I Casoni: Vernacular Architecture in the Venetian Lagoon
What is vernacular architecture? What are its characteristics? Are there examples of vernacular architecture in Italy?
Vernacular architecture is a specific kind of architecture. Ronald William Brunskill, the British architectural historian, defines vernacular architecture
‘as that sort of building which is deliberately permanent rather than temporary, which is traditional rather than academic in its inspiration, which provides for the simple activities of ordinary people, which is strongly related to place, especially through the use of local building materials, but which represents design and building with thought and feeling rather than in a base or strictly utilitarian manner.’
Moreover, ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), which is an important NGO linked with UNESCO, stated that building vernacular heritage
‘is the fundamental expression of the culture of a community, of its relationship with its territory and, at the same time, the expression of the world’s cultural diversity.’
According to Brunskill’s definition and ICOMOS’ statement, I think about my area and I found the perfect example of vernacular architecture: I Casoni (in Italian, Casoni is plural; Casone is singular)
I Casoni: an example of vernacular architecture in the Venetian lagoon
In the North-eastern Italy, there are the so-called “Casoni”. The meaning of the word is “big houses”. They were made by materials found by poor people, around where they lived. For this reason, there are different kinds of Casoni.
There are no historical documents about these dwellings. However, the fist proof of the existence of I Casoni is left by Titian and Giorgione, two of the most famous Venetian artists of the 16th century. For example, in “Sacred and Profane Love”, Titian painted I Casoni in the background. Therefore, I Casoni have existed at least since 1500.
In the Venetian lagoon (WHS since 1987), in particular in Caorle, there is the most number of Casoni. They were the ancient houses of fishermen who worked in the lagoon. Which is the material that fishermen found in the lagoon? Is there a construction regulation? Is there something different from the ancient Casoni?
In order to know something more about I Casoni, I take a day off for a bike outing on the Casoni path and I involve two friends of mine: Veronica and Chiara.
A day off: bike outing on the Casoni path in Caorle
After a breakfast on the beach in Caorle, Chiara, Veronica and I start our adventure discovering I Casoni. We rent three bikes and we go to Falconera, where the cycle path starts and it continues along the Nicesolo canal.
It is a sunny day and the colours of the lagoon are beautiful. After few meters, we see the first Casone. It is in the middle of the lagoon, so there is a wooden path to reach the Casone. When we arrive at the entrance of the Casone, we meet the Casone’s owner and his friend. They are happy to meet us because we are young and curious.
They let us visit the interior of the Casone. It is beautiful. There are three steps to access to the main room. Inside, there are two wood tables and, on the wall, there are a lot of historical pictures of the lagoon. Without hesitation, I ask some questions to the owner about the history of I Casoni. The owner says
“There are more or less 113 Casoni between the Livenza river and the Tagliamento river. In Caorle, there are 83 Casoni”.
He says also that he is restructuring the Casone and if we want, we can organise also dinners or lunches with our friends. He has a catering service. After the greetings, we continue our bike ride.
After some metres, we see a dock on the lagoon and we go there. While we are admiring the beauty of nature, we see a touristic boat. It is the Arcobaleno boat. Every day, it starts its route from the historical centre of Caorle and it continues through the lagoon. In this way, a tourist can see I Casoni from the lagoon. The boat stops for 15 minutes in a Casone. Tourists can visit it and they can meet the owner.
After this stop, we continue the bike ride on the path and we see other Casoni. In one of them, there is a car and we suppose there is the owner inside, so we stop. We are right: we meet the owner, Sandro, and a group of tourists follows us.
He welcomes us and he offers us a cup of coffee -I always love the Italian welcome. I ask him if he is the owner of the Casone and its history. He says:
“My wife is the owner of this Casone. My Casone is at the beginning of the path. I’m a fisherman and I spent the most part of my time here. I can say that it is my house. The Casone was built by the poor fishermen. Fishermen’s family lived here. Nowadays, it is a storage for the fishing equipment”.
A tourist asks him
“Do you rent the Casone?”
and Sandro answers
“No, I don’t. It is too dangerous. It is made by poor materials and it is easy that it catches on fire”.
In fact, Casone’s is made with canna palustre (Phragmites australis), a reed which grows in the Venetian lagoon.
After a cup of coffee, we come back on our way.
On the path, there are a lot of Casoni and they are very exotic.
