Rialto is the geographic heart of Venice, and the oldest settled area of the city. Its name derives from the Latin rivus altus, or deep stream, which afforded some protection from the lagoon’s tides. In the heyday of the Republic of Venice, Rialto was its world-famous commercial center, renowned for its exotic markets, banks, and as a gathering place to learn the latest news.
Start your tour at the foot of the Rialto Bridge, on the San Marco side of the Grand Canal. To the left of the bridge notice the sign (1) Pescaria San Bartolomeo, which marks the onetime location of the fish market. “In 1459, the powerful bankers who worked nearby complained to the government about the stinking air and screaming fishmongers,” says Sara Cossiga, sommelier and gourmet tour organizer (www.venicevenetogourmet.com). “The fish market was moved to the other side of the bridge.”
Walk to the midpoint of the (2) Rialto Bridge, the only bridge across the Grand Canal during the Republic. There has been a bridge on this spot since at least the 12th century, when a floating bridge was constructed, followed by a succession of wooden bridges over the next four centuries. Those bridges were destroyed (in 1310) or collapsed (in 1444 and 1524). The present-day stone bridge, completed in the late 16th century, was designed by Antonio Da Ponte, whose plans were selected over those of leading architects, including Palladio and Michelangelo.
Looking south, notice the (3) Riva del Vin on the right, named for the wine barges that used to moor there, now lined with gondolas and restaurants. Looking north, see the 16th-century (4) Fondaco dei Tedeschi (San Marco 5554) on the right, formerly the exchange of German merchants and now the main post office; its facade frescoes by Giorgione and Titian have long since vanished. On the left bank is Fondamenta de la Preson, named for the debtor’s prison is (5) Palazzo dei Camerlenghi.
Head back from where you started and turn right onto the street called (6) Naranzaria; the name derives from warehouses that stored citrus fruit from Southern Italy (orange is naransa in Venetian). Continue to the (7) Campo Dell’Erbaria, former site of the herb market, now home to several nighttime hot spots in the building which once contained Venice’s bank, Banco Giro; the covered walkway on the left is called Sotoportego del Banco Giro.
Bear left through the Erbaria and continue to Campo Cordaria, named for the ropemakers who labored there. On the right are the (8) Fabbriche Nuove, the new factories designed by Sansovino (who also built the Library of St. Mark’s, the Loggetta of the Campanile, and other famous buildings) after a tremendous fire in 1514 burned much of the Rialto area is now home to Venice’s court. Straight ahead is the Caseria, which was home to one of Venice’s cheese market (the other one was near Piazza San Marco); there’s still a cheese store here, the (9) Casa del Parmigiano (San Polo 214).
A few more steps will bring you to (10) Campo de la Pescaria, once the fish market but now site of the fruit and vegetable market, which is open only mornings from Monday-Saturday. Some stalls specialize in vegetables grown on the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo.
Straight ahead is the (11) Pescaria, the neo-Gothic covered pavilion built in 1907. The fish market continues on to the left. You’ll find fresh regional fish as well as frozen imports; the market is open only in the mornings, Tuesday-Saturday.
Turn left onto Ruga degli Speziale, the street of the spice vendors. There is one speziale (spice shop) left, (12) Drogheria Mascari (San Polo 381), selling trays of dried goods, spices, coffee, and Venetian specialties.
Ruga Vecchia San Giovanni (also called San Zuane) crosses Ruga degli Speziale; the ancient church of (13) San Giovanni Elemosinario (San Polo 480) is on the left, hidden in plain view behind an arched doorway and missed by most tourists. The original church was destroyed by fire, but was remodeled in the early 16th century and contains works by Titian (“St. John the Almsgiver” by the altarpiece) and Il Pordenone (“Saints Catherine, Sebastian and Roch” in the right chapel). Trade guilds used to sponsor artworks in churches; look for the altar paid for by the poultry guild, which features the Virgin Mary and chickens.
After leaving the church, backtrack a few steps and then turn right onto (14) Ruga degli Orefici, the street of the goldsmiths. Modern merchants sell souvenirs, leather goods, and scarves. Notice the fading frescoes above the covered walkway.
Veer left to Campo San Giacomo and note the fenced-in (15) Gobbo di Rialto, the hunchback of Rialto. Official proclamations were announced from atop this crouching statue, and jokesters also used it to post antiestablishment satirical notices. Opposite the Gobbo is the (16) church of San Giacomo di Rialto or San Giacometto (San Polo 1), said to be the oldest in Venice, arguably founded in 421 and with a mix of styles from various rehabs over the centuries. The 24-hour clock outside dates from 1401 but was always famous for not keeping accurate time and hasn’t worked at all in years.
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