Chimneys, Roof Terraces (Altana) and Aerials are a characteristic feature of the Venetian skyline; along with the typical red-ochre coloured roof tiles, that cover the city.
Chimney pots (what could be described as the terminal part of the flue or stack), are a dominant and rather iconic feature of the city’s roof-line.
They come in many styles, square or rectangular sectioned, round, barrel or bell shaped and perhaps most picturesque of all – the truncated cone. In some cases, two or more chimneys, merge into a single body in a bilobal or trilobal section.
The truncated cone was historically popular, as it allowed any sparks from wood burning fires, to fall back into the chimney breast. Fires have always been a major threat in Venice, especially when buildings were made of timber; before the era of construction in brick and stone.
(Technical note: you will see that many of the older terminal pots are ventilated. As the hot air from the fire moves up into the terminal pot, it draws in cooler outside air from the ventilation holes; normally situated at the base or in the lower side walls. Any sparks would be rapidly cooled and extinguished).
LEFT: A great example of truncated cone chimneys, can be seen at Palazzo Dario (Ca’ Dario), on the Grand Canal; close to the Guggenheim Museum
Below is another good example, found on a row of houses lining the narrow Rio della Beccarie; immediately north of the Fish Market (also note the partially external chimney breasts).
At the bottom of the picture, are two striped poles each side of what is said to be one of Venice’s oldest wooden bridges. It leads immediately to the “Antica Stile” restaurant, worth a visit for its beautiful interior and great food.
The chimney breasts can be either external, or most commonly partially external or internal.
The “House of Seven Chimneys”, is part of the city’s landscape since ancient times. In this row of terraced houses, the rectangular chimney breasts and flues are located on the outside of the frontage; visually dominating the character of the building.
For a good impression of how chimneys looked in the 15th and 16th C, study the wonderful paintings of Bellini and Carpaccio. Note the elongated flues (section seen below).
In the simplest early houses, the fireplaces were in the kitchen; at the centre of domestic life.
In grander homes, the fireplaces were located at the side of buildings, especially considering the frontage was frequently approached by water.
Fireplaces were in the bedrooms. The main “portego” or large central hall on the ground floor, was for conducting business, trade and storage, and so was unheated. The 3-part structure of Byzantine and Gothic palaces, clearly show this layout.
Very occasionally, another roofline feature are stone “Obelisks”; placed significantly higher than chimneys.
These were the residences of Admirals or Sea Captains; two good examples are to be seen at the Palazzos Balbi and Tiepolo Papadopoli.
ROOF TERRACES (ALTANA)
Roof Terraces or Altana are another feature of the elevated skyline, thought to have originated in the Middle East. The terraces are seen above the roof of the house, the floor-boards supported on pillars and enclosed by wood or iron balustrades.
Altana are valuable outdoor spaces, to keep cool during warm summer evenings, to socialise and dry the washing. The photo below-left shows here, that access to the roof terrace is made from a small attic stairway.
In the past these terraces were highly appreciated. Ladies could not walk freely in Venice, so they were used to talk, embroider and lighten their hair. Another advantage was that they could avoid the smell and filth of the walkways. Platform shoes were a Venetian invention.
During the 16th C, ladies coveted Biondo Tiziano – it was fashionable for ladies to bleach their hair to emulate the flowing golden hair of women, as depicted in the paintings by the great Venetian artist Titian.
On these terraces, women wore unusual wide brimmed hats, that performed a two-fold purpose. Firstly, they protected their skin from the sun – they wanted to avoid the tanned skin of working-class women who laboured outside. Secondly these hats had a large central hole, so that the hair would be bleached, after applying special potions to facilitate the process.
There were interesting tinctures used to assist bleaching, with ingredients such as eggs, sulphur and orange peel mixed with various liquids!
Body-care was held in high regard. They spent hours in front of a mirror, combing hair, lengthening eyelashes, colouring their cheeks and even the cleavage!
To soften skin, they would sleep with their skin covered in slices of veal soaked in milk.
Other extravagant recipes were used for bleaching teeth, hands and feet, colouring nails and perfuming their skin.
It was common practise to fragrance clothes by using special herbal balls and everything was stored in bags and boxes, such as used for coins or rosaries. Popular substances included, musk, amber, aloe, mint and myrrh.
Fragrant water also had some therapeutic value, such as Melissa and macerated musk in wine, said to be useful for heart disease. Soap pills were used for headache and chest pain.
In the 16th C, personal hygiene was a marginal factor. Patrician families had no bathrooms that would fit our current definition. Baths were taken in the bedroom with small basins or wooden tubs, containing little water but liberal doses of perfume!
Roof aerials are the most common feature of the skyline in Venice. Fortunately satellite dishes are rarely seen from ground level.
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