Natural stone is a highly valued material, especially for construction. Many reasons drive us to use stone instead of other materials, one in particular responds to a current sensitive issue, that is ecology. Natural stone is a building material found in nature: no energy is needed for making it, only quarrying and processing it involve energy consumption, but in a small amount in comparison with other building materials. Stone is extracted from small quarries without using too much explosive. Stone processing residues can be directly used for filling up quarries where it is extracted.
In the lifecycle – extraction, processing and disposal – nothing is thrown away. Natural stone is environmentally compatible, does not contain contaminants which might cause harm to health. It can be safely used for areas where food is handled, it is not combustible and it does not release unhealthy substances in the event of fire. Moreover, natural stone is fascinating, various, it can be customized, it ages well and it is three-dimensional: you can produce stones in whichever solid form or any plate size you desire. Interesting light and shadow effects are obtained thanks to grooves carved on the stone surface. Also, stone has an attractive price, it is favourable in terms of physical properties and guarantees long lifetime. In particular, our local stones are excellent materials with great potential.
In mountainous regions, such as Belluno, wealth derives from minerals exploited since ancient times. Distant are the origins of stone usage and processing and in our tradition we find them in architectural works as well as in everyday objects. The skills of local stonecutters were appreciated and looked for abroad and the stone itself was exported beyond the borders: from Venice to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea ports. Millstones quarried in Tisoi, Libano and Bolzano Bellunese reached Germany, Bosnia, Albania, Constantinople and the Anglo-Saxon countries. Stone quarries are known to have existed all around Belluno, whose traces we can read in our landscape and memory and which testify to technical knowledge and effective solutions, in particular as regards the local architecture. Stones were used for churches, houses, mansions, palaces, for dry-stone walls, thresholds and gates, for windowsills, architraves, jambs, staircases, floors, corbels, fountains and basins. Architectural works were closely linked to the place where they were built and to the available resources. The Rural houses come to mind, built of stones found during digging for building their foundations. Stone was particularly used for those parts which had to last over time and were most subject to wear. Stone was used for load bearing walls, windows, doors and staircases in contact with the soil: the first external steps of wooden balconies were of solid rectangular- or triangular-shaped wood, leaning on wall structures or rounded-edge tread plates and wall or wooden riser. Floors were usually made of cobblestones in the stables and of stone slabs in the kitchen and other living areas: the substrate was made of small-size stones and pebbles and then was properly compressed; on this, stone slabs were lain. In the kitchen, the heart of the house, there was the fireplace, consisting of a large stone. For discharging smoke, we rarely found a flue pipe, which could not be made without hewn stones. Alternatively, the ritonda was built: a compartment next to the kitchen, protruding on one side with variable structures; the fireplace was placed inside it and benches or brickwork seats all around. In Belluno the word for fireplace is larìn: it comes from the Latin Lari, the divinities who protected the household. (Latin lares meant “fireplace”). The rural house is a genuine and spontaneous expression, suited to the functions and activities conducted there. The choice of material was not casual and the orientation of the house followed the path of the sun. The north-facing part was blind so the built-up area could defend itself from cool air from the valley. For other components of the house timber was found in the forest: various kinds of timber were suited to fulfil different functions. The building process used a short chain of supply and responded to environmental sustainability criteria. The most renowned quarried stone was used to make the most beautiful and representative parts of the Belluno Villas, erected on the ruins of the medieval castles. Belluno province is rich in Mansions, which are different from the classical Palladian Villas, because of landscape and architectonic characteristics, such as the family chapel, situated near one of the entrances. Charming examples are Villa Pasole in Pedavena and Villa Miari Fulcis in Modolo. In Villas and Manor Houses, the most renowned local stone was used to enhance the façade elements, such as podiums, porticoes’ arches, windows, string courses, parapets and arcades.
Indoor, it was used to build stone fireplaces, basins and sometimes to define with mouldings the portals leading from one room to another and giving fascinating perspectives, in the following centuries also made with stucco. Stone is also used for indoor and outdoor staircases as well as for some floorings, often in Venetian or Palladian style, fringed with skirting boards. The Palladian floor was different from the battuto veneziano floor: it was made of thicker stones all cut with the hammer, all of the same thickness and all trapezoid- or triangle-shaped; they were placed side by side, divided by a small gap, on a concrete layer without following a project. After the installation, they were hammered and rolled, and subsequently sand-blasted and polished and treated with wax. Particular use of it was made in realizing coats of arms representing the noble families, which were placed in relevant locations. The portals of outside gates were made of stone, too and were embellished with significant masks evoking popular beliefs, such as the Villa Crotta portals in Agordo, in whose gardens you can also admire beautiful sculptures. Stone was used for two reasons: it was a lasting and valued material, suited to give value to the noble architecture of the villa; moreover, it had properties, such as resistance to wear, water and atmospheric agents, that made it suitable for horse-stable and barn floorings and for building wells and fountains, essential elements in a farmer’s daily life, linked to the landowner’s villa. In houses and palaces in town, besides façade elements, fireplaces, staircases, portals and floors, power had to be displayed and this was through sculptures, decorations, busts, plaques, coats of arms and stone plates placed indoor as well as outdoor. For example, the Rettori Palace’s façade is enriched with busts representing 15th– to 17th-century rettori with their coats of arms with two rows of windows, while in the lower part there is a beautiful lodge with arches and columns made of Valdart stone, a compact white limestone with fine grain, lasting and easily workable, quarried above Cirvoi, near San Mamante church. The local stone was used in ancient times and we find testimonies in the beautiful stone-made Chiesette (small churches) immersed in the green of our Province, such as Sant’Andrea church in Ponte nelle Alpi, whose floor, made of Cugnan stone, has recently been restored. Using the stone takes on symbolic meaning and spiritual and religious value, as this material lasts in time. In Belluno province we find magnificent examples in village churches as well as in the larger churches, such as Santo Stefano and San Rocco in Belluno. In the former we can admire a wide use of Castellavazzo red stone combined with Valdart milky white stone, which was also used for the beautiful 15th-century Santa Maria dei Battuti portal; in the latter Castellavazzo grey stone was used in the façade as well as in the columns, arches and internal stringcourses, while the floor has recently been restored with Rosso Secca stone. Besides architectonic elements and beautiful stone-flagged floors, in churches stones were also used for altars, baptismal fonts and stoups. In the local use of the stone, we should remember some architectural elements which were functional to daily life in the past and which bring us back in time, such as fountains found in the villages, wash basins nowadays used as flower pots, pavements of old centres which we tread on every day scarcely noticing.
Palaces, villages, squares, streets… all speak the same language which we can still read and decipher. What we want to do is understand the beauty and the creativity involved in using the Belluno stone, so that it is used and given value in the future, in an intelligent, aware and – why not? – creative way. Local firms working this stone are developing valuable projects and precious creations. Following, a collection of some examples on the uses of Belluno stone in the local architecture which compares old knowledge about construction and new interesting ideas.