May 30th, 2015
Much (salt) water has flown under the Rialto Bridge since its construction in 1591. Standing on top of 12,000 invisible wooden poles, built out of large blocks of very resistant white limestone, the stubborn structure is the symbol of Venice as one of the greatest trading centers of the past centuries, defined by historians the ‘Wall Street of Europe of the Middle Ages’.

William Shakespeare, that almost certainly never visited Italy, places Rialto at the center of his “Merchant of Venice”, conjuring up here a world of bankers, businessmen and eager mercantile transactions (‘Now, what news on the Rialto?...’)

Besides the inevitable damages caused by age, weather and pollution, the pacific ‘invasion’ of some 20 million tourists every year also takes its toll. The first Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) was a pontoon bridge built over boats around 1180, according to tradition by Nicolo’ Barattieri, a semi legendary figure, supposedly the same engineer that raised the two giant columns at the entrance of St Mark’s Square.

It was then built as a draw bridge in wood, with two rows of shops. Vettore Carpaccio represents it in all its details, with a multitude of boats and people around it at the end of the XV century.   

The great canvas is now at the Accademia Galleries. The decision of the Venetian Republic to rebuild it in stone, after several accidents and a fire, was taken at the beginning of the XVI century, but , as it often happens, there were long delays.

A competition amongst the best architects and engineers of the time was finally started in 1551: Palladio, Sansovino, Michelangelo, Vignola took part, but none of their projects convinced the local commission. In the end it was a local engineer, Antonio da Ponte, to be encharged with the reconstruction. Works started in 1588 , took three years with a cost of 250,000 golden ducats.          

Wooden pilings for the foundations, bricks and white Istrian stone for the actual structure, grey Molassa di Muggia stone for the steps, and big plaques of lead to cover the shops.

The restoration has already started, sponsored with 5 million euro by Renzo Rosso, owner of Diesel (popular brand for jeans and clothing), and is supposed to last for approximately 18 months. At a first accurate inspection the critic points are :

    Rain water infiltrations have damaged the blocks of stone, provoking what have been defined ‘stalactites’ under the bridge, that will need to be removed.          

    A mess of water and gas pipes meander into the main body of the bridge, many of them no longer functioning, and will also need to be removed.           

   The stone steps are in bad conditions, they will be restored or substituted and the whole pavimentation will be made waterproof.          

   The white stone balustrades will be freed of all the improper iron elements that have been added through the centuries.

    The lead roofs will need to be reinforced.

    Delicate cleaning of the whole structure with laser and other techniques will be required.

In the meantime the everyday invasion continues, although a good part of the south façade of the bridge is already covered by a giant billboard, and also the nearing Palazzo dei Camerlenghi and the huge Fontego dei Tedeschi are being refurbished. The restyling of the whole area should be over by the end of 2017.
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