14 July 2022

Getting lost in Venice
crossing and recrossing
some of the 435 bridges

The Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal and an architectural icon and one of the main tourist attractions in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

They say you never really get to know Venice until you have allowed yourself to get lost in the back streets, until you find yourself the same bridge again and again and end up back right where you started.

I realised last week – though not for the first time – that some bridges are better viewed by passing under them rather than passing over them.

The Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) is the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal, an architectural icon and one of the main tourist attractions in Venice. It connects the sestieri (districts) of San Marco and San Polo.

The first bridge at Rialto was built as a pontoon bridge in 1173, then built 1181 by Nicolò Barattieri as the Ponte della Moneta, so named because of the mint near its east side. It was replaced by a wooden bridge in 1255 and has been rebuilt several times since.

The present, single-span stone bridge was designed by Antonio da Ponte, and it is similar to the wooden bridge it replaced. Building began in 1588 and it was completed in 1591. Two ramps lead up to a central portico, and the covered ramps on each side of the portico host rows of shops.

The Rialto is referred to by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, where Salanio asks ‘What news on the Rialto?’ (Act III, Scene I). In Sonnet 19 in Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes that ‘The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise …’ It is called Shylock’s Bridge by Robert Browning in his poem ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s.’

The Bridge of Sighs was given its name by Lord Byron in the early 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

There are some bridges I have never crossed, and, indeed, we can all breath a sign of relief for never having crossed the Bridge of Sighs ( Ponte dei Sospiri) as condemned prisoners.

The Bridge of Sighs is an enclosed bridge made of white limestone, with windows that have stone bars. It passes over the Rio di Palazzo, connecting the New Prison (Prigioni Nuove) to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. It was designed by Antonio Contino, a nephew of Antonio da Ponte who designed the Rialto Bridge.

The Bridge of Sighs was built in 1600. But the bridge was given its English name by Lord Byron in his epic poem Childe Harold, as a translation from the Italian Ponte dei sospiri, when he heard that prisoners would sigh at their final view of Venice through the window before being taken away.

On the other hand, a romantic tradition in Venice says that if a couple kiss in a gondola beneath the Bridge of Sighs at sunset while the church bells toll, they will be in love forever.

Since Byron gave the Bridge of Sighs its name, it has inspired architects to build similar bridges in many cities, including bridges at Saint John’s College in Cambridge, designed by Henry Hutchinson and built in 1831, in Oxford where Hertford Bridge links two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane, in Dublin linking Christ Church Cathedral and the Synod Hall, and in Barcelona, where the Bridge of Sighs or Pont dels Sospirs bridges Carrer Bisbe, the Street of the Bishop.

The bridge in Dublin was built in 1875 by George Edmund Street, who at an early stage in his career was influenced by John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. However, Sir Thomas Jackson’s bridge in Oxford (1898) was never intended to be a replica of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, and like the bridges in Cambridge and Dublin it has a closer resemblance to the Rialto Bridge.

Ponte de Gheto Novo, one of two bridges in the Ghetto in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

There are two bridges in and out of the Ghetto, connecting the Ghetto with the rest of the city but open only during the day, the Ponte de Gheto Vecchio and the Ponte de Gheto Novo.

The Ghetto is divided into three smaller areas, the Old Ghetto, the New Ghetto and the Gheto novissimo.

It often surprises visitors to realise the New Ghetto is the ancient part of the district, while the Old Ghetto is more recent part. The adjectives Old or New do not refer to the district itself but to the foundry that was once there.

Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio, one of two bridges in the Ghetto in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

When the Doge, Leonardo Loredan, ordered Jews to live in the Ghetto in 1516, they started living in the New Ghetto, and with rises in population the Ghetto expanded into the Old Ghetto too.

The two bridges predate the edict of 1516: in 1455, Costantino und Bartolomeo da Brolo, two merchants from Verona, acquired the right to build two bridges to connect the Ghetto Nuovo with the Ghetto Vecchio and the Fondamenta San Girolamo on the north.

Ponte dei Greci is beside close to the Church of San Giorgio dei Greci and the museum run by the Hellenic Institute (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Ponte dei Greci is 600 metres east of San Marco square, in the Castello area. It is, in fact, not one but two bridges, one abutting the other at right angles.

Greek traders have lived in this area ever since the rise of Venice as a mercantile power in the late Middle Ages. Although they are no longer present in significant numbers, the bridges are close to the Church of San Giorgio dei Greci and the museum run by the Hellenic Institute.

Ponte dei Greci is in the heart of the old Greek quarter in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Nearby, the Ponte del Diavolo provides beautiful, scenic views of the Castello area. But it is not as well-known as the Ponticello del Diavolo or the Devil’s Little Bridge on the island of Torcello.

The bridge in Torcello attracts the curious attention of many visitors who are spun a number of stories about its name. One legend says the devil appeared here one night by the devil to win a bet. Another legend dates from the time of Austrian rule in Venice. A young woman fell in love with an Austrian soldier, but he was killed by her family who regarded the relationship as unpatriotic.

The distraught young woman sought the aid of a witch who agreed to meet her on Torcello as an isolated island. The witch called upon the devil who brought the young Austrian back to life, and the two lovers were reunited. But the devil forced the witch to promise that for the next seven years she would bring him the soul of a dead child who had recently died on Christmas Eve each year.

The witch died soon after in a fire and was unable to keep her pact. To this day, it is said, the devil comes to the Devil’s Bridge in Torcello each Christmas Eve in the guise of a black cat and claims in vain the souls he was promised.

In reality, the bridge in Torcello and may have taken its name because there are no protective sides on the bridge, leaving those who cross it with a feeling that it was built in a hurry, without attention to the risks and dangers it may have created. This too may have been the original condition of the Ponte del Diavolo in the Castello area.

Ponte del Diavolo in Castello … not as well-known as the Ponticello del Diavolo on the island of Torcello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Ponte della Liberta or Liberty Bridge is the longest bridge in Venice and one of the newest. It is almost 4 km long and was built in 1931 to connect the old town and the mainland with its many suburbs. He bridge is both a motorway with four lanes and a railway with four tracks.

The number of bridges in Venice is enormous. In total, there are about 435 bridges in Venice, so it is impossible for residents, never mind the most seasoned of visitors. But this is not a world record: there are more than 1,000 bridges in Amsterdam, and over 2,000 in Hamburg.

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