by Roderick Conway Morris

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Piave zattieri (rafters) shooting the rapids, late 19th century

Rafting on the Piave Revisited

By Roderick Conway Morris
CODISAGGO, Italy 29 January 1993


Late last summer three craft appeared in Venice of a type that had not been seen there for well over half a century.They were rafts, crewed by villagers from the Belluno region, that had made their way down the river Piave from the Dolomites to the sea.In Venice's heyday 3,000 or more such rafts made this arduous and frequently hair-raising journey every year, shooting the Piave's rapids and negotiating its shifting shoals on the way to the lagoon, to bring wood for buildings, boats and the sea-going vessels on which the Venice's power and wealth depended.

Traditional rafting on the Piave came to an end in the late 1920s, when the first dams for hydroelectricity and irrigation interrupted its flow and railways began to offer a cheaper alternative for freight. But happily the children and grandchildren of the last zattieri, or rafters, learned the art of building and navigating the craft before the last old-timers died during the 1980s.

Last summer's expedition, timed to commemorate the Venetian Republic's granting of a special charter to the Guild of Piave Rafters in 1492, was far from a singular event. At Codissago - one of the mountain communities north of Belluno that for hundreds of years lived by collecting and cutting timber, and constructing and navigating rafts - the villagers have set up an International Center for Raft Studies to gather material on the story of rafting, and have created a rafting museum. Nor is the 'international' epithet a vain exaggeration: the Codissago initiative has already during the last few years stimulated the revival of rafting for study and pleasure in Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, and information and contacts are being sought in countries as far-flung as Bolivia, Romania, Thailand and China.

'Rafting on the Piave,' said Giovanni Caniato, a Venetian historian, archivist and former professional waterman, 'goes back at least to 1200 B. C.And, in the time of the Venetian Republic, it became a very large and sophisticated operation.'

Venetian merchants owned forests, organized the selection and felling of the timber and had it brought down to their own water-powered sawmills on the banks of the Piave.There, the wood was cut into standard size planks and beams, and bound together with specially-cultivated hazel saplings, which were flexible and could be knotted, but were much stronger than rope.

'Though other goods such as charcoal, iron and livestock were sometimes carried, the essential merchandise was the raft itself,' said Caniato.

A normal raft was nearly 20 feet (6 meters) long and weighed around 20 tons. Guiding one with three, and later four, steering oars was exhausting and perilous. At several points along the way, the crews would hand their rafts over to a new team and return on foot to their own village - these 'Rafters' Paths' being amply supplied with hostelries offering wine, women and song to relieve the rafters of their wages. When the rafts finally reached Venice they were dismantled, often on that section of the city's foreshore still called Le Zattere ('the Rafts').

The system of staging and changing crews could not, however, be used in the case of the massive rafts built to convey exceptionally long sections of timber destined for the shipyards of Venice's Arsenal. 'These rafts were 30 to 35 meters long,' Caniato said, 'and once they were launched they were just about unstoppable, so the same crew stayed aboard all the way down to the lagoon.'

When regular rafting ceased on the Piave, said Franco Da Rif, the Codissago museum's director, some of the men from there and the neighboring villages set out to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

On a recent trip to Austria, Da Rif met rafters who had worked with Piave migrants, and discovered that the introduction of the Italians' more expert techniques for building the craft had made it possible to construct rafts higher upstream, since they were better able to withstand white-water buffeting.

'We aim', said Da Rif, 'to meet in different countries every year, build rafts, and make a journey. This year we'll be on the Klaralven in Sweden in early August, and before that we hope to be on the Durance in southeast France in May.'


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023