The Dolomites mountain chain is part of the Alps and can be viewed from Venice on clear days. Those blue peaks are a couple of hours drive far from Venice and it is there where timber rafts started their journey all the way to the lagoon between the early 15th and the 20th centuries. What did those rafts look like? How was timber rafted? And what can we see in Venice that tells us about alpine villages?
The Dolomites and its rafts: the Zattere (rafts) and the “zattieri” (raft builders and drivers)
In 1420, in the middle of the military campaign to conquer the Northern Italian peninsula, the Venetian State acquired the Cadore region in the Alps. Having already deforested the woods near the lagoon, the Cadore was essential for a city that needed wood as air. Spruce, fur, larch, beech trees. Foundations, houses, but not just (www.seevenice.it/en/wood-in-venice-almost-invisible-but-ever-present/).
The Forest of Somadida
Somadida is the name of a forest in the region of Cadore, not too far from Cortina d’Ampezzo. Donated in 1463 to Venice, this wood was also called the Wood of St Mark’s Trees as its spruce trees would eventually become the masts of the Venetian navy. A spruce tree usually grows slowly, but if placed somewhere protected from the wind, in a narrow and dark valley, the moment the tip reaches the sun, then it beautifully grows reaching an important height and losing its lower twigs. Perfect for a galley’s mast.
When you explore the wood in these days, you will find, illuminated in the sun rays on a large open field, a perfect replica of a “raso”. There were different kinds of rafts, but the “raso” was the very one which used to be built here to bring the timber to the Arsenale in Venice. Imagine that in 1597 the Cadore region exported 80,000 cubic meters of timber to Venice and half of the wood would be used to build over 140 ships.
A special raft, the “raso”
The word “raso” refers to the fact the raft was floating at the water level —as you say when a drinking glass is so full the liquid is up to the brim. This kind of raft has an amazing size. Two masts placed on the sides of 28 meters of length (almost 92 feet), but if you consider the oars, it is 33 meters long (more than 108 feet). Its width is 4,20 meters (13,8 feet). What made the Veneto Cadore rafts special is also the way the logs were bound together. Bonds were made of young hazelnut shoots or withes, which in contact with the water would swell and therefore tighten the knots perfectly. Much better than a rope would. Not to mention, much cheaper!
You will notice this raft is composed of boards, squared and round logs which were prepared in the sawmills before being shipped to Venice. Imagine 18 people driving it down the rivers all the way to Venice!
The Dolomites’ dams: the “stua” in Padola
As waterways not always had the right quantity of water, in the Dolomites you would find a kind of artificial dam, called “stua”. This is what you can see in Padola, a dam reconstructed in 1818, but in fact dating back to 1521. When the flood gates were closed, the level of the water would rise and finally, when the central mouth was opened, the force of the water flushed the logs down the river to the town of Perarolo.
Who built the rafts in the Dolomites?
While trees were cut down in September and during the winter time, logs were kept at the side of a river, it was in the spring, when rafts were built. First of all, though, they were auctioned off and marked with the “famiglia” symbol and then recorded and finally floated.
The Zattieri, the raft builders, would leave the town of Codissago early in the morning (3am or even earlier), walked uphills for 23 kilometers and reached the town of Perarolo. Perarolo was the seat of the headquarters of the timber floating industry and it was there where the rafts were assembled. Wood reached Perarolo transported partially by water and by carts, if waterways were not available. On those rafts you could transport all kinds of goods, imagine also heavy boxes of metal objects prepared by blacksmiths, too, such as nails, or charcoal, iron and quarried stone or cattle.
The journey of the rafts
From Perarolo, rafts were floated to Codissago where different “zattieri” would take care of the them. From Codissago to Musile di Piave, then Treporti in the lagoon and thanks to the tides they reached the Lido inlet. There, transported by “burchielli” sailing boats, they reached the Arsenale.
When finally in Venice, rafts were disassembled as the timber they were made of was the timber they carried!
That of the “zattiere” was a hard and dangerous job. Shipwrecking, bad weather. It was easy to lose your life while carrying even 40 tons. A job with a lot of responsibility as those rafts also carried men or women. Two rafts per day, three days to reach Venice for people full of hopes and dreams to leave poverty and hunger behind…
Some locations in Venice related to the history of rafts Zattere
It is not clear when the last raft left the Dolomites. Maybe in 1921 or 1925. Even if boat builders in Venice complained about the wood transported via train — too dry and hard to work— the railway replaced waterways. Even dams for electrical power plants deprived rivers of their water and turned water transport into an inefficient system.
For over 100 years rafts have no longer reached Venice. But you can still see a lot related to that history, starting from any truss or wooden work you see in Venetian buildings.
How about the Sacca della Misericordia in Cannaregio? It was the arrival port for these rafts and their people, certainly not St Mark’s basin where wealthy merchants’ ships docked. Or the campo dell’Abbazia, where family members, the ones arriving and the ones who had already migrated to Venice rejoined. And the “Zattere”, along the southern part of Venice, of course.
The squeri in Venice and the Tabia (or Tabiarél) in the Dolomites
You can also see some squero, the typical boatyards of Venice, which indeed resemble the traditional Dolomites’ “tabià” or “tabiarèl”.
As in the Zoldo valley where these migrants used to live, eating only polenta and suffering from pellagra, these wooden structures appeared in Venice at least four centuries ago. A Tabià is a deposit of hay, characterized by some openings along a large balcony to allow for air ventilation. Tools were stored on the lower part, it could also provide goats and its owners with some protection. Fir wood darkened giving them that special almost black color.
The frescoes by Ninetta Casal-Besarel
In a private home in Venice there is an extraordinary work that likely reflects the nostalgia these mountain families felt of their valleys. According to the curator of the exhibition “Le barche dei Casal”, it was Ninetta Casal-Besarel (1900-1980) who in the 1920-50s painted the internal walls of her house in Venice with large frescoes representing the Dolomites’ life and work.
After studying at the Fine arts school in Venice, Ninetta also made beautiful watercolors which witness in a more sentimental way the fascinating history of Venice and the Dolomites.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
For a detailed history, a precious source of information is the article by Mauro Agnoletti, From the Dolomites to Venice: Rafts and River Driving along the Piave River in Italy (13th to 20th Centuries), The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology, Vol. 21, No. 1 (1995), pp.15-32.