Venice has many nick-names, on the list of which you can find “The City of Canals” and, therefore “The City of Bridges”, of ponti.
The Rialto Bridge, currently in its 3rd edition, was the only bridge across the famed Grand Canal for almost 700 years. Historians indicate that a floating “boat bridge” was first constructed in around 1175, and the second bridge, the Accademia, was first constructed in 1854 during the Austrian occupation, with the initial Scalzi bridge near the train station constructed 1858.
Today, various commentators and guides claim the number of bridges to be 378, or 387, or 408, or 455, or 400+ (nice and safe!), or…pick your number! The degree to which those counts includes private bridges as well as public bridges is not very clear.
Several commentators state that 72 private bridges exist today. We were able to spot (without really trying) at least 10 private bridges just along our route between Campo Santa Giustina and Campo San Martino one fine September day a few years ago!
One of the best pictorial inventories of Venetian bridges that I am aware of was produced in 2008 by James Broos, in his book Bridges of Venice, Walking Tours (www.lulu.com, ID: 2008254, ISBN 978-0-6152-1958-5). He inventories the existence of at least 392 bridges.
A number of commentaries and histories state that a significant number of the bridges were built in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Public bridges are important community linkage indicators in the changing urban form of Venice over the many centuries of its development.
The 1677 Disegno della Pianta di Venezia map, a re-drafted finely detailed rendition that was copied from an original survey map completed in around 1620 according to respected Venetian chronicalers of that time, shows approximately 331 public bridges. Several more may be obscured by illustrations of landmark buildings or location names on the map.
Using that resource, simply accept “more than 400” bridges by the end of the 19th-Century, and do not enter into the debate about how many of the “more than 400” were public or private. The simple conclusion is that “about 70” bridges were constructed between 1677 and 1900, assuming the redrafting of the map may have included a few new edifices not shown on the original map, and a filled-in ria or two, although we do not know that at this juncture. The net gain from the bridge game was only about 21% from the 1677 public bridge inventory!
That is not the whole story, however. Many rii interrati (Rio Terra) were created during just the 18th and 19th Centuries, eliminating quite a number of public and private bridges. Although we know that bridges were constructed between 1677 and 1899, a simple review of “known” Rii Terra indicates the elimination of several dozen bridges that existed in the mid-17th Century. A few rii also received additional bridges to satisfy changing traffic patterns and perhaps recognize a little “encouraging” patronage, as well.
Expansions of the City also necessitated construction of new bridges, particularly in the areas of Sant’Elena, Stazione Marittima, Tronchetto, and Fusina/Sacca Fisola
Therefore the estimated increase to around 400 bridges may better be determined from a base of… oh never mind! Let’s not even bother ourselves with how many of the “new” bridges may simply have been replacement of older ones at the same locations, with only new dates and records of replacement taken as indication of “new bridge” by some!
Sometimes, buildings are the bridges – for example, Santo Stefano bridging a canal when its nave and apse wwere expanded eastward. On other occasions, Campo expansions swallowed rii and a “rio terra” name was not applied – for example, the expansion of Campo Santa Margherita to the south.
Temporary bridges are installed for a short time period for two major festivals, to reach either l’Salute or il’Redentore. Some other temporary crossings remain unnamed and not yet subject to lavish poetic proclamations. Acqua alta, anyone?
The best thing to do is to simply cross many of those 400+ bridges as you wander about the City, stop and enjoy their surroundings (don’t block traffic – please!), find your favorites including their Rio and connecting calli or sottoportegi. Just leave the worrying about numbers to the Type A folks, just enjoy the bridges and…
Don’t forget to count their steps!