The Museum of Wood in Ovaro: Interesting Historic Compound with
Venetian Sawmill.

1. The Woodlands of Carnia: A Permanent Resource

Over time, woodland has been one of the main resources that have guaranteed the survival of the people of Carnia. In order for woodland to be appropriately valued, and so to become a resource, however, man had to learn to manage it – and this would once be done in a respectful way, so to make use of this resource only for the amount that was necessary in order to guarantee its renovation and conservation. The geological layout, the morphology of the terrain, the climate and – last but not least – the intervention of man: all these factors determine the extension and the composition of the forest cover in a given area, and whoever wants to manage this resource wisely must take these factors into account.

In Carnia, since the first documents that have described the region and, progressively, measured the extension and composition of its forests, is attested the presence of mixed woodland. Niccolò Grassi, author of the ‘Description of the Province of Carnia’ (1782) – one of the first contributions on the history of this mountainous region – maintained that woodland here was «rich (…) in tall Spruce, Pine, Larch trees, which served mostly to be used for ships, and industries; they are, however, mostly sent around Friuli, Venice and the Marches of Ancona (for the shipping industry), and to other – even more distant – lands, by leading them down the Tagliamento (river) and the Piave». To Norway Spruce and Silver Fir, together with Scots Pine and Larch, one must add Beech: one of the most sought after species in Carnia, which, however – for its relative commercial value at the time – was not mentioned by Grassi. In fact, he continues by saying that «the boards of Spruce (‘albeo’), and of Larch, that are obtained from the woodlands of Carnia, are bought by the merchants and are sold abundantly in Venice and Senigallia (in the Marches), and henceforth transported via the sea to various parts of the world».

The commercial importance of woodland in the economy of Carnia was such also in reason of their wide extension, which equated only that of pastureland and of the ‘malghe’ – the dairy pens where animals were kept and bred. Conversely, the surface that could be used for agricultural purposes was at all negligible, and such to make Carnia a territory almost completely dependent on the plains for its food provisions. «For the scarcity of its farmland», continued Grassi – «and for the rapacity of its rivers and streams, which fall from the mountains to the plains with incredible impetus, and are not held into any riverbed whatsoever, thus taking away with them great quantities of earth, stone, and everywhere ruining the countryside, the Province (of Carnia) is so lacking in wheat that one cannot feed the necessary fodder to the animals, and thus guarantee the survival of the population, if not for three – or little more – months a year».

The distribution of cultivations, measured by cadaster experts during the first half of the 1800s, sheds light on the presence of Beech, Norway Spruce, Silver Fir, Larch and Scots Pine. Almost completely absent – differently from what happens in many other Alpine areas and in the hills – is Chestnut, whose fruit does not appear in the dining halls of the Carnian people, if not marginally. The thrust towards the progressive substitution of Beech in favour of Norway Spruce, undertaken in the first few decades of the 1800s by the Austrian administration, conditioned the vegetal cover in some areas. These interventions, little respectful of the forest composition, today are not practiced anymore; woodland, in fact, is seen nowadays not just as a dispenser of products, but as a relevant organism in the ecosystem in its own right. The safeguard of the territory and its protection from landslides and avalanches – highlighted also by Grassi – are thus guaranteed by a correct woodland management, able also to contain the erosive and sometimes violent action of water (as displayed, sometimes, by the streams and rivers of Carnia).       

2. Between Property and Possession

Having access to woodland means exercising a right on an indispensable resource. The composition of the different forms of property and possession over the woodlands of Carnia is the result of an articulated historic process, one in which there were different actors: the village communities, the feudal ‘Signorie’, the city-states (the Patriarcato di Aquileia, the Republic of Venice, the Lombardo-Veneto), the Kingdom of Italy and the Italian Republic after that; finally, also the role played by the private citizens is to be taken into account.

At the beginning of the 1600s, the ‘Dominante’ (another name for the Republic of Venice) carried out the first so-called ‘catastico’ (list) of communal properties. It was on that occasion that – for the whole region of Carnia, and for the first time – the judicial nature of woodlands (which were a considerable number) as assets was established.  The Venetian state attributed to the village communities (the so-called ‘ville’) ‘enjoyment’ and custody of many of these properties, following an investiture act – but it kept the ownership. Even so, the richness that was derived for the communities was enormous: having the direct use of a woodland for the supply of fuel – as well as the necessary quantities of timber needed for the construction and maintenance of the homes, or in order to obtain monetary gain by renting the woodlands to merchants – were prerogatives almost unknown to other communities, especially those over the plains. The enormous heritage at disposition of the mountain communities – borrowing once again the words of local historian Niccolò Grassi – allowed the making of a «considerable turnout (…), whenever the directors and the Chiefs of the ‘ville’ exercised, in the respective ‘Comuni’ (municipalities), a faithful economy of the profits» (1782).

