The town of Belluno has a long history of settlements, in spite of the fact that it has always been a quite inaccessible geographic area; it was still a transit path, through the valley of the river Piave, for the populations moving from the planes to the alpine valleys, looking for both metal veins and new ways to cross the Alps.
It is certain that, at some stage, the settlements in Belluno and its surrounding area became stable, because the region was quite sheltered and easy to defend. Archaeological findings testify a human presence already during the Stone Age; however, more important findings concern the settlements of the "paleoveneti" (Indo-European population from Asia Minor) both in the planes of Veneto and along the course of the river Piave. Such findings include the necropolis of Mel, the archaeological sites in Cavarzano and Fisterre, and the important site of Lagole (Calalzo). The latter was discovered in 1881, when eighty graves were found; however, the bronze burial outfits were completely destroyed during WW I.
The "paleoveneta" culture, flourishing in the Belluno area during the 5th century B.C, differs from that of the plains in many aspects, including the linguistic one (see G.B. Pellegrini). Many findings testify Celtic influences on the area and openings towards the Isonzo valley. Regarding the "celtic link" to the north of the Alps, the findings consist in armor pieces like helms and swords (Cadore); on the other hand, the relations with the eastern Celts (in Friuli) are testified by the finding of "torques" (rigid necklaces) and the fibula with sphinx from Cavarzano (such findings do not have counterparts from the plains). Several of the findings from the "paleoveneto" culture can be seen in the civic museum (Museo Civico) of Belluno and in other museums of the province.
During the following centuries, the Celtic populations moved south, to Belluno and beyond.
Very likely, the "ferae" populations that the Romans drove back north in their conquest of the alpine regions were Celtic. Starting from Aquileia in 181 B.C., the roman conquest proceeded slowly and peacefully: given its anti-celtic character, it did not meet with hostility from the people of Belluno, who had a local, non-celtic culture. The first contacts with the Belluno area were eminently commercial, as the Romans were in need of iron and copper.
During the times of Augustus (the former Octavius), Belluno became a "municipium" following Feltre and the Cadore, and it became part of the "X Regio Venetia et Histria". As the "municipium" fell into decline, Belluno was put under central imperial authority. The roman remains are today abundant: from burial stones (the most famous is that of Flavius Ostilius, now kept in Crepadona), to the aqueducts (like the Fisterre one); from the coins to the monumental inscriptions (second and third century A.D.).
From the remaining documents, we believe that Belluno must have enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy from Rome. It was governed by the "quattuorviri jure dicendo" (high magistrates) and from the council of elders, and a "union" of timber transporters was present, which has survived to the present times as an association of rafters. In the roman age, fir rafts, loaded with larch, minerals and building stones, descended from the alpine rivers to the Po river and to the harbour of Ravenna. This activity, linked to the timber of the Belluno area, developed since the first imperial age, as is testified by documents found in Feltre and Belluno (2nd-4th century A.D.).
The "romanisation" phenomenon radically changed the landscape: with the subdivision of the farming territory in several quadrangular parts (centuriae), new lands were reclaimed and cultivated; canals were built, woods were cut down and roads were built to the estates. Each "centuria" was assigned either to romans or to native people, who became the landlords. The first landlords have often given their family name to their estate: "Cavarzano" derives from Capertianum (Capertia family state), while "Vezzano" derives from the Vettianum family.The roman castrum corresponds to the oldest part of Belluno, situated on a south-sloped river terrace, between the riverbeds of the Ardo and the Piave; the forum was situated in the modern "Piazza delle Erbe" (Place of Herbs); in the neighbouring area, important settlements were those of Cavarzano and Fisterre. It should be noted that the coincidence of the roman town with the modern one makes it difficult to discover the original urban structure; it is however known that the structure of the castrum was left unchanged until the end of the 10th century. After 475 A.D., Belluno followed the fate of the Roman Empire, and was subject to barbaric invasions.
The Middle Age
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Belluno was subject to the invasions of barbaric populations: Visigoths, Vandals, Huns (Attila), Ostrogoths (Teodorico) and others. Such events certainly did change the shape of the town. As Teodorico died in 553 A.D., Belluno became Byzantine.
The Byzantines in the Belluno area carried on with the construction of the defense system that Teodorico had started to build with the longobardic menace in his mind. In fact, during 568 A.D., the Longobards reached Belluno on their way to Friuli, and then occupied the plains (Vicenza, Verona).
