The Forest of Cansiglio

General Information

Cansiglio e Gruppo del Cavallo da cima Pizzoc (G.  Bettolo)

Cansiglio and Mt. Cavallo from Mt. Pizzoc (G. Bettolo)

The Cansiglio is a plateau of the Prealpi Carniche straddling the provinces of Belluno, Treviso and Pordenone.  To the south and east its outer slopes dominate the Veneto-Friuli plain, to the north its boundary is the Alpago region and to the north east the Cavallo mountain chain; to the west the Val Lapisina divides it from Col Visentin.  It has a characteristic basin shape and the central part comprises three troughs: Pian Cansiglio, Valmenera and Cornesega, its lowest point (898 m).  The surrounding hills rise to approximately 1300 m, except to the west and south west, where Mt. Millifret (1577 m) and Mt. Pizzoc (1565 m) are located; to the east Mt. Croseraz rises to 1694 m. The main valleys from which to reach the basin are Campon (1050 m) to the north and Crosetta (1118 m) to the south.  The climate is cool with fresh summers.  The cold air descending from the internal slopes hangs in the basin and causes the characteristic phenomenon of heat inversion: the temperature diminishes as it passes from the surrounding hills to the lower central areas.  The extremes range from 30° to –30° C (drops of more than –25° have been recorded).  Although average annual rainfall is about 1800 mm, there are no permanent waterways, due to the Karst nature of the territory.  Atmospheric humidity is high almost all year round and the basin is often filled with thick mist formed by the daily heat excursion.




The rocks in the Cansiglio are mainly sedimentary, of marine origin.  They formed in the Cretaceous period due to the accumulation of organic remains of marine animals and plants (coral, madrepore, molluscs, algae).  Following the emersion from the sea of the rocky layers and a sag in the central area of the plateau, it was exposed to the action of the weather, which started the Karst formation that is still a feature of the entire landscape and underground environment.  Rain water tends to dissolve rocks of a calcareous nature, especially when they are fractured, and this facilitates the formation of hollows of various dimensions.  Sometimes small depressions typical of Karst terrain, doline, are clogged with detritus and clay which makes them impermeable, creating permanent pools of water, known locally as lame.  For centuries these small ponds have been the sole source of water for both man and beast, as Karst formation does not allow surface water to develop; all the water percolates into the subsoil to re-appear at the foot of the plateau, where it feeds numerous springs.  The underground Karst formations mainly develop vertically into sinkholes; the best known and most closely studied of these are the 587 m deep Bus della Genziana and the Bus de la Lum, 185 m deep, sadly reminiscent of the events of the second world war.  Since the past century these sites, still partly unexplored, have been the subject not only of scientific and literary papers, but also of folk legends that have created an air of mystery around them.


Faggio in abito invernale (S.  Vicenzi)

Beech in winter (S. Vicenzi)

The visitor arriving for the first time in Cansiglio is immediately struck by the beauty of its forest, which features mainly beech trees (Fagus sylvatica), often very tall with trunks reaching to the sky like straight columns.  Under the trees, on the forest floor, grow the shade-loving species: ferns, wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa), green hellebore (Helleborus viridis), and wild sorrel (Oxalis acetosella).  The beech woods vary their splendid colours as the seasons change and they are affected by heat excursion, just like all the vegetation in the basin: consequently they are found mainly on the hillsides surrounding the plain, where climatic conditions are milder.  At lower altitudes the beech joins the silver fir (Abies alba) and Norway spruce (Picea abies), forming a mixed wood that in March is pervaded by the intense perfume of mezereon, a small shrub with brightly coloured flow-ers.  Lower down, close the the central depressions, there are monotypic woods of Norway spruce, mostly artificially introduced, where the vegetation on the forest floor is scarser.  At the bottom of the basin, where the temperature is lower, there is an area of herbacious vegetation of natural origin which humans have altered extensively over the years for the purpose of animal breeding.  They not only widened the area, to the detriment of the forest, but also made a drastic selection of the vegetal species.  These wide open spaces are punctuated by the variegated colours of seasonal flowers: in spring gentian violets (Gentiana verna, Gentiana Clusii) and crocus (Crocus albiflorus) make a colourful display.  The floral wealth of the Cansiglio (inside and outside the basin), together with that of the Cavallo- Col Nudo mountain chain, has excited great interest among botanists since the beginning of the 18th century.  During glaciation the Cansiglio-Cavallo group remained free of the thick layer of ice and therefore served as a refuge for the flora, enabling endemic species such as the cranesbill (Geranium argenteum) to survive.  The wetlands (lame, peat bogs) are of considerable interest and due to their fragility and scientific importance are protected by a special law.