Only the ‘originari’ (that is, the heirs of a family lineage who kept a ‘fuoco’ – fire – lit in the village) could enjoy these rights, while the ‘foresti’ – the people coming from abroad – were strictly excluded from these benefits. In virtue of the richness of the woodlands, respect of their borders – that is, of the particles belonging to the individual owners and possessors – was the source of many litigations. Sometimes, by reaching a resolution, the boundaries were fixed with the help of boundary stones (known as ‘colonèi’), marked with a cross and the initials ‘CX’; that is, ‘Consiglio dei Dieci’ – the feared judicial magistrate of the Republic of Venice, which held jurisdiction also over the crimes committed in the woodlands.

Under Austrian rule, the woodlands owned by the communities often became property of the ‘Comuni’, which administered them, and still keep the vastest single extensions of forest to this day; but in other cases – and with a continuity that spans over centuries – the woodlands have remained property of the communities, and part of the so-called ‘beni civici’ (‘common goods’). Beside the private extensions and those of a feudal nature, which – despite being exiguous – were not lacking, this articulated scenario was completed by a portion of the so-called ‘boschi banditi’ (described in more detail below): these were the result of the multiple needs that woodlands were called to fulfil. In 1580 the Senate of the Republic of Venice claimed 47 woodlands within the territory of Carnia to the exclusive use of the State: subtraction of these estates from the communities was the object of harsh criticism; the ‘ville’ intended to demonstrate the direct link between the right to own the woodlands and the survival of the ‘faithful citizens (subjects) of the Republic’. This public heritage is at the origin of the properties still managed today by the ‘Consorzio Boschi Carnici’. Such a variegated picture, in which co-existed (and still co-exist) different modalities of owning and managing the woodlands, demonstrates that the abundance of a resource is such also in virtue of the possibility of being able to access it, and of transporting its products far and wide, even at great distances: these are the restrictions that regulate – but also give life – to the so-called “wood industry” (‘filiera del legno’) still today.

3. Woodland Use

Woodlands, for many European societies, have been – and still are, to an extent – indispensable resources for the survival of the local populations. In daily life, wood once was – as the French historian Fernand Brandis has put it, creating a famous formula – ‘omnipresent’; this is even more true for the Alpine populations, which are particularly rich in this resource, and that from wood obtained material goods and economic gain. Before the affirmation of fossil carbon – and, more recently, of fossil fuels in general – wood was the main (and often the only) source of energy available. With this raw material, therefore, people would heat their homes and cook; the structures of a dwelling – the beams, roof lintels, the roofs themselves (covered with wooden slices known as ‘scandole’); the walkways, terraces and balconies; the stairs – were all built mainly in wood. Also the shelters for the animals and for storing hay had in wood an indispensable building element: ‘stavoli’, barns, sheep-pens, pigsties and hen-houses were all built in wood.

The link between woodland and house, in Carnia – and in the Alpine valleys in general – was so strong that the word ‘fuoco’ (fire) came to be a synonym for family, and also for the individual homes where every family dwelled. Keeping the fire alight for a home, therefore, would be equated with giving continuity to the family, from one generation to the next. At the same time, defending oneself from fire and its dangers – for a society based on this material – was a consuetude overseen by a widespread devotion to San Floriano (protector against fire). In wood were also built the utensils and tools used for agricultural work, the locks, the pieces of furniture in the homes and the altars in the churches; as a matter of fact, expertise in the art of woodcutting and woodcarving belongs to many Alpine areas still today.

Transport – on the roads, meadows, snow and even on water – also happened thanks to means of transportation built manly in wood: carts, sleighs, rafts. The mobility of man and goods was guaranteed by a knowledgeable use of wood: one would walk with clogs; rivers were crossed on bridges; even roads were protected to their sides – by the strength of water – by defenses built in wood. The industries in the cities and over the plains, since the Middle Ages, would also employ wood coming from Carnia for their uses. Venice – one of the biggest metropolis in Europe until the end of the Modern age – consumed large quantities of wood: for heating up the homes and the many ‘palazzi’; for the foundations of its massive buildings, and to reinforce the canals in order to ‘steal’ some vital space from the sea; the Arsenal also needed wood for the shipbuilding industry and – last but not least – the glass factories used large quantities of this material too.         

4. The ‘Filiera del Legno’ (“Wood Industry”): in the Woodland

With the expression ‘filiera del legno’ (“wood industry”) one must intend that set of activities, technologies and investments adopted in order to value this important resource. Each phase will be briefly described here. The first phases of this process start in the woodland as the plant is still standing.

Selection and choice: the cuts known as ‘a scelta’ (‘chosen’) or ‘saltuario’ (‘irregular’) are the most widespread in Carnia. These are particularly respectful of the woodland: if cuts are being carried out in the correct way – that is, by securing the right balance between growth and outtake of raw material – they are a guarantee of conservation for the forest cover. The time for the cuts respected (and still respects) the vegetative phase of rest for the different species: from October to April for the copses (as for instance Beech); for the conifers, instead, one would proceed from the moon in September, after the so-called ‘vecjo de luna’ (‘old moon’), when the plant closes its cycle of annual growth.

