Exploring Roof Terraces in Venice


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 …

For many Venetians owning such a luxurious part of the house, an altana represents a sort of “holiday from everyday life” in a rather crowded town. The altana is sometimes positioned in a seemingly precarious manner almost hovering above the Venetian roof landscape, exposed to sun and wind. You’ll experience parching heat in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Yet, on a summer morning or evening, altane become invaluable, there’s always a slight breeze and you can relax and sit and think. And you’ll certainly enjoy the soft winter days in the sun up here.
You can reach these exposed terraces via staircases, external ones across roof tiles while others are internal opening up directly from the attic to the wooden deck. It may look quite dangerous and perhaps isn’t the right place to come to if a person has problems with balance and walking.

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.

Mangiare su una altana veneziana
Mangiare su una altana veneziana

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. 

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