The Longobards fortified Belluno further, as they considered it to be an important basis against the Byzantines who were menacing them from the sea, and against the Frankish coming from the northwest. "As Bellunum became, under longobardic rule, seat of a "Sculdascia" (a longobardic administrative district that controlled the various settlements scattered on the territory; such settlements were based upon the so called "farie" or "decanie", i.e. groups of ten families), a first rudimentary castle was built on the northern side, on an advanced position with respect to the roman vallum; following the longobardic custom, this castle was called "Dongion" or "Motta". These names continued to indicate the lord of the castle and the gates (the Doglioni) and the opposite square." (Mario Dal Mas, PRA: Storia di un borgo, Unione Artigiani della Provincia di Belluno, Belluno 1978).
According to the local historians, civil life found in this period a certain equilibrium: the "romanisation" and the conversion to the catholic faith made cohabitation and mixing of the two populations possible in Belluno.
The long-lasting longobardic permanence in Belluno has left many traces in the toponymy (Farra…), in the language, and in the form of archeological findings.
"It is almost certain that Belluno, with the neighbour towns of Friuli, has long resisted an invasion by the Frankish, together with the longobardic Dukes, before accepting the rule of Charlemagne" (B. Zanenga).
In order to weaken the vast and strong dukedoms, the Frankish divided the territory in counts and marchlands and relied more on the Bishops than on the too-powerful nobles. Aimone was the first Bishop-Count to be given power over the estates of the Church in the Belluno area.
With the establishment of the aristocratic rule of the Bishop-Count, the mediaeval town, with a castle, walls, gates and towers, takes form. This past is nowadays documented by scarce archeological findings, but is depicted rather well in many ancient prints. In the same period, an organization of the internal spaces of the town took place: the square of the Cathedral and the Palace of the Bishops (now an auditorium), the market place (now Piazza delle Erbe, was the in the Middle Ages the center for all commercial activities), the districts around the mansions of the local lower-ranking nobles, the street plan around the principal north-south axis of Via Mezzaterra.
Almost one century afterwards, Belluno is under the rule of the warlike bishop Giovanni II, who fortified the town and extended its domain to the plains. In this period, the bases for the municipal evolution were established: this process was to be completed in the 14th century, with the appearance of the figure of the Podestà.
During one of the frequent wars with Treviso, under the rule of the Bishop-Counts in 1196, a battle song of victory was written that is considered by the historians of literature as the first poetic document in Italian vulgar tongue.
During the following period, until the spontaneous submission to Venice (1404), Belluno was repeatedly invaded by the neighboring towns: Ezzelino da Romano (Treviso), the Scaligeri from Verona, the De Carrara from Padova, the Visconti and so forth in a long sequel of political changes that made the government of the town quite unstable.
In 1420, an act of union with Venice was defined, and from that year on the fate of the Belluno area followed that of Venice until its final fall; in 1797, with the Campoformio treaty, the Veneto region was annexed by Austria. This long period of beneficial peace had been interrupted by the war of the Cambrais League (1508-1512, a struggle between Venice and Maximillian I of Hapsburg). Our town was a victim of war calamities more than any other town in Veneto: the whole province was turned into a charred battlefield.
The spontaneous annexation to Venice entailed a treaty with which Venice respected and accepted the existing political structures of Belluno, mainly the Nobles Council. It took a long time before Venice deprived those institutions of their political value, totally replacing them. The rule of Venice was inspired by pragmatism and conservatism. "Political autonomy was an excuse not to carry out any development policy in the Belluno area: the latter was valued by Venice mostly for its enviable strategic position (from Belluno, it was possible to defend the plains of Veneto in their totality from north).
Venice was also interested in the raw materials of the Belluno area: timber and minerals that provided a cheap naval activity and low-cost manufacture (wood, wrought iron). One could say that the attitude of Venice was more inspired by exploitation than by development. For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that the attitude of Venice was the logical consequence of its conservative government. In return, Venice gained loyalty, especially from the farmers and the common people, who did not gain anything, but did nonetheless regard Venice as an intermediary figure, capable of defending their rights". (Gigetto De Bortoli, in Belluno: storia architettura arte, Istituto Bellunese di Ricerche Sociali e Culturali Serie "Varie" - N.9, Belluno 1984).
