The first time I heard the word altana was at a family gathering to which my aunt was invited. She’d been working in Venice her entire life and had acquired an eclectic mix of mores and sayings and a slightly different turn of phrase that sounded quintessentially insular and quite different from her—our—original countryside dialetto.
She had also gained a few local acquaintances, and with that, invitations to do classic Venetian things like having coffee on an altana on a Saturday afternoon. “My friend Simonetta has this place overlooking Campo San Sebastiano…it’s ideal, really. You get the breeze coming from the Giudecca Canal and a view of the roofs of Dorsoduro. I don’t know how anyone would live in Venice without one.”
“What’s an altana?” I remember thinking. The word sounded exotic and luring and loaded with a hint of forbiddenness. Which, in retrospect, wasn’t entirely inaccurate.
With main structures made of wood and stone, altane are nothing more than a terrace set on top of a roof—don’t call them rooftops, though!—with balaustre-like sides and little stone feet that keep them anchored to the building. Then, the basic structure can be personalised and embellished by any manner of pergolas and shading solutions, as well as benches, tables, lights, pillows and so on. Accessible from the attic through a steep spiral staircase, they make up for a lack of garden or proper terrace and compensate for the shortage of privacy one might feel when living in close proximity with the neighbours across the two-metre-wide calle.
Fast forward a couple of decades and here I am, a resident of Venice myself, thinking about my aunt’s closing statement while sitting on a bench in Cannaregio, my chin up as I stare at a beautiful altana perched atop of a three-story palazzo, shaded by the leaves of a knobbly wisteria. How do you live without an altana in Venice? The honest answer is, you live in slight envy of those who have one. But also, you befriend people who do have one, and wait for that special invitation to be thrown your way. It’s a small world after all.
Venice’s beauty and uniqueness yield, at least in part, from its limitations. Think of its very existence as a city built on poles, or that you have to navigate it exclusively by boat or on foot. Think, too, of how dense and maze-like its layout is. All these features make it special and at the same time, demand a high level of ingenuity in order to make it liveable. With green areas being so few and far between; with private outdoor spaces being so prime-priced and hard to come across; and with square footage being so scarce in general, the only way for Venetians to have their fazzoletto di cielo—their handkerchief-sized place to stare at the stars—is to go higher.
The name altana comes from the Latin word altus, which means—indeed—high. Altane have been in Venice for hundreds of years, and initial testaments to their presence date back to the 1200s. During the Renaissance, local artists like Carpaccio and Bellini included them in their religious paintings set in the city, while Canaletto never failed to portray them in his detail-rich views of the Serenissima at the peak of its splendour. Thousands of them used to tower the buildings of Venice, some serving a role of leisure, while others were used for defence purposes during the many invasions the city had to endure. Today, hundreds are still visible, some surviving the test of time as other new, shiny ones join the team.
Any Venetian would tell you how game-changing having an altana is. Indeed it serves so many purposes—aspects of life that might seem banal elsewhere, but that in Venice are nothing short of small luxuries.
The main purpose is ciapar un fià de aria (to get some fresh air) or ciapar el fresco (to cool off) during the ever-more frequent suffocating summer evenings in which no respite is found inside the stone-walled, badly-insulated, centuries-old Venetian houses. Next in line is tanning and sunbathing. And then: enjoying some winter sun when the house is still freezing cold, lounging around in the open, reading a book or snoozing, catching a breather, witnessing a summer sunset, enjoying a breeze that’s exclusive to higher-up places, hanging the laundry, growing some plants and flowers, watching the Redentore fireworks. Finally, altane are just the perfect place for having people over—for coffee, a prosecco, an easy aperitivo, a slice of anguria (watermelon), you name it.
The sociable aspect of the altana is perhaps the most coveted and most appreciated by those who don’t have one, but are asked to join in. Henry James once called Venice “the repository of consolations”—the ideal place, that is, for anyone feeling let down by life. “The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place could give.”
If Venice is the repository of consolation, then the altana has to be the very place where these forms of consolations take place on a daily basis. There’s nothing a summer sunset enjoyed from the privileged perspective of a rooftop can’t fix, at least momentarily.
The last couple of months have brought forth a lot of altana moments which made summer feel more quintessentially so. Up there, surrounded by friends, and with a cold bottle of wine covered in little droplets, glasses reflecting the warm light of an early evening, seagulls calling at each other all around, the moon that had just risen, a light wind blowing from the lagoon, I often had this sense of liberation and a feeling that nothing could ever go wrong. Not up here at least. Which is why, once you’re up on an altana, it’s so impossibly hard to leave.