The Rialto Bridge - History and Facts | History Hit

The Rialto Bridge

Amy Irvine

12 May 2023
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Veronika.szappanos / CC BY-SA 4.0

About The Rialto Bridge

The Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the four bridges that cross Venice’s Grand Canal (the city’s main waterway), connecting the districts of San Polo and San Marco. The iconic bridge is also the most famous thanks to its long history, dating back to the 12th century.

History of The Rialto Bridge

The first Rialto Bridge was built in 1181 and was a simple wooden structure. It was replaced by a more substantial wooden bridge in 1255, followed by the stone bridge we see today, built between 1588-1591 by Antonio da Ponte following a design competition in the city (where he beat Michelangelo) as the wooden bridge had collapsed in two occasions and been partially burnt down in 1310.

The design of the elegant stone bridge is similar to its predecessors with two inclined ramps that are connected by an arch spanning 28 metres (crossing the narrowest point of the Grand Canal in the heart of Venice) and is made of Istrian stone. It is renowned as an architectural and engineering achievement of the Renaissance.

As The Rialto Bridge was the only place to cross the Grand Canal on foot, it was vital that the bridge could stand up to heavy use and also allow boats to pass underneath.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Rialto Bridge became an important commercial and financial centre in Venice. It was lined with shops and market stalls, making it a bustling hub of activity, and was also an important crossing point for pilgrims on their way to Saint Mark’s Basilica.

The bridge served as the only fixed structure crossing the Grand Canal until the 1850s; prior to that, pedestrian crossings at other locations were done by gondola ferries.

The Rialto Bridge today

The Rialto Bridge was restored in the 20th century and remains an important and functional landmark in Venice, and a symbol of the city’s history and culture.

It is formed of three sets of stairs divided by arcades. The central stairs remain lined with shops and vendors, and are so densely packed that it’s easy to not notice you’re crossing over the Grand Canal. The two other stairs (on the bridge’s north and south sides) offer iconic views of the Grand Canal.

The bridge is a popular tourist attraction, both for those wishing to walk across it as well as those travelling by vaporetto (water bus) or gondola underneath it as they traverse the city.

Getting to The Rialto Bridge

There are two ways to get from St Mark’s Square to The Rialto Bridge – by ferry or foot. By ferry, from Venezia Santa Lucia Station take the Line 1 ferry via Rialto Mercato which takes approximately 16 minutes. The bridge is a 7 minute walk northwest from St Mark’s Square.

Featured In

Historic sites in Venice

A guide to 5 of the very best historic sites in the city of Venice, including St Mark's Square, The Doge's Palace and Saint Mark's Basilica.