Rialto – Location, Location, Location

A little more background, and a little more conjecture, seems always in order about Riva Alto. It is a tomba, one of the ancient, sturdy sandy islands standing proudly above the high tide line, thought to be locations for many of the new permanent settlements in the Venetian archipelago in the fifth and sixth centuries.

High Banks

The early Riva Alto (“High Bank”, later contracted into the name “Rialto”) community in Venice has been designated as one of the original 12 “Venice” island communities.  It became the Ducal Seat of the “consolidated” group of twelve Lagoon-wide communities in around 810 A.D, when relocation from Malamocco was deemed prudent for environmental, safety and, perhaps foremost, political reasons.

Ponte Rialto   (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Ponte Rialto (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Various guides aver that “Riva Alto” consisted of two “high” island, one on each side of the “Canale Grande” at the locations now connected by the Rialto Bridge.  However, the “high bank” communities on opposite shores of the Canal existed centuries before the first bridge was contemplated or built.  Might we stand the risk of being misled if we simply accept that the two “foremost” islands of Venice’s early centuries had to be located where the ends of that bridge are today?  

Might other forces been at work in that much later development decision?

On the opposite bank of the Grand Canal from Riva Alto, historical records indicate that the parish of Santi Apostoli (north of the Rialto area) was founded by St. Magnus in around 643 on the early island (another tomba) of Orio.  


Ss. Apostoli  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Ss. Apostoli (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Ss. Apostoli (643) is separated from the Rialto bridge by two major rii and two intervening parish churches San Giovanni Grisostomo (1080) and San Bartolomeo (830-840), two to four hundred years later than Apostoli.  The youngster, San Bartolomeo is very close to the bridge.

To avoid jumping to a premature conclusion, San Salvador must also be considered.  Also founded by St. Magnus in 638, the church is (today) on the same island as the bridge landing, and is equidistant with Ss. Apostoli from San Giacomo de Rialto “as the crow flies”.  Still, history appears to vote for a closer consideration of Ss. Apostoli’s neighborhood as a cross-Canal “high bank” partner to Riva Alto!

Perhaps there were two of them!

Old But Orderly

The Riva Alto area became densely populated and had prospered for several centuries prior to its official designation as the “Center” of Venice.  Over three centuries, fairly extensive “redevelopment” would also have occurred.  As the real estate folks say, it is all about “Location, Location, Location” and like developers today, those of the time may have wanted to share the valued address of the prime location, the Riva Alto!

By the end of the 7th-Century, the first two waves of permanent communities established in the Venetian Archipelago had solid “parishes churches”, often first built with wood, then brick, soon using imported stone for their bases (far more brine resistent), with their second or third iteration laid upon foundations of driven wooden piles in the marshy soils.  Reconstruction was often driven by settling foundations or one of the multitude of fires that swept through the wood framed and straw roofed villages – including the churches!

This intensity and form of development was not that of a rustic fishing village – those predated the location of immigration from terra firma, and Roman settlements had also existed around and in the Lagoon for many prior centuries.  The Riva Alto type of community was a sizable accomplishment that required great organization, planning, financing, resource aquisition and a major labor force of artisans and builders while other construction in other new communities in Venice was proceeding apace around them.

Even some of the earliest of the “new” island communities were likely to have been “pre-planned” districts inspired by centuries of Roman town planning influence and adapted to the islands, not simple “free-form” accommodation to pre-existing Lagoon villages.  

San Giacomo de Rialto  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

San Giacomo de Rialto (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

The parish church of San Giacomo de Rialto, founded circa 421AD, its Campo and the local “High Street” Ruga Oresi identify the early center of the Riva Alto community.  Within one hundred yards of them is San Giovanni Novo on the Campo Rialto Novo, “new” in the 9th Century!, perhaps built in a southerly addition to the original island community. 

Given its island type, Riva Alto is a likely candidate for expansion of a pre-existing Lagoon community, whether “free-form” or orthogonal in plan.  Its planning and expansion occurred before too many “permanent” brick and stone buildings, public open space and private property parcels needed to be rearranged, redeveloped or razed to fit the orthogonol plan found on even the earliest maps of Riva Alto

Community Organizers

Subsequent waves of migration may often have included virtually complete communities from the mainland.  Those communities built long before establishment of the “Council of Twelve” would certainly have been involved negotiations with their predecessors for a planned absorption through consolidation into or expansion of existing island villages, or “assistance” in determining placement on an as-yet undeveloped island in an infill or archipelago perimeter location. 

Even after the San Marco environs were developed into the “administrative capitol” of the state, moving the Doges Seat away from bustling Riva Alto, the Rialto remainded the “downtown” commercial center of Venice.  Generations of changes to accommodate evolving commodities markets, access issues from the sea and terra firma, and financial institutions needing close links to commerce, led to increased density in and expansion of that commercial core. 

The Perspective of Time

By the time the first Doge was elected in 727, two hundred years of development, testing, redevelopment and innovation had been completed in Riva Alto, a crucible for the urban experiment in Venice, with major physical features including churches…

Already historical places and monuments!


(This article is part of the series, “Venice – The Intentional City” on RenaissanceRules!  Part One, the Introduction, was posted on November 8, 2010, and can be accessed via this link: http://wp.me/pVUDj-rS .  Please stop in again to visit previous articles and discover upcoming segments. Enjoy the journey! Buon Viaggio!)

About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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