The choice of the different plants was sanctioned by the ‘martellata’ (the marking of the plant with a hammer): a small portion of the bark would be removed with the aid of a specific hammer in order to create the so-called ‘specchio’ (literally, ‘mirror’), where the seal of the proprietor or of the owning community would be put (the same printed in relief on the head of the hammer too); with this same seal would then also be marked the tree stump. The estimate and choice of plants to be felled was an operation to be carried out in the autumn, and it would take place with the help of experts that established the cuts to be made on the basis of the diameter of the different plants, as measured at waist level. At that height, the plant should have a diameter superior to 10 ounces (around 29,000 cm), measured with a light and flexible chain, or with a wood (or ‘dendrometric’) tripod.

Felling: Before felling a tree, it would be carefully examined, in order to avoid the fact that, if falling down from the side of the densest canopy, the branches could damage or even break the younger plants below. The conductors would choose the direction of the fall, which was determined by going through two operations: the ‘intaccatura’ (or marking; that is, the creation of a V-shaped opening in the direction chosen for the fall at the base of the plant), and a minor cut in order to prepare for the out-and-out cut on the side opposite to the ‘intaccatura’. Felling of the plant would ensue; the cut was carried out with the help of an axe with a long handle and narrow blade. Only during the latter part of the 1800s the alternated use of a large saw (known as ‘segone’) and of the ‘manaria’ appeared – the latter tool was preferred by the woodworkers. With this utensil, the woodworkers could reach the trunk roughly half-way, then they would use cones (‘cunei’) to prevent the cut from closing too soon. This work would continue until it was only necessary to beat on the ‘cunei’ – for when the last fibers were torn, the plant would naturally become inclined from the cut at the base and simply crash. The operation of hitting on the cones (‘cunei’) would only be carried out by the more skilled workforce, as a good position of the plant when lying on the forest floor was of great help towards facilitating all subsequent operations.       

5. The ‘Filiera del Legno: in the Woodland (contd)

The set-up. Once felled the plant, the set-up of the trunks represents the first stage of labour over timber. One would start with an operation known as ‘stramatura’: with a short-handled and thin-bladed axe would first be cut the branches and then the top. This phase would be followed by the peeling off of the bark (‘scortecciatura’): the trunk would be freed from the bark from the base to the top, with the help of both an axe and a tool known as ‘scorzatoio’ (peeler). The ‘depezzatura’ that followed was a very delicate operation, which alone would determine the quality of the plant just cut. The head of the woodworkers’ team would then measure the trunk and – with a red-tinged woolen rope, or with the help of a pole – would establish the points in which it was necessary to saw. The cut would actually take place with a hand-saw; the result would be individual pieces to be topped (‘scoronatura’); the ensuing ‘smussatura’ would ease the transportation of the pieces and, most of all, the sliding of the wooden boards.

The nature of the wood industry (‘filiera’) required specific technical skills for each of these stages: in the woodland, as well as for the phases of deforesting (or clearing the land; ‘esbosco’, described below) and transportation, the woodworkers would operate in teams that could well comprehend several dozen people. The duration of the cutting phase and the operations for taking timber out of the wood (‘esbosco’) could last several months. The woodworkers and the ‘foderatori’ (upholsterers) would therefore build themselves a temporary shelter, entirely in wood, before starting with the actual cutting work. Built with peeled and squared trunks, tied up together at the corners and fastened with branches and moss, then covered in wooden tiles (‘scandole’) and bark, the casòn contained the dwelling – made of fir and spruce branches – and the fire (‘focolare’), where common meals would be prepared. The team of ‘boschieri’ (woodworkers) would not be complete without a cook, who was in charge of preparing the meals – such as the legendary hard ‘polenta’: the preferred dish for its capacity to fill one up for a long time, and that would be eaten together with cheese. Assisting the woodworkers – and helping the cook – there would also be, usually, a young apprentice; among his many tasks, that of carrying drinking water during work, thus helping the woodworkers qench their thirst.

6. The ‘Filiera del Legno’ (“Wood Industry”): from the Woodland

The deforestation (‘esbosco’). The phase of the ‘esbosco’ includes a set of operations needed in order to transport the felled wood onto a road, or to reach another transportation axis – such as a canal or waterway. First of all, the trunks had to be gathered from their felling bed in a suitable place at the woodland’s margin. Once, the collection would happen both by way of animal force (either oxen or horses) and manpower, with the help of a small hoe, and also by properly using the natural slides.

The phase of gathering wood is preliminary to the sliding of the trunks, carried down through a ‘risina’: an artificial slide consisting of a semi-circular canal made out of trunks from which the bark had been removed, then placed side by side and tied together with wooden pins (‘cavicchi’). The structure that was so obtained could either lie on the ground or proceed in an elevated fashion (but in that case it would be called a ‘lissa’), thus guaranteeing a constant incline; the sliding of the trunks was facilitated sometimes also by surface water flow or – during the winter months – by ice.

