Rise above the crowded back streets and canals for a different view of Venice
16.08.2013 - 20.09.2012
Life in Venice can be very confining. Narrow alleys that never feel the sun’s rays. Canals quickly clogged by by more than one gondola or where water taxis manoeuvre through them by touch. Where houses are higher than they are wide, unless you live on the Grand Canal, of course. But Venetians are very adaptable. They conquered living on a timber pylon city with water lapping at their doorsteps, so it was only natural to reach for the sky, to access the sun and take in the vista of Venice from above.
Around 1500AD the first ‘altana’, or roof terrace, was built. A simple open-sided wooden platform primarily for the hanging of laundry to dry in the sun. While not intended to be a focal point of any building, the construction was often basic, simple and often precariously located like left-over scaffolding.
One of the first paintings picturing an altana - by Carpaccio (from the year 1494)
Before long Venetians were finding ways to access their roof tops. This then led to the realisation that the altana had the potential for more use than just drying clothes. Herbs and flowers could be planted in pots as a culinary garden and decoration. Tending the pots and hanging clothes soon became so enjoyable in the warm sunlight that the altana evolved to a place of leisure as well. Family and friends would gather to play and relax. The warm sun transformed living in Venice. Now there was an opportunity to rise from the stuffy, often overheated rooms below to breathe in the fresh air that sailed over the rooftops. A simple structure now became ones own penthouse.
Pianta prospettica di Venezia, from the year 1500 shows roof-top structures spread all over town
In the 1480s it became the fashion for Venetian ladies to have loose curls of hair flow down over their ears to their chin. The desired hair colour was blonde, to attain this, the ladies would sit in the relative privacy of their altana with hair spread out over a large circular disk worn like a hat. With the aid of the juice of a lemon or two and the sun, bleaching would hopefully occur.
Two Venetian Ladies detail of a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio.
Today, the altana is a value-added piece of the real estate in Venice. Furnished with sun lounges, a table and chairs attracts higher rent, or, for the home owner, extra floor space for relaxing and entertaining. Rental apartments make the most of this attribute in their advertising and are heavily sought after and booked well ahead.
An ancient picture of Hotel Concordia facing the Piazzetta dei Leoncini and the northern facade of the Basilica di San Marco
The altana today (from the Concordia brochure)
On my recent visit to Venice I stayed in a top floor apartment with the delightful benefit of an altana. Breakfast overlooking canals and roof tops is a great way to plan the day. With landmarks such as bell towers and cathedrals sprouting from the sea of terra cotta tiles, the panorama opens up like a map for a day of exploring. Though juggling a mug of hot coffee and a plate of toast, eggs and bacon as you ascend the steep steps can be a bit of a challenge.
Internal stairs leading up to the altana at our Ca’ Malvasia apartment
Then, after a day of successfully winding through back streets, crossing countless bridges, several vaporetto canal trips, stopping for a lunch and a glass of Campari, some shopping and sightseeing, the day can be celebrated and discussed over a glass of wine atop your own altana with a soft breeze and the approaching evening light transforming Venice into your own kingdom that you survey from above.
An evening glass of wine with the Teatro La Fenice (Opera House) peeking over the tiles top right.
Our altana as seen from Campo S. Angelo
Santa Maria dei Frari in the background with canal below
Imagine reading a book with your feet up, a Campari resting beside you and no traffic noises below.
A touch of greenery against the greying of age
It’s not all terra cotta and grey from the rooftops
Some altanas must share their high vantage point with satellite dishes
Don’t just look down at the canals, look up. There is greenery in Venice.
Wiring on the roof. Another example of Venetian adaptability but not sure about the safety issue.
Watching the sun rise or go down over Venice can be far more enjoyable from you own high vantage point. Take time out to rest and plan the days activities, or just reflect on the day passing. Point to destinations been to or on the agenda for later. Ease you mind from the overwhelming impact of Venice with the novel you started to read on the plane. Or, end the day with a slap-dash candle-lit evening meal of the cheeses, meats, pasta, sweets and other tasty offerings you discovered during your colourful visit to the bustling markets and stalls of Venice.
Venice is never more yours than presiding over its grandeur from above.