In this period, the urban texture renewed itself as new houses and palaces were built by the nobles and the new born burgeoisie, in a new climate which was favoured by the intense relationship with Venice (commerce of timber and swords); the city expanded itself northwards beyond the walls, merged itself with the smaller towns along the two rivers on the south and the east, where forges, tanneries, sawmills and mills were built.
The "Palazzo dei Nobili" (demolished in the 18th century) and the "Palazzo dei Rettori" (end of the 15th century, nowadays a prefecture) left in the square of the Cathedral the signature of the architecture from Venice.
The constant relation with Venice is documented, from the 16th century onwards, also by the work of the artists from Belluno, who frequented the workshops in Venice and brought back strong cultural influences (especially Tiziano).
Many were the artists, poets, scientists and men of culture in general that, from the 16th century to the era of the Habsburg rule "brought honor to the Belluno fatherland".
We can only list a few: Piero Valeriano (1447) tutor and writer (he has written on the flow of the river Piave from its source to its mouth); Francesco Frigimelica the Elder, a painter working between the end of the 16th century and 1646, who elaborated a personal and valuable pictorial style that elevated him above his contemporaries; Tito Livio Burattini (Agordo 1617 - Krakow 1681), mathematician, physicist, architect; Andrea Brustolon (1622 - 1732), the most celebrated woodcarver from Veneto in the 18th century; Sebastiano Ricci (Belluno 1659 – Venice 1734) one of the greatest european painters (his nephew Marco (1676 - 1730) was also a noteworthy painter, specialised in landscapes); Gaspare Diziani (Belluno 1689 - Venice 1767), whose frescos can be admired in the Cathedral; Gerolamo Segato (Vedana 1792 – Florence 1836) who owes his fame to a technique to petrify human and animal tissues (still shrouded by mystery), but also to his archeological research in Egypt. Other names should be added to this list; more information can be found in the following pages.
The Piave River was, during these centuries, the most important commercial way (rafts) to transport the timber from the woods of Cadore to Venice, where it served the activities of the craftsmen. Several ports and sawmills were also built along the flow of the river.
The Austrian rule
Following the short period of Napoleonic rule (1797-1815), in which Belluno was made "Department of Piave", Belluno was annexed by Austria.
During 1806, a French law was introduced, with a new territorial subdivision which drew the borders of the current province with the only exception of the area of Livinallongo (Colle S. Lucia and Cortina remained a part of Austria).
The first "Councillor of the Royal Government" officially took his position, in the name of the Emperor of Austria, Franz I, in February 1816. The Habsburg rule lasted fifty years, until the third Independence War, with the parenthesis of 1848, when even Belluno arose (especially in Cadore, with Pier Fortunato Calvi) and proclaimed itself free town of the reborn republic of Venice. The insurrection ended when Venice surrendered in 1849.
"The people of Belluno made an Italian choice, because they felt that they belonged to the Italian nation and because they had soon understood that the Belluno province, in the eyes of the Empire, did not have great political, economic or military value, and was not therefore considered worthy of development plans. The people from Belluno felt they were being put aside." (Gigetto De Bortoli).
The Austrian rule was much more careful and vigilant than that of Venice: within certain limits, it respected the specific characters of the social administration of Belluno, decentralizing the tasks. "Old people regret the strict but swift Austrian administration." (G. De Bortoli).
Austria promoted public works; especially the development of means of communication between the different parts of the province and between the province itself and the planes of Veneto. Among the important constructions: Palazzo Cappellari in Campitello (accomodating nowadays the offices of ACI, the Italian Automobile Club), the social theater in Piazza della Legna (also known as Campedelet, nowadays Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II) and the new town hall (1836) - with the frescos by Giovanni De Min, a painter from Belluno. All these building were designed by the architect Giuseppe Segusini. During 1816, Belluno was granted the title of "città regia" (royal city): with this new rank, new embellishment projects were added to the existing building projects, like project for a large fountain (designed also by Segusini). The Campitello finally became a Piazza (square) and took the name of "Piazza del Papa" (square of the Pope), in celebration of Gregorio XVI, who was from Belluno.
In the meanwhile, a certain population growth took place, giving raise to the emigration phenomenon that had its maximum in the last years of the 19th century and lasted, with varying intensity, until the end of the Italian "economic boom". Austria offered many opportunities to work in the construction of railways and employed workers from Belluno and Friuli alike. The people who worked at the construction of such railways were known as "esanponari", from the German word "eisenbahn", which means railway.