Amongst the many phases that constitute the ‘filiera del legno’, the set of operations connected to transportation affected the finished product quite significantly. It is for this reason that the introduction of zip-lines (or cableways) – introduced in Carnia only at the beginning of the 1900s – was welcomed with great favour. Nevertheless, despite the advantages deriving from their use, the costs and the time needed for their installation were such to discourage a wider diffusion, especially on shorter stretches. During the last few decades, the creation of several forest roads has allowed also in Carnia to adopt the gantry crane and the modern Harvesters: machines that are able to fell, take the branches off and set up timber, ready for transportation, much more efficiently – also with the help of trucks. Once, instead, when timber reached a lay-by or a road, it had to be carried onto wagons pulled by horses or oxen, and then transported to a sawmill: a much slower process altogether. The only real alternative to the road – before the airway system and the machines in use today – was water: and this is what is described below.                          

7. The Filiera del Legno’: from the Woodland (contd)

Fluitation. By using water for transferring timber, one would carry out an operation known as ‘menada’ (literally, the leading of timber via water by hand). However, in order to do that – especially in the unreliable streams of Carnia – it was first of all necessary that the flow rate be adequate. Therefore, the ‘menadas’ (as the workforce leading the operation was called) would start work in spring with the melting of snow, and then continue all the way well into the autumn. In Carnia, the threshold from which it was possible to immerse timber in the water of the Degano stream was quite elevated (a few km upstream from Forni Avoltri, in the upper section of the valley); similarly, in the val Pesarina – the Degano’s main tributary – this was possible at the confluence between the Rio Malins and the Rio Ongara, by the village of Osais.

When the water flow rate was insufficient, one needed to resort to the construction of bigger or smaller stue: artificial dams – built with stones and wood – that created small basins where timber could be gathered into. Through the opening of an appropriate sluice, the timber – coming from different directions – could merge together in the basin; then it would proceed and tumble downstream. Along the course of the stream the conductors – usually divided into three teams, and guided by a chief – would stop in different locations: at the head of the operations, a first group would reinforce the riverbed (that is, fix some poles in order to avoid timber from getting stuck); in the middle, a second group would guarantee the outflow of timber thanks to the formation of some artificial barriers (‘roste’), with the help of a ‘mussa’ (a tripod charged with the weight of some stones) and the assistance of a prong; a third and last group, once terminated the immersion of timber into the stream, would see to recuperate the material that was left over, and clear the riverbed. The transportation of timber – especially that which was not used for building purposes – continued with this system well beyond the 1960s.

The position of the sawmills – particularly in bigger compounds like Aplis – coincided with the ports that were being set up for the departure of the rafts, over which was placed and transported the worked material. In comparison to other Alpine basins, in the forests of Carnia the threshold of departure for timber was lower; along the Degano, for instance, one could prepare the rafts and navigate them from Comeglians all the way to the sea. The rafts were constructed with bundles of ten to twelve boards, tied together at the top and covered with a protection; the workforce (‘zatterai’) maneuvered the difficult navigation with the help of four oars. When a water course split, the ‘zatterai’ – thanks to a long tool – would descend to fix a pole in the riverbed and guide the raft, in order to conduct it in the wanted direction or take it ashore, if needed.

Because of the organization of the timber market in the ‘Serenissima’, all the woodland products had to flow into Venice, to be gathered at the quay known precisely as ‘Zattere’. The port of call for the ‘zatterai’ who came from Carnia was the town of Latisana; to reach it, they had to pass compulsory stations along the way, and pay the tolls at the custom houses of (at least) Portis, Pinzano, Dignano, Sant’Odorico and Valvasone – all along the Tagliamento. This productive system continued virtually unchanged until the construction of the railway line known as “Ferrovia Pontebbana” (opened in 1873), which allowed to gather the rafts in correspondence of the Station for the Carnia (‘Stazione per la Carnia’), near Venzone, and also to transport the material along the railway stub to Villa Santina (1910), past Tolmezzo – a branch line which was expressively built and kept by entrepreneurs in the timber industry.

8. The ‘Venetian’ Sawmill

The type of sawmill that was once most widespread in Carnia was the ‘Venetian’ type, which differs substantially from the other typology, also quite common in the Eastern Alps – the so-called ‘Augustana’ – for the dimensions of its wheel (small, hit at the back or on the side by water, and linked directly to the system piston/crank handle, and not – instead – a large wheel, hit from above or from below) and for the position of the blade, to the side instead of central (as in the ‘Augustana’ type). Until the introduction of the internal combustion engine and of electrification, all the sawmills with one or more blades (named after the German term ‘Volgatter’) were put into motion thanks to the skillful control of water power. Through a dedicated canal, which took water from a stream with a strong flow rate – the Degano, in the case of Aplis – the water would hit a hydraulic wheel which allowed the movement of the two main parts of the machine: the blade and the cart, both fixed to a framework. The blade was anchored to the frame, and would move vertically; timber, instead, would move horizontally; the trunks would lean against the framework which, by being activated, in turn operated the blade that cut the wood. The result of the work of the machine were the wooden boards.

Aplis – like all other sawmills of its time – had a structure on two floors, separated by a wooden board. The mechanisms that made cart, framework – and the hydraulic wheel attached to it – move were found in the lower floor, while on the upper floor was the saw itself, most of the times kept under a roof, or in a structure open at least on two sides, so to allow an easy movement of timber and of the finished product (‘segagione’). To the side – or on an even higher floor, as was the case in Aplis – there was room for a kitchen and for the woodworkers’ dwellings.

