The “Altane” are structures located above the rooftops of Venice characterizing the architecture of the city, a sort of wooden terraces supported by pillars. If you have the opportunity to stand on a church tower or rooftop of a building, or if you just look up while walking through the calli of Venice, for sure you’ll notice a few.
The “altana” is not however a true terrace. The structure is made up of a tray of wooden boards exposed to the sun and winds, resting on the roof. It rests on small pillars, with perhaps a side leaning against the loft through which you will be able to go outside, often hitting your head against it after climbing into the house through the attic.
In a city where the urban structure is formed by a maze of often shaded narrow streets, the function was to obtain from the Altana some sunny and airy areas where you could dry clothes or simply sunbathe.
During the period of the Republic of Venice, Venetian women used to bleach their hair sitting on the altane. To do this they used a dye called Bionda (Blond) or Acqua di Gioventù (Water of Youth) which had to be spread on the hair and which had to dry in the sun. They had to repeat the treatment few times . Thus, in warmer weather, the women armed themselves with a “schiavoneto”, a white silk scarf which they put on their shoulders, and a “solana”, a straw hat with a hole in the central crown through which they would pass their dye bleaching wet hair.
In 1865 a book in Paris talks about this fashion, the book goes by the title “Les femmes blondes selon les Peintres de l’école de Venise“, the work of Armand Baschet and Feuillet de Conches. A recipe of this tincture has reached us nowadays, handed down by John Grewembroch:
“Lume di rocca oncie sei, vitriolo oncie quattro, salnitro oncie due, il tutto distillato con acqua – oglio di miele e rosso d’ovo mischiato assieme – lissiva di cenere di vite, paglia di orzo, scorza di liquerizia, limature di bosso, e zafran, comin, reobarbaro tagliato a minuto e posto in decorazione di foglie, e ramificazione di ghi, lasciandolo sopra fuoco lento dopo alquanto bollito; indi con una sponga spesso si bagna i capelli, e si asciugano con pezze calde, ch’è meglio se si seccassero al sole“.
“Lume rock six ounces, four ounces of vitriol, two ounces saltpetre, all distilled with water – honey oil and the yolk of egg mixed together – lissa Ash vines, barley straw, bark of liquorice, filings of box, and saffron, cumin, chopped rhubarb and placed in the decoration of leaves, and branching of ghee, leaving over a slow fire after a little boiled, then with a sponge often get the hair wet, and dry with hot patches, which is better if you dry in the sun. ” (got to try this out!!!)
The roof terrace is made up of floorboards which let pass light and air, but do not go with your preferred jewellery on the altana, otherwise it soon will be on the canal below or in the mouth of a passing seagull.
The roof terrace is not for plants or sun umbrellas or for people like me who suffer from Vertigo! It is made for the wind, the light, the void.
The roof terrace is an alien place where you can just isolate yourself and at the same time a “local” service, you can see few of them on the Grand Canal but never on the top of the monumental façades or of important buildings.
But just look up while you walk in Venice and you will soon spot one.
With the Altana, Venetians could LOOK AFAR!!!!