The Serenissima “green gold”: log driving from the woods of Belluno to the lagoon

23 August 2021

Venice, 25th June 2021 – In the year in which Cristoforo Colombo sailed from Palos with the three caravels on his way to discover the Americas, Doge Agostino Barbarigo, at the Doge Palace, was signing a statute – the Mariegola – in order to regulate the work of log drivers. It was the 3rd August 1492. The statute is still guarded in the Library of Belluno. In Codissago, a small village within the Mayor of Longarone – on the left side of the Piave river – a unique museum is located: the Museo degli Zattieri, which tells a great part of the history of the Serenissima. A bond that lies on the cut and transport of timber, which for Venice was essential. A story about the life of specialized workers – woodcutters, menadàs, sawyers and log drivers – whose hard task was to bring to Venice the “green gold”. They climbed back the Piave river by wooden raft boats and after a long path they reached the Lagoon, pulled by sailing boats called burchi. In Venice, thousands were the wooden raft boats that supplied the city centre – at least 3000 -, particularly the Arsenal.

The museum – which displays proofs of the methods used all over the world to cut and transport timber by river – it is managed by the association “Fameia zatèr e menadàs de la Piave di Codissago” and by its administrator, Arnaldo Olivier. 

What’s the role of the association? When was it established, and which was the main goal?

The association aims at keeping the memory of brave and strong men, the “zattiere” (log drivers), alive. It was established on November 6th of 1982, the day of San Nicolò, who is our patron saint. Two were the main goals: the recovery of the statue of the “zattiere”, destroyed by the Vajont tragedy, in addition to a log driving memorial descent from Perarolo di Cadore to Venice, to remember our ancestors. Codissago is the village from which generations of log drivers were born. It played a key role since it used to be the main harbour of the ancient river route, where citizens were masters in the art of creating rafts and in the log driving. Moreover, it stretches over the water while at the same time it is surrounded by woods, for centuries it used to be one of the most important river harbours located along the Piave river. Nearby Malcolm bridge - which took the name from the 1800s Villa destroyed by the Vajont tragedy – in the north side of the village, we can still admire the ancient rests of the “roste”, which were the huge man-made barriers through which the log driving descent – from the mountains to the venetian lagoon - was managed.

What is displayed within the Museum?

Theme room on ancient rafts and rooms that testify the growing and cutting of woods, as well as timber deforestation and transport methods, are displayed. The so-called “Menada”, which characterized the floating of timber and the mechanisms used to control and manage its arrival to the sawmill is also documented. In the museum yard there is an ancient “Venetian sawmill”. It dates back to 1883 and is perfectly working. Within the Museum thousands are the objects categorized, among them: thousands of local and foreign rafts miniature, pictures, documents, maps and books. In addition to the tools used by Woodcutters, Carradori (artisan who used to build or repair tools), Menadàs, Sawyers and Log drivers, sleighs used to transport timbers, resin models, stoves, pile drivers, the cidoli (a cidolo is a wooden dam which could be used as a bridge or as a method to stop timbers from flowing and organize them), sawmills and Piave rafts – among which we find the raso, built by using masts of ships - are also displayed.

Who were the “zattieri”?

“Zattieri” or log drivers, were strong and brave men. For centuries, they did a very hard and dangerous job, which was not only essential to provide for themselves and their family’s a livelihood, but it also was very important in order to give a commercial structure to the valleys by contributing to the establishment, growth and glory of a city that it is, still today, one of the most beautiful in the world: Venice. People that did this job were strong and brave. A job that for centuries was the heart of venetian transports of goods and people, necessary to live and upon which their whole survival and their future stood.

Which kind of relationship does your community have with the Serenissima?

The relationship between the Serenissima and our alpine community is a very strong one: Venice roots rely on thousands of timber placed on the bottom of the lagoon. Timber that mainly comes from the woods of Belluno. The relationship dates back to the end of the Roman Empire, when populations ran out of timber from the coastal forest; timber which was necessary in order to build stilt houses. Therefore, they began to look at the mountains of Belluno – mainly the Cadore area – as well as the woods of Friuli, Slovenija and Trentino. Nevertheless, it is believed that a “forest inspector” examined the origin of timber and claimed that, in case timber supply coming from Piave were interrupted, it would be like killing Venice.

How was timber coming from Belluno used ?

The usage was different: let’s think about the whole material used to build the basis, bridges, houses, and palaces but especially the Arsenale (dockyard), main hub of the Venetian navy power. Venice considered timber as its green gold. As a consequence, in the XIV century, the Serenissima decided to protect the woods that were considered as essential, necessary for its growth and power. Indeed, the highest percentage came from the Cadore area: the Bosco di Somadida di Auronzo di Cadore (which is still known as the Bosco di San Marco, which literally means Wood of St. Marks) which timber was used for the aerial of the “galee” (a military boat used in the Middle Ages); the Bosco di Cajada, which timber was used for the “galee” mast and their construction; the wood or forest of Cansiglio, which is still known as Bosco da remi di San Marco (literally the wood of St.Mark’s rows), which was very famous for its beeches, “fagher”, which were used for the creation of the rows of the galee and the Bosco di Roveri del Montello, which timber was used for the keelboat or the ships frame. 

Which were the varieties of timber chosen? Were they implemented to build a specific part of the ship?

Trees that used to be cut were mainly: white fir, red fir and larch. The age of the tree was connected to its ripeness and so to its sale, thickness, and length. The “lares” – larch – was used for working underground and underwater since alterations (humidity and dryness) doesn’t affect this kind of timber. The “lavedìn” – white fire – was used to create buildings and vessels; indeed, the venetian navy used this kind of timber for the ship's mast. Oak soft timber – ròre - was instead used to create buildings and palaces (roofs, ceilings, floor, stairs and so on).

So, it seems that at the end of the 1700s Venice could count on a specific quantity of timber yearly guaranteed.

Since the end of 1700s Venice could count on a great quantity of wood equal to 270/350 thousands of timbers a year, deployed in 13 different sawmills located between Perarolo di Cadore and Faè di Longarone, whose owners had several palaces along the Grand Canal and timber warehouse placed along the eastern Venetian shore. In August, timber merchants went back to the mountains and bought the amount of trees that had to be cut. After the cutting, transport operations began. The so-called Menàda Grande, the transport of timber to the sawmills where sawyers worked around the clock to transform timbers into boards and beams. Afterwards, the log drivers of Codissago built rafts, gave them to people from Ponte nelle Alpi, who climbed back the Piave until Borgo Piave and paid the duty. In the morning, log drivers of Borgo Piave went to Falzè di Piave, 60 km south. There, they paid the duty to Castello di Quero, where a long chain was used to stop timbers from flowing. From Falzè log drivers from Nervesa sailed off to Ponte di Piave, paid the duty and went through the Caligo channel, pulled by some horses. Later they arrived in Treporti, where they waited for the tide to grow, in order to have the timbers pushed towards the lagoon. Once they reached the lagoon and the tide went down, the rafts were pulled by the burchi (big boats used at the time) to the eastern Venetian shore, where Cadorini merchants had warehouses used to store timber. 

When did this activity begin? And how long did it continue?

This business ended at the beginning of the 1600s when streets, bridges and railways were created and so replaced these rather odd methods of transport. These testimonies are related to an historical period that goes from the roman times (II° century A.D.) to the beginning of the industrial society, which wiped out lifestyle habits that lasted unchanged for centuries. Timber floating along the Piave river and goods transported on rafts, for centuries supported the livelihood of people living along the rivers as well as the development of a civilization that should be rediscovered and valued.