The Rialto Bridge represents a proper archive of Venetian history. Some see it as a triumphal arch; its elegant lines connect the two banks of the Grand Canal forming a 50-metre arch that, low over the water, span across almost nine centuries of history.
The first bridge, was built in the 12th century; supported by wood pillars, it was designed by architect and engineer Niccolò Barattieri and was located in a strategic position for commerce and ship construction. It was called “Ponte della Moneta”, due to its proximity to Venice’s old mint.
Before then, the two banks of the Grand Canal were connected by a floating bridge, known as “Quartarolo” (the cost of the ferry across the Canal).
Around the mid-12th century it was replaced by a wooden bridge. This structure had two inclined ramps meeting at a movable central section, which could be raised to allow the passage of tall ships.
That was when the bridge got its current name ̶ from the nearby Rivoalto area, literally, "riva alta”, the Italian for “high bank”, where Venice’s most important market was located.
In 1310 the bridge was badly damaged during the revolt led by Bajamonte Tiepolo against the Government of the Republic of Venice; after a failed assault to the Palazzo Ducale, the conspirators where chased by the forces faithful to the Doge and burnt down the bridge before surrendering to the enemy.
After being rebuilt, the bridge collapsed a second time, in 1444, under the weight of a crowd gathered to watch the boat parade of the Marchioness of Ferrara, daughter of Alfonso V of Aragon.
When it was rebuilt, for a total cost of over 2000 ducats, it was wider, but still maintained the movable central section and the characteristic shops at its two sides, supported by six pillars. It would last for a century and a half, until the Senate of Venice, due to the constant issues (it collapsed again in 1524) and the exorbitant maintenance costs, decided to build it in stone.
Several plans were considered during the first half of the century, some presented by famous architects, such as Palladio, Vignola, Sansovino and Michelangelo,, but they were all deemed inadequate.
Finally, the project by Antonio Da Ponte, a Venetian sculptor and architect, was chosen and work was carried out in collaboration with his nephew, Antonio Contin.
Following a long period of discussions and difficulties related to the 1576 plague and the fire that burnt down the Palazzo Ducale in 1577, works did not start until 1588, during the reign of Doge Pasquale Cicogna, and ended in 1591, for a total cost of 250,000 ducats.
A few restoration interventions aside, the Rialto Bridge still maintains its original single span structure (a very controversial decision at the time it was built), with a width of 28 metres, connecting Riva del Vin to Riva del Ferro.
The weight of the arch rests on foundations made with 12,000 elm poles and larch planks that have been supporting the Bridge and its 24 shops with unaltered efficiency since 1591.