The wheel was fixed to a pole, at whose extremity was attached the saw itself, by means of a crank handle. The framework was made of two ‘longoni’ (long beams) and two ‘traverses’: the ‘longoni’ would smoothly slide vertically along the two rails of the door; on the frame itself, in a lateral position, would be mounted the blade. The framework would also slide vertically within the door frame, made out of two pillars in beech wood and two wooden lintels; the door was slightly oblique, so to give the blade the right inclination. Moreover, to the inferior branch of the framework was also fixed a piston, which would engage the handle on the other side, and the ring connected to the cart haulage system. The cart (or wagon) consisted of three longitudinal axis (‘longherine’) and six transversal axis (‘traversine’); it was positioned on a sliding system constituted by two large parallel beams, placed on the floor, between which were arranged eight rollers, whose linchpins turned in dedicated niches, shaped in such a way as not to become dislodged from their compartments. On the cart itself would then be placed the wooden boards, kept firm by cones (‘cunei’). The cart functioned thanks to a mechanism that, starting from the inferior arm of the framework, activated a connecting rod which, in turn, would engage a winch that, by winding a cable or a chain, would make the cart move. The cart advanced only during the lifting of the saw, while it would stop when the latter – by coming down – would actually cut the timber (*see note at the bottom for more information on the ‘Venetian’ sawmill).

9. The ‘Venetian’ Sawmill (contd)

Towards the end of the 1700s, there were in Gorto (that is, in the territory of the Degano valley) at least 9 – but perhaps up to 11 – sawmills; the main ones were in Rigolato, Comeglians, Entrampo, Luincis, Chialina and Ovaro. The functioning of a complex piece of machinery such as a sawmill – and care for its maintenance – required uncommon technical skills, which would take the form of specialization for the different phases of the work, which were passed on within a family system from father to son. For this reason – and also for the activity known as ‘settura’ (that is, the cutting of trunks with a saw) – the proprietors of a sawmill and the merchants would rely on skilled workforce, made for the large part of immigrants, coming especially from the area known as ‘Canale del Ferro’, the Valcanale, Cadore and the valleys of Tramonti. The number of sawmills concentrated in the middle section of the Degano basin is a sure indication of the importance of the woodland and timber industry in the economy of the time. The use of water from the Degano in order to have Aplis work was entrusted to the Toscano family in 1754, through a specific investiture act granted by the ‘Gastaldia’ of the Carnia – that is, the representatives of the Venetian state in the province.

Aplis is a compound that included a water mill, two sawmills and a small animal barn. By relying on workers coming from Gemona del Friuli, Osoppo, Majano and Artegna – and by acquiring the necessary mechanical hardware for the sawmill at Malborghetto – the Toscano family started operations in 1755, and soon began having the first proceedings. The ‘segantini’ (sawyers) would stipulate a double contract: a pact of management with the landlords of the factories – with whom they became responsible, other than for the machineries, also for keeping the buildings in order, as well as for looking after the port and the ‘roiale’ (artificial canal) – and another pact with those merchants and small landlords who made use of the timber produced in a given factory.

Almost all of the ‘segantini’ – and the apprentices after them – came from the ‘Canale del Ferro’: this is the sign of a knowledge that was kept quite scrupulously, and which was not passed on to strangers. The noticeable technical knowledge of this workforce was accompanied also by the ability to read, write and make calculations: indispensable skills for people paid piecework by different customers, and who therefore had to keep track of the different works with separate lists for each customer, who in turn could pay them partly in money and partly in goods (which had to be accounted for). Working in a sawmill was also dangerous: accidents were not infrequent; besides, technical knowledge was not ‘self-sufficient', and to be disjointed from the ability to read, write and make calculations: these were in fact vital skills in order to have a contract paid piecework. In the sawmills there was female workforce too: amongst the main tasks entrusted to women were the collection and gathering of wooden boards, so that they could take air and dry – a skill that from the end of the 1800s onwards would also be exercised by emigrating abroad.        

10. The Timber Market

Investment on timber has been a prerogative, for many centuries, of a mercantile tradition based on families. The ‘casate’ (families) of merchants – from Carnia and elsewhere – were aware, when investing in this product, of the great risks they were taking: from cutting to transportation, there were several variable factors that conditioned the success of an enterprise. However, when a rent was favorable, the possible gains could be quite substantial. The interests of great enterprises – and of groups from Venice, Cadore and Friuli – are well documented in the woodlands of Carnia since the late Middle Ages. Over time, the progressive affirmation of local timber merchants caused a profound social differentiation between the families that were part of a community – inside which anyone could enjoy the proceedings that came from timber – and those who invested in the woodland and in the sawmills: the lords of the village.

