Chapter 4 of Venice:  The pleasures of Il Ponte di Rialto and other bridges.

‘SALANIO: Now, what news on the Rialto?’ – William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.

I am more subdued to Venice than ever. The strangest thing of all is that the constant flow of tourists does not even seem to bother me. Well, I am a tourist myself, but normally, I just rage and pest at everyone in the streets (particularly French people). In Venice, it seems the place has put a spell on me! It has enchanted me so that I do not see anything else but the beauty of it. It is quite exceptional!

So, today, I want to deal with a very famous bridge that Shakespeare included extensively in his play The Merchant of Venice.’Now, what news on the Rialto?’ is the first line of the third act. So, no, it is not asking what is happening ON the bridge, but rather what is said in the quarter of the Rialto, the Merchants’ area of Venice. It is a place of gossip and drama where your reputation is at risk. Shylock, a Jewish merchant and one of the main characters in the play, says he has been ‘rated’ ‘in the rialto’ (I, 3), meaning he has been mistreated and judged. Do not worry! This time has passed (you would hope so at least). Nevertheless, it is still a very crowded place with a lot of shops around. You will essentially find jeweleries and gold dealers there. 

You will also find around the bridge several remaining tokens of its mercantile past life. There are still markets to be found in the area such as the fish market. Nowadays, it is more like a general market, but there is still the old fishing regulation up the walls. 

The Rialto is the most impressive bridge in Venice. It is also the oldest. The Canal Grande is the big river which slithers in the city and breaks it into two parts. Only four bridges will take you across the river:  il Ponte della Costituzione, il Ponte degli Scalzi, il Ponte dell’Accademia and il Ponte di Rialto (hence the importance to localise them on a map). 

The Rialto was first built in the 12th century in the oldest and most commercial part of the city. As you can imagine, it did not look like the imposing stone bridge it is nowadays. Nor was it called ‘Rialto’. At the beginning, it was a wood bridge, and you had to pay a tax to cross it which is why it was called il Ponte del Quartorolo (named after the tax). It was refurbished and damaged several times. In 1444, it collapsed due to overcharging: people had gathered on the bridge to witness the arrival of a famous historical character; it could not support such a weight and broke, causing the deaths of several people (the number 4 is not the bridge’s lucky number…) The bridge was rebuilt ingeniously with a mobile part at the centre to let high ships pass. It was made out of wood again, and collapsed again…

The name ‘Rialto’ comes from the fact that it was built in a part of the city called ‘Rivoaltum’. You could find the living heart of Venice there with a great market and merchants all around. The actual bridge we can admire today was built at the end of the 16th century after a decreet straight from the Doge’s Palace. They had finally understood that building a wood bridge in such a lively and populated (and probably humid) area was not a good idea! It remained the only way to cross the Canal Grande until 1854! Imagine the number of people crossing the Canal daily with only one bridge to do so. Okay, no tourists or just a small bunch of them. Still,  it must have been insane! And the number of boats there was to deliver merchandise…Oh my my! 

What a stunning view from the bridge, uh?

In 1854, another bridge was built by the Austrians, who were occupying in the area, to connect the brand new railway station, Santa Lucia, to the heart of the city. This bridge did not last, and il Ponte dell’Accademia took its place in 1933. The bridge was actually meant to be provisory (it makes me think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris…) Nevertheless, it became an integral part of Venice, and apparently, people grew attached to it. It does the job! Actually, Venitians have the saying ‘provvisorio come il Ponte dell’Accademia’ to describe an ephemeral thing that has become permanent.

With as stunning a view, I can assure you!

The two other bridges can be found on each side of the railway station. Il Ponte della Costituzione is the last bridge to have been built on the Grand Canal. It was inaugurated in 2008, and has a modern look (too modern for some people). It draws its name from the Italian Constitution which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2008. This bridge is also called Ponte di Calatrava after the name of the architect, Santiago Calatrava. The last bridge is il Ponte degli Scalzi. The Scalzi were a religious order which owned the church nearby. The Scalzi were monks famous for walking barefeet. Its building  took place after the opening of the railway station Santa Lucia in 1846. A bridge was built in 1858, but was destroyed. They only rebuilt it in the thirties.

This is the last bridge to have been built: il Ponte della Costituzione.

I am not going to dwell on ALL the bridges of Venice because I think I would not have the time (nor the will) to deal with more than 400 of them (some say 417, others 435…)!

Maybe you think it a good time to go round a few shops and see what they offer. You probably have trinkets to buy for Uncle Bernard, and a necklace to find for Cousin Marge. I will wait for you on the southbank. 

Keep crossing,

Kind regards,

I M Gullivering.


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