This was the first of only four bridges that today span the Grand Canal:
- Ponte dell Accademia, rebuilt in 1985;
- Ponte degli Scalzi, built in 1934;
- The modern Ponte della Costituzione, or Ponte di Calatrava, built in 2008 and designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava;
- And the 500-year-old stone Rialto Bridge, which is packed with shops on either side. As such, the 16th-century Rialto Bridge is by far the oldest Grand Canal bridge and divides the districts of San Marco and San Polo.
In the Commercial Hub
It is built in the Rialto, the first district of Venice to be developed; after people settled here in the ninth century, it didn't take long for the area to become the commercial and financial hub of a burgeoning city. The bridge is also a gateway to the Rialto Market, a warren of sellers to the west of the span hawking produce, spices, fish and more, and the city's principal food market since the 11th century.
Prior to construction of the Rialto Bridge in the late 16th century, a series of bridges occupied this natural crossing, the so-called "lazy bend" of the waterway and its narrowest point. Because this bridge was the only place to cross the Grand Canal on foot, it was imperative to construct a bridge that would hold up to heavy use and would also allow boats to pass underneath.
In Good Hands
Beginning in 1524, artists and architects, including Sansovino, Palladio, and Michelangelo, began submitting blueprints for the new bridge. But no plan was chosen until 1588 when municipal architect Antonio da Ponte was awarded the commission. Interestingly, da Ponte was the uncle of Antonio Contino, architect of Venice's other unmistakable bridge, The Bridge of Sighs connecting the ducal palace with the prison.
The Rialto Bridge is an elegant, arched stone bridge lined with arcades on each side. The pinnacle of the central archway accessed via wide stairs that rise from either side of the bridge serves as a lookout perch. Under the arcades are numerous shops, many of which cater to the tourists who flock here to see this famous bridge and its views of the gondola-filled Grand Canal waterway.