Exploring the History of Medicine, Part 16: Venice, Part 11

February 1, 2022


Rialto Bridge and Ponte delle Tette

Rialto Bridge (Ponte Di Rialto) is the largest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal, and it is the world's most famous marble bridge.

"Ponte" means "bridge," and "rialto" means "high ground."

This area is slightly elevated compared to its surroundings, making it visible above the sea.

It was the starting point of Venetian settlement and it led to the construction of Venice.

Naturally, this area became the commercial and economic center of Venice.

Today, precious metal shops and souvenir stores line the bridge, while noble residences and foreign trading posts stand on both sides.


Upstream from Rialto Bridge, there is a small bridge called Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of Breasts).

"Tette" means "breasts" in Italian, accurately describing it as the "Bridge of Breasts."

When people gathered here, the inevitable "oldest profession in the world" (prostitution) took place.

Around the 15th century, this area was a red-light district crowded with brothels.

Prostitutes with exposed breasts lined the windows and balconies of nearby buildings, enticing and luring men by revealing their chests and spreading their legs.

During this period, the Venetian Republic faced the societal issue of the prevalence of homosexuality.

This wasn't solely because the Catholic Church deemed it a "sin against nature."

The increase in homosexuality led to a decrease in marriages and births, resulting in a declining population and weakened national strength.

In order to prevent this, the Venetian government imposed the death penalty on homosexuals.

Homosexuals were executed by hanging between the two columns in St. Mark's Square and then burned "until reduced to complete ashes."

To prevent homosexuality, the government encouraged prostitution through legislation.

There were regulations such as "Prostitutes should prominently show their faces and breasts from the windows across the bridge after sunset" and "If it is dark and difficult to see, illuminate with candles."

There is a record that Venice had approximately 12,000 prostitutes in 1509.

Considering the population of Venice at that time was around 100,000, it meant that 1 in 10 people was a prostitute.

Moreover, the taxes paid by the prostitutes significantly contributed to the finances of the Venetian Republic.

In particular, the taxes in 1519 were reportedly used for the construction of the Venetian Arsenal (shipyard and weapons factory).