The case of the Micoli-Toscano – who undertook the construction of the sawmills’ compound at Aplis in 1754 – is exemplary. With a wise politics of family alliances, conditioned also by the absence of heirs – from which derives the link with the Micoli of Muina, which would determine the doubling of the surname and which implied, in turn, the maintenance of meaningful economic interests over the plains of Friuli and in Istria – the Micoli-Toscano became one of the wealthiest and more influential family groups in the Degano valley and in the whole of Carnia. Their investments included an interest on the ‘malghe’ (Malga Valuta in particular, run together with the consorts of Mione, who owned it) as well as on the woodlands – especially the Bosco Avanza, in the vast forest compound of Forni Avoltri. A telling manifestation of the prestige achieved by the Toscano family is their palace – known as ‘Casa delle Cento Finestre’ (‘House of the Hundred Windows’) – in Mione (Ovaro): one of the most noticeable landmarks in the valley to this day.

The work market connected with the enhancement of woodlands – yesterday like today – necessitated of an expertise which was searched for also at a distance. In Carnia, during the centuries of Modern age, when the economic power of the Micoli-Toscano family was established, a considerable part of the efforts that were being made in order to fell, transport, work, and float timber was handed over to foreigners. Woodworkers, ‘foderatori’ (upholsterers), ‘segantini’ (sawyers) and ‘zatterai’ (‘raft-workers’) came from the ‘Canale del Ferro’, the Valcanale, the valleys of Tremonti (in the Alps’s foothills; now province of Pordenone) and Cadore. These professional migrations from other Alpine areas close-by – from ‘mountain to mountain’, one could say – shed therefore some light on the social relevance taken by these professions for the people of Carnia, although certainly of lesser imporance when compared to the prevailing activities exercised during the same centuries by emigrating: those linked to the spice and drug market in Central Europe (the so-called ‘cramàrs’) and those connected with the ‘filiera del tessile’ (weaving industry), mostly aimed in the direction of the plains of Friuli, Veneto and Istria.

Since the beginning of the 1800s – and until relatively recent times – the professional skills involved with work in the woodland and timber industry, acquired by the populations of Carnia, were also provided elsewhere because of emigration, which took people to Central-eastern Europe (Germany, Romania) and as far away as Canada: in the same way that wood, in order to become a resource, needs to be moved about and worked at, men sometimes had to learn to move around too, in order to have access to a woodland.

11. The 'Boschi Banditi(Enclosed Woodlands)

The bando (chart) on woodlands, adopted by the ‘Provveditore’ of the Republic of Venice in 1850, is a measure that constitutes the basis for the ownership of the ‘Consorzio Boschi Carnici’. ‘Bandire’ (to enclose, after the promulgation of a chart) some woodlands, for the legislation of the Republic of Venice, meant to secure them for specific uses, while tying them up to the primary needs of the State. The history of Venice and of its Republic has in maritime commerce one of its main assets; therefore, the supply of timber and of other raw material for the Arsenal – one of the biggest and more important European industries of the time – was a constant preoccupation for the ‘Provveditore’, and also for those in charge of managing timber and woodlands, who succeeded one another until the end of the Venetian domination in 1797.

In his functions, the ‘Provveditore’ Pietro Zane had already established some ‘bandi’ for Carnia as early as 1579, concerning specifically a few woodlands of the val Pesarina. In other parts of the Venetian territories, similar dispositions of ‘specific reserve’ for use of the Arsenal had already been taken previously for Cadore (the woodlands of ‘Bosco di Cajada’ and ‘Vizza di Cadore’, 1463, for instance); for the ‘Bosco di Montona’ (in Istria) and for Montello in 1471; for Cansiglio and the ‘Bosco d’Alpago’ (in 1548 and 1549 respectively); similarly, all the specimens of the main species needed for shipbuilding purposes (that is, Oak – a plant which is in very short supply in Carnia) had been secured in the whole territory of the Republic. With the so-called ‘Bando Zane’, as many as 51 woodlands of Carnia – plus some in the ‘Canale del Ferro’ and in the valleys of Arzino and Torre – were reserved for specific use. What determined this state of affairs was the necessity to provide for long enough timber for the making of oars, for which beech wood was held in particular high esteem. However, during the centuries of Venetian domination, use of the 39 ‘Boschi banditi’ of Carnia was rather sporadic, as they were sometimes situated in locations quite difficult to reach, and therefore it was not always convenient to avail oneself of these woodlands for the provision of raw material.

During the second half of the 1700s, the entire set of woodlands belonging to the Boschi banditi was the object of an accurate reformation project: a rise in the need for timber induced the ‘Magistratura’ to propose alternative, modern ways of looking at this industry, in parallel with the birth of scientific forestry; however, the end of the ‘Serenissima’ (Republic of Venice) in 1797 did not allow for the actualization of such plans, and the projects that were made ready by that time were subsequently adopted by the French administration and – above all – by the Austrians, who followed the French and tried to apply to the ‘Boschi banditi’ a type of management strongly oriented towards the market.

