The Rialto bridge under restoration

The Rialto Bridge as you have never seen it

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An icon of Venice, the Rialto Bridge is currently undergoing a complete restoration. Let’s discover more about its long history and the present conservation project.

In the beginning there was Rivoalto.

Meaning either “deep river” or “high ground”, in the 9th century Rivoalto was the name of the area which later became known as Venezia. It seems, in fact, that the first settlements in this part of the lagoon were centered around the present Rialto Bridge. Situated at approximately the halfway point of the Grand Canal, this area is the geographic center of Venice, and also the Grand Canal’s narrowest point. It was therefore the best place to build a bridge connecting the two sides of the city, and until the 19th century, Rialto was the only bridge to make this connection.

Rialto, bridge, grand canal, Venice, map, drawbridge
The Rialto Bridge in 1500, from the map of Venice by Jacopo de’ Barbari, now in the Correr Museum, Venice.

From a floating bridge to Renaissance technology.

The first Rialto Bridge was built on pontoons in the late 12th century, then rebuilt in wood in 1265.
The 15th century version, a wooden drawbridge with shops on the sides, is still visible in old paintings and maps.

Detail from Vittore Carpaccio, “Miracle of the Cross at the Rialto Bridge”, ca. 1496, Accademia Galleries, Venice.

Due to structural problems, in the 1550s the government of the Serenissima decided to build a new bridge made of stone. The most famous architects of the time presented their proposals; even Andrea Palladio, whose plan was refused for being too low, was among the applicants.

Rialto, bridge, Canaletto, capriccio, Andrea Palladio, Venice
Canaletto, “Capriccio with Palladian style buildings”, 1756-59, Galleria Nazionale, Parma. The bridge is based on one of the projects by Palladio for the Rialto Bridge.

The government chose Antonio da Ponte‘s plan, a bridge with a single arch, which made it easier for boats to pass underneath it.
Construction began in 1589 on the market side, where almost 8 thousand alder and larch poles were placed 5 meters below ground level. Above these, more poles were laid across each other, horizontally, in 3 layers. The masonry on top of the wooden foundations was positioned with a 45 degree incline inward: this was a strategy to guarantee more stability, as in this way the stones were able to support the load of the bridge.

Completed in just 3 years, the new Rialto Bridge soon became an icon of the city, but how healthy is it after more than four centuries and millions of feet stepping on its stones?

Taking care of a fragile giant.

This is not the first renovation project: due to the high number of people crossing it, the Rialto has always been subject to wear. The first work took place in 1677 when the original brick flooring was replaced with grey stone. After that, we can count almost 11 interventions, the last one dating to 1973-75. Forty years later, a thorough restoration has become necessary.

A public competition was organized by the City of Venice in December 2012 to appoint a sponsor for the project. The winning tender was that of the OTB Group, chaired by Italian Renzo Rosso, a holding company managing top fashion brands like Diesel, Marc Jacobs, Viktor&Rolf and many others. With 5 million euros of funding, they are the only sponsor of the project.

We visited the site with some of the restorers who gave us some interesting insights into the work they have done so far.

Surveys have identified several different types of deterioration on the stone surface, from recent graffiti to plants and bacteria. Each of these substances requires a different process to remove them and prevent their buildup in the future. In the image below you can see a stone surface that has not been cleaned yet (left) and another one that has already undergone the restoration process (right).

As frequently happens when working on very old buildings, there were some unexpected discoveries.
Restorers were excited to find traces of red pigment on some of the ashlars around the shops, a discovery which raises a few questions. Was there a permanent decoration? Was it created for a specific event and then covered? Are there similar traces on the other side of the bridge? We’ll have to wait until the restoration is complete to know more about this.
Reactions were rather different, however, when it was realized that the balustrades had swung outward and the stones supporting them had cracks! Extra care is therefore required during the work, and flexible materials such as lead and basalt fibers are being used for the fixings.

Twenty workers are active at the site for 24 hours a day: the City of Venice requested that pedestrian traffic on the bridge not be blocked, so work in the central staircase is carried out during the night.

The project started in March 2015 and is expected to be completed by December 2016, a total of 21 months.

We look forward to showing you a dazzling Rialto Bridge on your next trip to Venice!