Canal Poles or “Pali di Casada”, are colourful and distinctive waterside poles that line Venetian canals; yet most visitors remain unaware of their history and significance.
Translating as “Poles of the Family”; originally, they were located in front of a palazzo to ensure that visitors arriving by boat would recognise it especially night. Traditionally on top of each pole, an oil lamp shed light in the dark. Nowadays, these oil lamps are replaced by modern caps or “cappellozzi”; which they symbolise. With close attention, you will notice the designs are all different in size, design and colour; depending on their location.
Typical wooden Jetties, Balustrades and Pali di Casada – with the “Hand of God” saving Venice
The poles have a decorative function, representing the family colours; which are sometimes even linked to their political affiliation. In the height of the Venetian Republic, they may also have matched the colour of the family gondola. Unfortunately, because of the sheer extravagance and competitiveness of wealthy Venetian families; Doge Girolamo Priuli in 1562 issued a sumptuary law, banning colourful gondolas; decreeing that they must all be painted black. Still today, gondolas used for public service (approx. 400), are by city regulation painted black. However, those used in regattas or for sport, are allowed to be colourful. Nowadays, those fortunate enough to live in the palaces; do not own a gondola. The beautiful poles are purely ornamental, as you are not supposed to moor any boat to them.
Not all the pali da casada have the typical spiralling motif; some resemble a flame, while others are in one colour of the family. Admiring the wide variety of these poles= and caps, can become rather addictive.
Two examples are worth mentioning. The “colours” of the important Foscari family was red. The Ca ’Foscari University has different sites all over the city. Easily recognisable, the pali da casada are painted in red and white stripe with a white top. Perhaps the most exquisite coloured poles, are those at the Palazzo Contarini Fasan along the Grand Canal. They are painted in blue and covered with real gold. You can admire them from the steps of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.
Cantiere Daniele Manin: the dockyard producing the pali da casada and other wooden poles, is an old trade in Venice. The city was built on the water, so manipulating wood was a crucial skill. Their site is located on the south part of the Giudecca. It used to be a cooperative of gondoliers until the year 2000, when Stefano Crosera acquired it as a privately owned the company.
The company is one of the last producers of the original ooden pali da casada in Venice. This is a vanishing profession as some of the new pali are now made of plastic or metal. The company also creates “bricole” the three or more thick poles, strapped together; which you can see all over the lagoon indicating the navigable waterways. Handrails or “corrimani”, are seen around the platforms at water access points or gondola stations.
Creating a palo starts from the selection of the best wood; such as oak, chestnut or acacia. Timber is sourced from around the Veneto regions, such as Cadore; but also, from Romania or France. Once the wood arrives at the yard, it has to be made perfectly round; by first cutting into an octagon and then sanded. This is all done manually and takes approximately two days. The painting is also done by hand and a cord is used to make sure the spiralling lines are perfect.
The last step is the crafting of the cappellozzi, according to the design of the customer and adding it to the top of the pole.
When ready for fitting at the clients site the poles are installed in the water using their special heavy equipment by the use of vibration. This technique enables them to put the poles 2-3 metres in the bottom silt, without damaging the paint during this process. The bricole being less fragile, are knocked into the bottom.
The poles last around 15 – 20 years, before they have to be replaced. After this period, the wood of the poles just above the water level is completely destroyed. This is due to the small insects (shipworms) boring into the wood. It is called the “peste teredine”. As there is no oxygen under water, the bottom part remains intact.
Old wood is not wasted, but recycled; being used to make original furniture, such as tables for private and commercial use. In most cases, the holes created by the insects remain visible, giving an “authentic” look.
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