Because of the demographic growth, more and more houses were built in the province, and many small towns appeared on the mountainside, even in almost inaccessible areas.
The town of Belluno was strongly linked with its province by a series of urban transformations, including the construction of new bridges on the Piave (1841) and the Ardo (1831), the demolition of the outer walls (and the filling of the ditch). The old town was also linked to the northern districts (the old "Campedel", a small field which originally lied outside the walls), in which all commercial activities took place, while the administrative offices remained in the square of the Cathedral.
The Italian government
In 1866 Belluno, together with Veneto, became part of the Kingdom of Italy: the new administrative from Piemonte took the place of the old austrian one (which was more efficient). The burgeoisie of Belluno, quite enthusiast about the annexation to Italy was also politically very naive, because of the many years of servitude to Venice and Austria. The administration was not capable of defining a clear farming policy: the farmers remained extremely poor, and no increase in production took place.
A phase of slow social and economic decline started, in which the province of Belluno became more and more isolated from the rest of Veneto. Because of the lack of new investments, the phenomenon of emigration gradually increased, reaching its maximum towards the end of the century.
The emigrants moved to the more developed France, Belgium and Germany; however, many people went as far as Argentina, Brazil and northern America. It was an emigration of epic proportions, marked by great difficulties and immense sacrifices: in many cases, those emigrating to America were victims of ruthless people and ended almost in the condition of slavery. "Those who lost America" is a book written by the descendants of the people who left Veneto and Friuli to move to Argentina and reports the tale of their fates.
Emigration was the cause of social desegregation and made the regions the emigrants left even more poor: the human resources that are necessary to start and maintain any development were totally lacking. Belluno suffered from population decrease more than any other province in Veneto (including Rovigo); this phenomenon has slowed down considerably any process of economic emancipation.
Among the positive aspects of the union to Italy: the diffusion of primary education, the bridge on the river Piave (1884), the railway (1886), the military district (1909). Nonetheless, it was mostly up to the people of Belluno to develop locally forms of collaboration to face the dire straits.
The "Asilo Cairoli" (a nursery) was open mostly to the children of the workers. Don Antonio Sperti took care of the orphans, leading them towards study or work in his workshop, which was built with the support of the town council and the help of donations.
Belluno was on the front line during WWI, as many towns of the province were involved in military operations and the city itself was in the zone behind the front.
After the Caporetto defeat, Belluno was subject to a very hard occupation, had to face starvation and the spreading of diseases such as tuberculosis and pellagra that decimated the population, and especially the young.
During the post-war period, the emigration phenomenon was quite prominent, until the rise of fascism that limited it during the years, not because of a better quality of life, but for its political agenda. The autarchic policy brought on by the fascist regime was harmful for the economy of Belluno, a city poor of resources.
In Belluno, public squares got an important political role, as they became the places where totalitarism was most celebrated.
"The theater was a common meeting point, not just the place where one could best show his social status. Several opera seasons were organised (...). Theatre was not neglected either (...). Movie projections were organised for the students, with "instructive" movies (...)." (F. Vendramini, Da una guerra mondiale all'altra, in Piazza dei Martiri - Campedel, I.S.B.R.E.C., Belluno 1993).
During WWII, the people of Belluno paid a terrible toll of blood and, by the end of the war, a very extensive migration took place, especially towards european countries (coal mines in Belgium etc.), but also to Argentina and Australia as in the past. During the post-war years, a slow industrialisation took place that became more significant after the Vajont disaster, with the help of the reconstruction laws. Agricolture, that had always been neglected to some degree, had a crisis, while tourism was enhanced. In Belluno, the service sector got a preminent role, and for a long period the resources were managed from outside (electric energy, but also mass tourism with the inevitable devastation of the territorial equilibria).
One of the great resources of the people of Belluno is their exceptional will to work; a resource that cannot be fully employed as long as human resources are taken away by migration. Perhaps something has changed today: the industrial crisis of the 70's and the 80's, with the decentralization that followed, has benefitted areas like that of Belluno. Manufacturies like Costan and Zanussi moved in the Belluno area. The greater productivity of small factories, in times in which the market demands are constantly changing and the technological evolution makes structures rapidly obsolete, has encouraged the diffusion of highly specialised manufacturies (spectacles) and the diffusion of small but technologically advanced crafts (see the industrial area in Paludi in Alpago).