Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, at the foot of the Rialto Bridge, home to the city’s treasury, a prison and a funny warning
This story contains a strong dose of light-hearted humour at the bottom of which, however, lies a sinister warning. We are in Venice, after all, where every artefact hides an intrigue, a secret, a mystery. So make yourself comfortable and uncork a bottle of Masottina's Spumante Rosè Extra Dry, because this story will make you laugh. And you may well laugh, but at your own risk. On the north side of the Rialto Bridge, in the sestiere of San Polo, Palazzo dei Camerlenghi is a Renaissance-style building erected in 1525 to host the city’s treasury: the “camerlenghi” were akin to today’s finance ministers, entrusted with the delicate task of supervising the activities of revenue collection and distribution. The building is three storeys high and, originally, the ground floor was used as a prison, for the custody of all who were found guilty of tax evasion. This was a strategy aimed at making an example of the prisoners, transforming them into living warnings, as all passers-by were able to see the prisoners of the Fondamenta de la Preson behind bars, and understand what fate awaited those who didn’t abide by the laws of La Serenissima. The most particular feature of Palazzo dei Camerlenghi is its floor plan, which gives it its charming sinuous shape: as it stands immediately next to the Rialto Bridge, its five facades follow the curves of the Canal Grande. At the end of his mandate, it was customary for each magistrate to bequeath the palace a religious-themed painting.
This way, the palace came to acquire a vast art collection, which was lost and subsequently returned to the city of Venice in 1919 (today, the artworks are preserved in the Galleria dell'Accademia and the Giorgio Cini Foundation). Speaking of art, the decorative stone reliefs carved near the entrance of the palace connect its history - and its legend - to that of the Rialto Bridge.
The city’s most iconic landmark, a picture-perfect site which inspired generations of artists and lovers, the Rialto Bridge had troubled and complex beginnings, which stalled the structure’s completion for several decades. Originally, it was meant to be a simple passage-way resting on poles; in the year 1250 it was replaced by a wooden structure which, however, collapsed many times in the subsequent years. Thus, in the early sixteenth century it was decided to rebuild the bridge in stone, and a competition to select the best design was soon announced. Nevertheless, it took almost forty years to choose the best project and carry out the work. In the three-year period 1588-91, Rialto was finally completed by architect Antonio da Ponte, but by then more than one generation of Venetians had given up on the hope of ever seeing it completed. The never ending work on the bridge became a running joke among the residents of La Serenissima, and we find a curious documentation of such ridicule in two of the reliefs of the facade of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi. In the reliefs we see to small figurines: a man with a bizarre excrescence between his legs and a woman with flames blazing between her thighs. They portray, according to popular wisdom, a venetian woman, known to have joked “they will finish the bridge the day my vagina catches fire”, and the man who replied “they will finish the bridge when my penis grows a nail”. Once the structure was finally completed, La Serenissima had a surprise in store for the two cheeky jokesters, their irreverence is forever immortalized on the building born to remind everyone what happens to those who disrespect the city of Venice.