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A Garden in Venice

Garden art & lifestyle

Le Altane - Venetian rooftop terraces in the limelight

Have you noticed that Venice is a vertical city, because it can be quite a narrow environment sometimes on the ground level. Even gardens can become vertical, and that there are 3 types of vertical gardens in Venice. In this post I am writing about the roof-top gardens that are positioned on the altana structures, and will present a particularly beautiful altana to you.
Compare this roof-top landscape of today (source Bing) of the Castello / San Zaccaria area with the ancient one depicted in the pianta prospettica by Jacopo de' Barbari (1500)  below. Almost all houses have roof-top garden-like elements with a rather unhindered view of the sky, and many buildings boast the altane.
Last August when this blog was quite new I wrote about the Hanging Gardens above Campo Santa Maria Formosa and promised to be back in 2013 to relate more on these hanging and airy places, which for many Venetians represent a sort of "holiday from everyday life" in a rather crowded town. The altana (a structure which might be translated as terrazza pensile in Italian) is a defining feature of the Venetian tessuto urbano (urban landscape), and is sometimes positioned in a seemingly precarious manner, often seeming to hover above the Venetian roof landscape. 
Quite high and exposed: altana in the midst of roof tiles and the chimneys: you  usually reach the altana via narrow staircases and scale through the attic (scale a chiocciola most often) 
The main source I am tapping when writing about the altane hanging gardens is the book "Le Altane di Venezia" by Giorgiana Bacchin Reale and Elisabetta Pasqualin, which was available in Venetian bookstores some 20 years ago.  Fortunately I found this book on our shelf, and it is now on my desk ready for me to provide excellent guidance to discover the history, usage and advantages the altane present to us. 
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 "atana" overlooking rio San Polo. Up to the 12th century it seems that there were no altane as the town was not yet settled so densely and houses were flatter and consisting mainly of woodwork. And the building ground on the islands making up Venice, formerly swampy, had not yet been consolidated enough to support stone buildings. 
One of the first paintings picturing an altana - by Carpaccio (from the year 1494)
Pianta prospettica di Venezia, from the year 1500 shows roof-top structures spread all over town
From the 12th century onwards, the cityscape changed, as stone houses with 2-4 floors were built, enriched and decorated with strutture sporgenti - structures emerging from the house, such as terraces, balconies and the altane of course. And so the inhabitants of Venice began to build, decorate and then use their altane, much as they do today: dry their washing, take the sun, take a break, read a book, have breakfast or a tea party and cultivate their pot plants, by creating those much loved and 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 that take well the rather exposed position to sun, wind and rain.
Luxurious altana in front of the typical  rosso veneziano colors background to take a break on a hot summer day (giornata afosa)
Generally speaking, for gardens to prosper in Venice you have to take into account roughly 3 gardening micro climates: the micro climate valid for gardens on ground level differs from the one for vertical garden-like features in-between (loggias, windows, balconies, terraces), and for gardens on roof tops. Not all flowering plants, herbs and shrubs support all locations, as not all plants support being exposed to the blazing sun light or dark corners in the courtyard lacking sun. 
Roof top look-out  post, slightly more attached to a building next to the Rialto bridge - a liagò structure (this one will be described in another post).
To round up this introduction to the Venetian hanging gardens, I would like to present to you a very special altana from which you actually get a dream view of Piazza San Marco - and what is best, it is accessible for the public as it is Hotel Concordia's altana. Enjoy the pictures and imagine what it must be like to take your breakfast there on a warm spring morning...
Breakfast with a very special view: These are pictures from their homepage, I could not resist showing it on this blog ...
I find that petunias, plumbago and laurels are plants that take well to the exposed microclimate of the altane
An ancient picture of Hotel Concordia which is facing the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, right opposite the northern facade of the Basilica di San Marco
This is the altana of Hotel Concordia in early, on a spring rainy day, with sun shades removed, a picture I took from below - zooming in on the altana - one would not imagine how beautiful the view is from up there ... 


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