Have you noticed that Venice is a rather vertical city ? We need space but that’s rather limited in town. There are so many narrow calli and rather small courtyards, so Venetians have always been inventive to create additional space. Even gardens can be enlarged by making them “climb”. We think there are three types of vertical gardens in Venice. In this post I tell you about our altane, the roof terraces and you’ll see various types Venetians love.
If you compare today’s roofscape with the pianta prospettica by Jacopo de’ Barbari (1500), you won’t notice any difference in style. Most altane are still made of wood. Even today, almost all houses have rooftop gardens, often with a wonderful 360-degree-view. Now the climate on an altana can be rather peculiar …
I’ve always loved altane and there’s a wonderful book detailing their history and showing lots of pictures called Le Altane di Venezia by Giorgiana Bacchin Reale and Elisabetta Pasqualin. We still have the first edition published some 20 years ago. Fortunately I found this book on our shelf and it is now on my desk because it’s just so beautiful.
For the first time, a term similar to altana was mentioned in the year 1224 when a certain Matteo Barbani living in San Polo wrote that he was constructing an altana overlooking rio San Polo. Until the 12th century it seems there were no altane as Venice houses were low and made of wood. Also, the ground on which to build on was still swampy and not solid enough to support stone buildings.
From the 12th century, the cityscape changed as stone houses with 2-4 floors were built and decorated with strutture sporgenti – structures emerging from the house such as terraces, balconies and the altane of course.
Venetians began to build, decorate and use their altane much as they do today: dry their washing, enjoy the sun, take a break, read a book, have breakfast or a tea party and cultivate their pot plants creating those much-loved lived-in giardini pensili – hanging gardens with a fine view of the town and the Lagoon. The altane are such a boon on an airless summer night and can still host quite a variety of flowers resisting to the sun, wind and rain.
To round up this introduction to the Venetian hanging gardens, take a look at this special altana from which you can enjoy a dream view of Venice. It’s an altana con piscina – with a swimming pool on top of the Hotel Hilton on the Giudecca island.5