The Altanas in Venice: A Historical Precedent

January 2021


At Roofscapes, we deploy modular wooden systems on the top of pitched roofs to transform them into accessible spaces, restore urban biodiversity, and increase the city's passive cooling. While this type of construction may be new to mosts cities including Paris, similar typologies have existed abroad in a more distant past. For instance, the 'Venetian Altana,' which has broader roots in several Northern Italian cities, serves as a historical precedent for Roofscapes' initial design.

The word 'Altana' comes from the Italian word for high– alto (1). These unique wooden structures located above Venice's rooftops dated back to the 12th century and were used to escape from the crowded city below (2). Due to the density of Venice's urban fabric, in addition to the city's overwhelming presence of canals, most Venetian homes could not claim a courtyard or private garden. Through the construction of Altanas, city residents were able to recover bright and airy spaces where they could sunbathe, enjoy the evening's coolness after sundown, and gather for recreation.

The Altana structure is a plateau of wooden planks placed on the roof, completely exposed to the natural elements and supported on stone or brick pillars. They are generally located on the side of a skylight, accessed through the attic of houses. Their wooden composition has the benefits of being flexible, light, less subject to cracks, and reversible. However, given their continual exposure to the effects of humidity and salinity in the seaside air, Venetian Altanas require wood pre-treatments and careful material choices.  

With a remarkable view of the city, Altanas have provided an extension of the urban realm and have remained impressive spots from which to marvel at the various shows of Venice's public life. While a mere typological precedent for Roofscapes systems, Venetian Altanas continue to make us wonder about the possibilities of updating our use of the cities’ canopies.

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