At the end of the path, we find the famous “Island of Fishermen”. We leave our bikes and we continue the way on foot.
We visited another Casone.
We meet the owner and his wife, Raimondo, and Adelina, while they are preparing the traditional lunch: fish and polenta.
When I start the interview, I discover that he is not an owner like others, he is the person who knows the traditional construction regulation of the original Casone. He tells us the history of I Casoni.
“I Casoni have existed since 500 BC. The lagoon is the meeting point between the water of the rivers (freshwater) and the sea water (salt water). For this reason, it is full of fish. Poor people went to the lagoon for fishing. I Casoni were houses for families and they spent there all the year. Someone says that I Casoni were used as houses only between September and November because of the eel fishing, the period called “fraìma”. It is not correct. All members of the family stood here for the whole year. A group of 12-13 fishermen went fishing; women sewed or made the fishing nets; children learnt the fishing rules.
At a previous time, there were 400-500 Casoni in Caorle. After the Second World War, Americans left a lot of wood here and people stole it to build new houses, the so-called Baracche. I Casoni were abandoned. For this reason, nowadays, there are few Casoni.
The original Casone is built with the canna palustre and wood used only for the structure. The base is elliptical and the proportions are:
– Length: Width X 2
– Width: ½ Length
– Height: ½ Length
The entrance of the Casone must be oriented to the South-West, and the back is oriented to the North-East because of the cold winds from the North. The floor is made by clay court. The walls and the roof are made by bundles of canna palustre.
The sloping roof is perfect against the frequent rain in the Venetian lagoon. There are no windows, no chimney, no portico. Near the Casone, there are the so-called Cavane. They are structures made with canna palustre. They were storages for fishing gear and the boats. Inside the Casone, there is an open space, no rooms. In the back, there is a fireplace and the smoke passes throughout the roof made with canne palustri. All members of the family slept in benches. There are no beds.
This is not the original Casone of my family. In fact, two years ago, someone sets the Casone of my family on fire. I really don’t know the reason. Fortunately, my father and my grandfather handed down to me the traditional rules and I was able to rebuild the original Casone.
In Caorle, there are only two original Casoni. They are becoming more “touristic”. On one hand, it is positive because a lot of people is attracted here and they can know the history of our land and our families. On the other hand, it is damaging for the tradition. I hope I can hand down the original construction regulation to my nephew. He helped me to rebuild the Casone and I hope he will continue the tradition”.
People like Raimondo and his wife are preserving the millenarian tradition. For example, they speak in Venetian dialect. In the Casone, there are a lot of pictures of the construction’s phases. They built the Casone with the original standards, they live remembering their traditions and they are very happy to share with tourists or curious their knowledge and history. They are very proud of their traditions and their memories. This is how we can preserve the memory.
After this interesting interview, my friend and I visit the rest of the “Island of Fishermen”. There is an area in which there are a lot of Casoni, all of them are different. They have the roof and a circular base. Unfortunately, in these Casoni, there are no owners and the Casoni seem abandoned.
When we come back on the Casoni path, I see the Casoni that I have seen before the interview. I understand what Raimondo means with “touristic Casoni”. In the Casoni in which we have met the nice men, there are a lot of no traditional aspects. For example, in the first Casone, we have visited, there are also an elegant wood flooring and a beautiful kitchen and I really don’t think it is a traditional heritage. In the second one, there are the chimney and the windows.
After this day off, through the vernacular architecture of the Venetian lagoon, I discover a real heritage. I Casoni are dwellings with specific techniques of construction, like proportions and materials. Nevertheless, there isn’t a construction regulation. The lack of strict rules for the restructuration is dangerous for the traditions. Therefore, a legal document must be written and all the owners must follow the rules.
At the same time, I Casoni hold more than architectural rules. I Casoni represent a specific way of life, handed down from one generation to another. It is characterized by a perfect balance between man and nature. In the Casone, people lived in poor conditions. In this way, people learnt to stay together, to help each other, and to cooperate with the nature.
Nowadays, it is impossible that people re-live the true life of poor fishermen of the last century. For this reason, we should find a new life for I Casoni. I hope they the memory of I Casoni will not dead with Raomondo’s generation, but it continues.
If we don’t preserve the traditional aspects, we will have Casoni more beautiful, more comfortable, but we will forget the real meaning of the Casone and the millenarian tradition of our forebears.
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