In 1819, the Micoli-Toscano (the family from Mione who owned the Aplis compound, and among the main protagonists of the timber industry in Carnia since the previous century) won the 15-year long tender for the management of these woodlands, together with issuing a plan to cut down beech and replace it with conifer species (especially Norway Spruce and Larch). However, the expected results – in fact very little respectful of the natural forest composition, when viewed from the perspective of modern forestry – were (fortunately) not fully achieved: the prevalence of mixed woodland that still characterizes the former ‘Boschi banditi to this day is, in fact, living proof of their good level of conservation.   

12. The Communities and the bando

The village communities (the so-called ville), which were the holders of prerogatives on communal properties – amongst which were the woodlands –, had been given such rights by ‘benevolence’ of the ‘Serenissima’ Republic, and reacted with surprise and disappointment at the measures taken by Pietro Zane in 1580. Even though the relevance of the timber industry was extremely limited in respect to the totality of the forests entrusted to the communities, the ‘bando’ (chart), in this case, was fiercely opposed by the local populations – and this fact is at the basis of a widespread misunderstanding, according to which Venice had deprived the people of Carnia of all their woodlands. Instead, the communities were actually granted some prerogatives on those very same ‘Boschi banditi’, also thanks to the petitions that had been readily presented by the four quarters (‘Quartieri’) of Carnia altogether.

The Consiglio dei Dieci (the feared judicial magistrate that held prerogatives on the woodlands) had corrected – as early as 1581 – the ‘Bando Zane’ in favour of the people of Carnia: the ‘Consiglio’ drew the woodlands’ boundaries with the help of ‘cippi’ (boundary stones) over which was a seal with the acronym ‘CX’ (that is, precisely, ‘Consiglio dei Dieci’), so to better distinguish these woods from the surrounding estates. With this amendment in force, the ‘Consiglio’ allowed grazing on pastureland with ‘minute’ animals (mostly sheep – but also the otherwise much feared goat: useful, in this case, for the safeguard of the woodlands); it also granted the original inhabitants the possibility of benefiting from the use of working timber in case of fire or flood, while reducing the fines that could be inflicted to the local population in exchange for services of surveillance over those very same woodlands.

Knowledge of these estates – their accessibility and the species that are more widespread in them, as well as written transmission of this information – is mostly due to the work of public forestry commissioners who, from the last few decades of the 1700s onwards, started to record and describe them in the so-called catastici (lists deposited by the cadaster). At the same time, in conjunction with reformation projects in the state-owned forestry commission, one commissioner particularly contributed in this respect: Candido Morassi from Cercivento, active since 1792 with the Venetian administration, and employed on the same tasks when he was moved to the Austrian administration, where he stayed in office until 1825. The multiple relations and observations produced by him within that time frame are illustrated eloquently with drawings and descriptions, for each woodland, of many aspects needed in order to look after them: boundaries; quality of the plants; distance from the landing sites and/or ports of call used for transportation; possible cuts to be made; betterments to be enforced, and the possibility of access with animals that may need pastureland.

13. The Cadaster of the 'Boschi Banditi

In the phase following the conversion of their composition – adopted from the 1820s onwards – some of the woodlands comprised within the Boschi banditi’ were alienated by the State, either to the ‘Comuni’ or to private citizens; the Micoli-Toscano family, for instance, acquired the ‘Bosco di Pieltinis’ (in the territory of Sauris) in 1834. The possibility to use woodland resources, and obtain a public benefit from them, also prompted the 19 ‘Comuni’ (municipalities) of Carnia in which the Boschi banditi’ were found – to gather together and acquire, in 1874, some of these common goods (state-owned properties), which amounted to 1,652 hectares at the time.

These same municipalities, in 1878, constituted the Consorzio Boschi Carnici, not without pressures – on the part of the ‘Comuni’ – to progressively subdivide the original group composed of 38 woodlands; despite that, the unity of the ‘Boschi banditi’ was managed to be preserved intact. Subsequently, formal recognition – on the part of the Ministry for Agriculture and Forests (with a decree of 1959 issued by the Italian Republic) – allowed the ‘Consorzio’ to equip itself with an administration of its own, with technical personnel able to look after and properly appraise its assets. From then on – but with an acceleration from the second half of the 1980s onwards, and thanks to the support of the autonomous Region Friuli-Venezia Giulia – the ‘Consorzio’ has acquired new properties, thus accruing its woodland heritage to 2,905 hectares.

This choice has coincided with an acute crisis that manifested itself in the forestry sector in Carnia, which in turn entailed the abandonment or discontinuity in the use of funds. This policy allowed to affirm the recognition of the ecological function of woodlands as indispensable for the protection of the territory in which they arise. Coherently with this choice, some properties composed mainly of pastureland were also acquired – specifically, the Malga Malins and Malga San Giacomo in the territory of Prato Carnico –, thus reinstating the historical unity of management between the two primary sectors of production in Carnia: woodland and pastureland.