Cervo (M.  Stroppa)

Cervo (M. Stroppa)

As the Cansiglio is an area where hunting and shooting have been banned for some time, it offers shelter to many animal species. The mammals easiest to see, especially at dusk, are the roe buck (Capreolus capreolus) and deer (Cervus elaphus), which roam the forest in large numbers. These herbivores, together with the fallow-deer (Dama dama), introduced in the past by humans, are growing in number due to the lack of natural predators, although in recent years lynx (Felis lynx) have been seen and brown bears (Ursus arctos) make occasional forays. The area is home to many mustelines, animals that come out at dusk and during the night, such as the marten, beech marten (Martes martes, M. foina), badger (Meles meles) and weasel (Mustela nivalis), the smallest carnivore in Italy. The only representative of canines is the wolf (Vulpes vulpes), a mammal whose alimentary habits are extremely versatile. It can be seen after a night of hunting returning to its den, often hidden close to doline and small sinkholes. The common hare can be seen, and occasionally the blue or mountain hare (Lepus europaeus, L. timidus). Rodents include the agile squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), the d o r m o u s e (Glis glis) and numerous field mice and wild mice. The insectivores include the hedgehog, mole and less common shrew-mouse. Many of these small mammals provide an abundant food supply for the diurnal and nocturnal birds of prey: the most common of the former are the buzzard, kestrel, goshawk and sparrowhawk whilst only occasionally specimens of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) can be observed. The nocturnal birds include owls, pygmy and Tengmalm’s owls and occasionally the eagle owl..

Aquila reale (F.  Mezzavilla)

Golden Eagle (F. Mezzavilla)

The wood grouse (Tetrao urugallus), present with other tetraonidae (francolin, ptarmigan , black grouse), is a rarity.  Corvines are more common, but just as interesting; rooks are often seen close to houses, as well as the gaily coloured jay.  Easily heard in spring, even at a distance, is the typical call of the cuckoo, a bird of parasitic behaviour.  Walks on the edges of fields and pastures are accompanied by skylarks, small passeriforms, who make themselves heard as they fly chattering over their territory; in the woods there are traces of excavations in the tree trunks that reveal the presence of black and red woodpeckers, the most common habitual visitors to the forest.  In spring and autumn, during the migration periods, it is not rare to see aquatic birds, especially in the vicinity of the lame.  Examples are storks and wild ducks, whose temporary presence won-derfully enriches the Karst environment of the plateau.  As amphibians find favourable conditions in the lame or humid gorges of the woods, it is not diffi-cult to meet specimens of newts (Triturus alpestris, T. cristatus), toads and frogs.  The reptiles include vipers (Vipera berus), adders (Vipera aspis) and grass snakes (Natrix natrix), as well as some saurians such as common lizards (Lacerta viviparis) and slow worms (Anguis fragilis) which find plenty of food in the many invertebrates.


Scavi archeologici (M.  Peresani)

Archeological research (M. Peresani)

Archeological and paleoenvironmental research which the University of Ferrara has been carrying out in Cansiglio since 1993, testifies to uncontestable traces of the presence of Prehistoric Man perhaps from as far back as 100,000 years ago.  More certain data, however, refer to a more recent prehistoric stage, thanks to the greater number of archeological sites and their better state of conservation.  Such settlements give us an idea of the relationships between the Cansiglio and groups of hunters/gatherers who frequented the plateau systematically 12,000 years ago in order to exploit the food resources offered by the woods that had grown after the last Quaternary glaciation.  Man of the superior Palaeolithic era established his first camps (probably tents made of wood and hides) in the area of the Bus de la Lum, where researchers have found instruments commonly used for survival activities (graters, spotted blades and burins for working leather, wood, horn and bone). Of special interest is the site at Palughetto, in the vicinity of a wetland area, where primitive Man created a deposit of pebbles to be chipped as and when needed.  On the western slopes of the Pian Cansiglio many settlements from the Mesolithic era, dating from 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, have been identified due to the presence of numerous stone objects: it is likely that some of these settlements were home to men dedicated exclusively to the preparation of hunting weapons.  These finds lead us to think that during the superior Palaeolithic and Mesolithic eras the groups of hunters-gatherers adopted a semi-nomad type of existence: during the winter they settled in the Alpago or on the Veneto-Friuli plains, and between late spring and early autumn they lived in the mountains.


