Did you ever wonder about the ‘pali da casada’, the colourful poles in front of palazzos and hotels along the canals in Venice? These wooden structures are an intrinsic part of the skyline and the architecture of the city. Even though every visitor takes at least one picture of a palo, little has been written about this topic and about the artisans creating these traditional poles.
In this post, I will first tell you about the function of the pali da casada. I will then talk about the Cantiere Daniele Manin, which is one of the last places in Venice where the wooden poles are produced. You will discover how they transform a tree from a forest into a Venetian landmark. Stefano Crosera and Margherita Pasqualato explained me everything about this fascinating detail of Venice and I’m more than happy to share this with you.
Pali da casada
Pali da casada literally means ‘poles of the family’. Originally, the pali da casada were put in front of a palazzo to make sure that visitors would recognize it at night. On top of each pole, an oil lamp shed some light in the dark. The ‘cappellozzo’, which is now the top of the pole, symbolizes this oil lamp. Take a close look because the designs are all different, depending on the choice of the family.
The pole also has a decorative function. The colours represent the family colours, which are sometimes even linked to their political affiliation. It also matched the colour of the family gondola, until Doge Girolamo Priuli issued a ban on colourful gondolas in 1562. Since then, all gondolas (except those used at regatas) are black. Nowadays, the noble people living in the palazzos don’t own a gondola anymore, so this aspect of the pali was lost over time. The beautiful poles are still purely ornamental, as you are not supposed to moor a boat or a gondola to them.
DID YOU KNOW? The colour of the Foscari family was red. You can therefore easily recognize the pali da casada of the Ca’Foscari University at their different sites all over the city. They are painted in red and white with a white top. When you follow a tour of Ca’Foscari, you can take a close look at those at the water entrance along Canal Grande (more information on this in my post ‘Why you will never forget your visit to Ca’Foscari’).
Not all the pali da casada have the typical spiralling motif. Some resemble a flame, while others are in one colour with the family arms. Next time you wonder what to do in Venice, why not spend a couple of hours, or even an entire day, admiring the wide variety of these poles. However, once you start doing this, you won’t be able to pass one without checking it out. It’s almost as addictive as watching the doors in Venice (more info in my post ‘Knocking on beautiful doors in Venice’).
INSIDER TIP: The most exquisite pali da casada are those at the Palazzo Contarini Fasan along Canal Grande. They are painted in blue and covered with real gold. You can admire them from the steps of the Santa Maria della Salute.
Cantiere Daniele Manin
Producing the pali da casada and other wooden poles is an old trade in Venice. The city was built on the water, so manipulating wood was a crucial skill. The Cantiere Daniele Manin is located on the south part of Giudecca. It used to be a cooperative of gondoliers until Stefano Crosera acquired the company in 2000. Hence, it is now privately owned. As a third generation gondolier (more info in my post ‘An insider’s story from the world of gondoliers in Venice’), he used to work at the Cantiere during the quiet winter season. He liked it so much that he decided to change career. His gondola is however still very precious to him, so he keeps it on the dockyard.
Cantiere Daniele Manin is one of the last producers of the original wooden pali da casada in Venice. This is a vanishing profession as some of the new pali are now made of plastic or metal. The Cantiere also creates ‘bricole’, the thick poles strapped together by 3 or more which you can see all over the lagoon to indicate the waterways, and ‘corrimani’, the railing around the platforms at water entrances or gondola stations.
Production of pali da casada
Creating a palo starts from the selection of the best wood. This can be oak, chestnut or acacia. The wood is sourced from the Veneto region such as Cadore, but also from Romania or France. Once the wood arrives at the Cantiere, it has to be made perfectly round. To do this, it is first cut into an octagon and then sanded. This is all done manually and takes approx. 2 days.
The painting is also done by hand. To make sure the spiralling lines are straight, Stefano uses a cord which he stretches from the top to the bottom. He doesn’t use a tape, as some other manufacturers do, as it makes the divisions less perfect. You certainly need a very stable hand to do this.
The last step is the crafting of the cappellozzo, according to the design of the customer, and adding it to the top of the pole.
When the poles are ready, Stefano and his team install them in the canal using their special heavy equipment. The use of vibration techniques enables them to put the pali 2-3 metres in the bottom without damaging the paint during this process. The bricole on the other hand are less fragile and are knocked into the bottom. If you’re lucky, you might see such an installation when walking around Venice. I have seen it already twice and I immediately stopped to watch the process. It is really very impressive.
The poles last approx. 15-20 years before they have to be replaced. After this period, the wood of the poles just above the water level is completely destroyed. This is due to the small insects (shipworms) which make plenty of small holes in the wood. It is called the ‘peste teredine’. As there’s no oxygen under water, the bottom part remains intact.
The old wood is not wasted, but it is recycled. As part of the diversification strategy of Stefano and Margherita, they use it to create furniture, such as tables, for hotels or individuals. In most cases, the holes created by the insects remain visible to give it an authentic look. If you want an original feature of Venice at home, this is certainly a great idea.
Meeting Stefano and Margherita was a real delight. They are the most generous people I met. I want to thank them for their generosity and for sharing their insight in one of Venices landmarks. I also want to thank Mafalda who introduced me to them and suggested this interesting topic. It was a unique experience which I will cherish. I hope you also enjoyed reading about it.
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