The same Micoli-Toscano family, who had previously established themselves as timber merchants, subsequently invested a conspicuous part of their revenue to rent and buy some ‘malghe’; more specifically, Malga Pieltinis-Col Gentile and Malga Novarza, both in the Lumiei valley (municipality of Sauris); Malga Valina and Malga Tamaràt, together with the ‘originari’ (heirs in the lineage of the historic families) of the dismantled ‘Comune’ of Mione (now part of Ovaro), and Malga Forchia, in conjunction with the ‘consorti’ Carlevariis. Besides, they were among the first to launch, from the 1860s onwards – on initiative of Cavalier Luigi Toscano –, veritable new plantations, intended to expand the volume of conifers (especially Larch) to be extracted from their woodlands, most notably in the val Pesarina.

However (and fortunately), the application of forestry techniques specifically in service of performance is a choice that has no more follow-up since a few decades, both in private woodlands and –  even more so – in public ones, as are now those belonging to the ‘Consorzio Boschi Carnici’. A meaningful representation of the changes that have taken place over time in the activities of the ‘Consorzio’ can be gathered by looking at a list of its presidents: from the first president onwards, the series of personalities coming from families of timber merchants continues well into the 1960s, when technical-administrative expertise starts to take over mere commercial interest.

(*) Historic note on the use of the ‘Venetian’ Sawmill.

A first representation of a working sawmill – activated by a hydraulic wheel and with an automatic mechanism of advancement – can be found in the so-called “Libro Di Cantiere”, written in 1235 by Villard de Honnecourt from Piccardy (an ancient region in Northern France). But, most importantly, also Leonardo da Vinci made a sketch of such a piece of machinery in 1480. This drawing represents a typical study of his first research years, when – before becoming an innovator – Leonardo studied and analyzed the great tradition that had preceeded him. The hydraulic wheel sawmill constituted a proto-industrial type of plant quite widespread at that time, designed to reduce large timber into wooden boards. Particularly noteworthy, in this machine, is the mechanism of advancement of the frame, over which is placed the wood to be cut. With this system, one obtains a contemporary action in the advancement of the tree trunk and the descent of the blade that must cut it.

There are fragmentary pieces of information regarding the diffusion of this project: it is likely that Leonardo studied this solution right during the months he spent as hosted by the Republic of Venice. In fact, it was precisely in Venice that was found the representaton of a piece of machinery similar to that portrayed in the artist’s sketchbook (in a manuscript compiled by two famous engineers of the time). The sawmill with a hydraulic wheel and the piston/crank handle mechanism is known as ‘Venetian’ Sawmill as it was largely used in the woodlands of the ‘Serenissima’; only in a second time did it spread also in German-speaking countries. The frameworks operated with this system were defined ‘venetian gatter’, while the sawmills were called ‘venetianischer Saegemuehlen’ (‘Venetian’ Sawmill, precisely).

The introduction of the crank handle system has represented a real revolution in the way to activate a sawmill. There are several working hypothesis on the origin of the mechanism first designed and used by Leonardo (but, maybe, previously known also to Francesco di Giorgio). The noteworthy experience gained by the Republic of Venice in the working of timber is one of the reasons that have led to indicate the city by the lagoon as the place of origin in the use of sawmills.

The main advantage in using a piston/crank handle system is represented by the dinamicity and elasticity of movement. The rotative motion that was generated allowed in fact to reduce wear and tear and to reach high speeds of activity in the mill, so to guarantee a better quality in the resulting wooden boards. The scarce diffusion of this system, initially, was due to the low speed of water: a characteristic of many rivers which deermined, in turn, a slow movement of the large hydraulic wheels. Because of this, the remedy that was adopted was represented by the use of multiple mechanisms.   

The “Way of Wood”

A growing project for the benefit of the whole territory.

Wood – and the produce that can be obtained from it – has an environmental impact which is far lower than that of most other materials used for the production of energy, in the building industry and for the making of artifacts. It is a natural, renewable material, versatile and healthy; a material that can represent a benefit to the collectivity in each passage of its life.

The guiding principle presiding over the project The Way of Wood” is a will to value the productive capacity and the integrated management of woodland as a resource, within the goal of increasing wood use at regional level. The vocation to a ‘natural’ exploitation of woodland implies recuperating the capacity to use wood as produce with a wider, more modern attitude: from art objects to artisan productions; from furniture making to the construction of wooden houses. The ever-increasing sensitivity that the building sector is demonstrating for wood as a renewable source for the construction of “eco-compatible” houses has further motivated this project, centered around wood production in Carnia, according to rigorous procedures that vouch for the quality of the product – also in terms of respect for the environment.

As this wood derives from forests that are managed according to the principles of sustainability – and is guaranteed by a certification – all other characteristics being equal, this ensures the least use of energy and a minor environmental impact. Choosing this wood means therefore to support a particular way of managing the resource ‘wood’, and contribute to become part of a progress that promises excellent opportunities in the future too. Who participates in this initiative? Besides the leading promoter, the other contributors to the “Way of Wood” project include the nine municipalities of Carnia where these woodlands are situated: Prato Carnico, Ovaro, Rigolato, Comeglians, Ravascletto, Treppo Carnico, Paluzza, Sutrio and Ligosullo – as well as the Comunità Montana della Carnia.

Return from Museum of Wood Ovaro to Carnia Musei

Return from Museum of Wood Ovaro to Italy-Tours-in-Nature


New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.