Disegno tratto da un distintivo delle Guardie Boschive di San Marco del 1793 (V.  de Savorgnani)

Ancient symbol of Venetian forest guard (1793) (V. de Savorgnani)

The first written record which cites the “Alpago Woods” (as the Cansiglio forest was then called) is a Diploma of the year 923 issued by Berengario I, who was crowned King of Italy with the backing of the ecclesiastical authorities.  The document makes a gift of the forest to the feud of the Bishop-Count of Belluno.  In the following centuries numerous concessions were issued granting pasture rights to public authorities and private citizens, but the pressure of human activities on the forest increased when the Cansiglio became the property of the Community of Belluno, in the era of the communes. The fate of the forest improved only from the beginning of the 15th century, when the Belluno terri-tory joined those who sought the protection of the Republic of Venice. The Venetians were aware of the importance of controlling the woods and waterways for the survival of the precarious equilib-rium of the lagoon and consequently of their city.  For this reason, in the first decade of the 16th century they appointed a magistrate “over timber and forests” to conserve the heritage of the terraferma forest.  The Cansiglio was also hugely important for the Venetian state: its numerous beechwoods were mainly used for the production of oars, timber and charcoal.  The French government, then the Austrian one, which succeeded each other on various occasions in the Serenissima, managed the forest carelessly, offering the local populations occasions to claim the forest’s wealth, until the beginning of the Kingdom of Italy in 1871, when the Italian government declared the Cansiglio “Inalienable State Demesne”.  The more recent history of the plateau is marked by the tragic events of the second world war: the Cansiglio was the headquarters for volunteers arriving from neighbouring areas to join the partisan struggle.

The Ethnographic Museum

Museo dell’Uomo in Cansiglio “A.  Vieceli”

The Ethnographic Museum

Open since 1984, the museum was set up thanks to research carried out by Forestry Inspector G. Spada and officials of the Venice State Archives in collaboration with the cultural association of the Cansiglio Cimbri, State Forestry Corps and a number of enthusiastic scholars.  The Museum’s exhibits are divided into three sections: historical, with documents relating to the complex aspects of the long period of Venetian dominion; ethnographical regarding the Cimbri (historical notes, economic activity, linguistic aspects); economic, with panels and information sheets about the history and evolution of woodcutting, deforestation, charcoalmaking and animal breeding.  Although the three sections are different, they all have a common theme, that of exploitation of the forest’s resources by humans.  Worthy of note is the three-dimensional scale model that reproduces the whole Karst plateau, affording an overall view of the main characteristics of the territory.

The Ecological Museum

Established in the late 60s by the then Forestry Inspector G. Zanardo, this small but complete museum, run by the State Forestry Corps, houses naturalistic specimens from the plateau.  In the central room environments have been artificially reconstructed to recreate the habitats of animals typical of beechwoods, spruce woods and meadows, the most attractive of these being a specimen of a stag.  One of the sections is entirely dedicated to the numerous avifauna of the plateau: besides specimens of nocturnal and diurnal birds of prey, corvines, and woodpeckers, the pairs of black grouse and capercaillie are of great interest.  Especially important are the collections of invertebrates and reptiles that inhabit the area of the Cansiglio-Cavallo, found in another small room.  Equally worthy of attention is the section dealing with geological and geomorphological history, which has a collection of fossils and illustrative panels showing the prehistoric processes from which the Cansiglio originated and the Karst phenomena which have formed the landscape as it is today.

The Alpine Botanical Garden

Gentiana kochiana (V.  de Savorgnani)

Gentiana kochiana (V. de Savorgnani)

The Alpine Botanical Garden, set up in 1972 as the result of an idea of prof. G. G. Lorenzoni of the University of Padua and Forestry Inspector G. Zanardo, has been extended in recent years under the direction of the former Azienda Regionale Foreste del Veneto, now Veneto Agricoltura. The garden is home to approximately three hundred species of plants found in the Cansiglio- Cavallo area, partially organized into environments: the small space, about one and a half hectares, houses a collection of the vegetation typically found in forests, shrubwoods, fields and pastures, or growing among detritus from landslides and in rocky snow valleys, together with other kinds of vegetation. The wetlands are extremely interesting: a lama and two peat bogs, which also provide a habitat for numerous species of amphibians and insects. Walking through the Garden, even the non-expert visitor can observe the characteristics of the single species and at the same time understand the complexity of the surrounding landscape. There is also a small collection of officinal species, i. e. plants used in the preparation of medicines. Besides the Garden’s educational purpose, another important objective is that of preservation and scientific study: here the many aspects of floras in their complex ecological relationships can be studied, and species in the greatest danger of extinction can be cultivated and reproduced. The activities of the Garden are supported by the technical and scientific co-operation of the Orto Botanico of the University of Padua and, since 1993, by the contribution of an association of volunteers known as “Friends of the Cansiglio Alpine Botanical Garden”.

