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Life on the roofs of Venice: altanas

What is a sotoportego, a campo, an altana ...? Venice has its own vocabulary to distinguish the architectural elements of the city.

Today we discover looking up at the sky: THE ALTANAS

Altana Venecia
Altana from ehere you can see the Basilica of San Marco and the Campanile
A new curiosity stands out when visiting Venice. Its raised terraces on pilasters like observation turrets on top of the sloping roofs, are the altanas (from the Latin altus, high). It is not something specific to few buildings but is widespread throughout the city.


The always somewhat restricted space in this city, bordering on the claustrophobic, stimulated the imagination and ingenuity of the Venetians.

The proliferation of this type of terraces was due to the intricate and saturated urban layout of the city, where there has always been a very high percentage of homes without lighting, without sun, without direct ventilation ... and therefore, without place to hang the clothes out, without views, without the possibility of the sun heating them ...

Therefore, the uses of these hanging terraces have been various: sunbathing, hanging clothes out, admiring the landscape, and even a "cosmetic use", which you can discover if you follow reading.

In summary, altanas are a way of escaping from houses locked in the alleys of the city.

The intricate urban layout of Venice


During the Renaissance, hair had to be blonde, and the altana was related to the hair dye known as "youthful water", a liquid made with spices, herbs and even horse urine (which carried ammonia, like current hair dyes).

So, here we find Venetians women in the altanas, sunbathing with the solana, a wide-brimmed straw hat with a hole in the central area, where a sponge (sponzeta) dipped in this liquid was placed on the head.

Woman in altana dyeing her hair witn sun rays

and after putting it on her head, they spent hours, days or weeks sunbathing with this brew on their head. The sun's rays helped the dye to react and give the hair golden highlights. Although you have to know that the Venetian blonde was actually slightly coppery.

Venetian women with Venetian blond hair in paintings by Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1520)

The recipe, if you want to try Venetian blond ... is in the Correr Museum.


The origin of the altanas is very old as many paintings show: those of Vittore Carpaccio (Miracle of the Holy Cross-in front of the old wooden bridge of Rialto), Gentile Bellini (Procession of the Relic of the Holy Cross), or engravings such as that of Jacopo Barbari, all works from the 15th or early 16th century, and which can also be seen in many of the Venetian vedutisti (landscape painters) from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

In the lower gallery you can see the altanas in various Renaissance paintings:

Procession in San Marcos by Bellini (painting exhibited in Galerias de la Academia)

Miracle of the Holy Cross in Rialto de Carpaccio (painting exhibited in Galerias de la Academia)

Map of Barbari (1500). The engraving is in the Correr Museum


Nowadays, altanas are prized goods and are sought to enjoy panoramic views of the city on the heights accompanying the sunset with a Prosecco or a spritz in a "chill out" atmosphere

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