (oresi in Venetian). The so-called “botteghini” (small shops) were born in the early 16th century, probably due to the fire that devastated most of Rialto’s insula in 1514. Reconstruction helped enliven trade and social life in the area and the government of the Serenissima began to rent the porch of the Drapperia, offering the possibility to set up removable stalls for trading. The original look of the Drapperia lives on in the prints of the time and in Canaletto’s paintings. The presence of the “botteghini” was a matter of constant discussion among the merchants, until the Senate decided to legalise the properties in 1720.

The Ruga dei Oresi changed in time: food and products targeted at the Venetian residents replaced artisan merchandise. Typical Venetian products and souvenirs of Venice began to be marketed in the 1960s. The present-day market blends souvenirs, leather goods and shoes, thus meeting the needs of the tourists and the residents.

Though the city’s economy underwent great changes, the Ruga dei Oresi maintained its 16th-century structure and the typical aspect of the traditional market, with the shops one after the other to form a single row in the same atypical fashion of the “botteghini”. Though Ruga dei Oresi is visited by tourists from all over the world, the cosmopolitan spirit that has distinguished Rialto’s market for centuries lives on through the goods on display, the people going to and fro, the exchanges, the inns and the osterie.

 But after the day is done, don't forget to view the bridge at night.