The Rialto Bridge Disaster of 1444 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Monday, July 13, 2009

The Rialto Bridge Disaster of 1444

1444: Venice, Venetian Republic--Rialto Bridge Disaster

Vittorio Carpaccio, Healing of the Madman, from the Miracles of the True Cross Series, 1494. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

According to the proceedings of the Bridge Engineering 2 Conference, 2009, at the University of Bath, Bath, UK, "The Rialto Bridge, which spans the shortest part of the Grand Canal, began in 1181 as a series of floating pontoons. The structure was built by Nicolò Barattieri, and called the Ponte della Moneta. However, the development of the Rialto market on the eastern bank led to increased traffic and the pontoons were soon worn down. A wooden structure replaced it in 1250, and was renamed the Ponte di Rialto. The bridge was burnt during the revolution in 1310, before collapsing in 1444 under the weight of spectators at the wedding ceremony of the Marchessa di Ferrara, and collapsed again in 1524."

Portrait of Leonello d’Este, 1441. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

"In 1444 Leonello d'Este, the Marquis of Ferrara, married Mary of Aragon, the illegitimate daughter of King Alfonso V of Naples. The wedding, held in Venice, was a spectacular affair culminating in a procession down the Grand Canal. Naturally people gathered on the only bridge crossing the canal to watch. However, the surging crowd's weight caused the timber structure to suddenly collapse. A replacement was duly built, only to suffer a similar fate, collapsing in 1524 (The Swiss Cottage)."

Wedding Medal of Leonello d'Este (obverse and reverse), Pisanello, 1444. Source:

In 1444, Leonello married for the second time. Pisanello designed the Medal of Leonello d'Este for the occassion. On the front of the medal, Leonello’s flattened profile advertises the strength of his features. On the back of the medal, Pisanello portrays the change in Leonello’s soul from fighter to lover. A lion stands in for Leo as Cupid tames him, just as Leonello’s love for his new bride will usher in a new era of good feelings in the land. Leonello proudly handed out these medals as a type of calling card to advertise what kind of man and ruler he wanted to be.

Vittore Carpaccio's painting 'The Healing of the Madman' shows the fourth bridge, a rickety looking structure with a drawbridge for the tall masts of the galleys. By the 16th Century this was in a sad state of decay and a competition was held for the design of a new bridge to be built in stone (San Polo and Santa Croce). Antonio da Ponte won the contract over prodigious designers such as Michelangelo and Palladio. The Rialto Bridge was designed and built in 1588-1592, and remained the only way to cross the canal on foot until 1853, when the Ponte Accademia was constructed.