The Charcoal Pits

Carbonai (Collezione G. Pignata)

Charcoal production (Collection G. Pignata)

There is evidence of the production of charcoal in Cansiglio in the Middle Ages.  Under Venetian dominion this activity became so widespread as to require regulating: it was an important resource for the Arsenal and at the same time kept the forest clean as the offcuts from deforestation and commonlyfound plants were used.  Once the plot on which to produce charcoal had been obtained, the charcoal makers set up a small shelter for use during their stay in the woods; they then cut the wood and prepared the area, called aiàl, where the charcoal pit, the poiàt, would be located.  They placed the wood in concentric lay-ers around a central fireplace.  The diameter and height of the charcoal pit would vary according to the amount of raw material available; when the stack was ready it was covered with leaves or twigs and earth.  Live embers and wood chippings were were then placed under the stack through the central fireplace; these were continuously renewed because carbonization (cooking) depended on the heat produced by their combustion.  The air input was checked with great skill, even at night, through holes in the external coating, which also allowed the smoke to escape.  At the end of the process, the poiàt was left to cool before the charcoal was collected and put into sacks.

The Peat Bogs

Peat bogs are frequent in northern Europe, but somewhat rare in Italy, where they are concentrated mainly in the Alps and occasionally in the Apennines.  They are formed due to the concomitance of particular climatic factors which do not occur frequently on Italian territory, such as the constant supply of cold water, relatively low temperatures and high rainfall.  In such environmental conditions the organic waste from animals and host plants are protected from decomposition processes and create layers of peat some metres deep.  These wetlands, although of modest size, are home to plants that are generally not very large, but very important from the naturalistic point of view.  One such is the round-leafed sundrew (Drosera rotundifolia), a relict glacial species, which, to compensate for the scarse availability of nitrogenous compost, has become a specialist in capturing small insects.  Another is sphagna, which creates soft cushions featuring high clumps, able to store large quantities of water also in the top part of the clusters.  Peat bogs also play a primary role in the study of glacial and post-glacial events on the plateau: their capacity to preserve organic matter unaltered for very long periods makes it possible to reconstruct the evolution of the vegetation and landscape in the surrounding territory, through analysis of the peat and the pollen granules it contains.  Due to their exceptional environmental nature, peat bogs are currently protected by law, as in the past their existence was placed at risk by land recovery and industrial use of the peat (not the case in the Cansiglio).

The Cimbri

Cimbri a Vallorch (Collezione G. Pignata)

Cimbri at Vallorch village (Collection G. Pignata)

The historical origin of the Cimbri (not to be confused with the Cimbri and Teutons of Roman times), goes back to groups of settlers who, around 1100-1300, set out from an area between the Tyrol and Bavaria to descend into Italy, where some feudatories needed workers skilled in forestry.  In the 18th century the Cimbri came to the Cansiglio to work as seasonal woodsmen, probably setting out from Roana, one of the seven Communes of the Altopiano di Asiago, where there is still a large community.  Later, during the 1800s, they built villages, partially standing today (Le Rotte, Vallorch, I Pich, Canaie, Campon, Pian Osteria), to which they brought their families.  Only a few of the Cimbro dwellings (cason), with a load-bearing wooden structure standing on a stone platform, still conserve the traditional architectural elements.  The beechwoods of the Cansiglio gave the Cimbri work as woodsmen, providing an abundant supply of timber for the craft production of scatoi, planks of varying lengths and thickness used for the construction of sieves, bands for containing cheese and other household objects that were greatly sought after in the villages outside the forest.  There are still some descendents of the Cimbri living in the Cansiglio, but after the socio-economic changes brought about in the postwar years, most of them moved to the surrounding towns (Spert, Tambre, Fregona), where some continue to work in the forest, while others have emigrated.


Work of Letizia De Martin and Vittorio de Savorgnani, by courtesy of: