Discovering Schio’s Water Canal
Dr. Sunil Deepak, 18 May 2021
Schio has a thousand-years old water-canal called Roggia Maestra (Master Canal), which passes through the city centre. Over the centuries, this canal has played a key role in the city’s life and history. Today, the canal has lost its importance for the city’s industries, however it accompanies some of the most beautiful walking areas around the city.
This photo-essay briefly touches on the history and development of this canal. I hope to write some additional posts about the different walking/cycling areas along it.
The Crossing of the Canal
Schio’s water canal has one peculiarity, which is rare among the water-canals – it comes out from one side of the river, after a few kilometres it crosses over the river in a tube-bridge and then continues on the other side of the river.
Originally there were two water canals on Leogra, one higher up on its west bank along the little town of Pieve Belvicino and another lower down along the east bank, starting at the northern edge of Schio. The western (Pieve) canal ended in Leogra in a place called Ponte Canale, which had an old wood bridge. The eastern (Schio) canal started about 100 metres to the north of this place.
During 19th century, when the industrialist Alessandro Rossi was setting up his wool factory in Schio, he decided to combine the two canals by building a tube bridge. Thus, the Pieve canal was deviated and connected through a tube bridge to the Schio canal. Ruins of an old sawmill covered with vegetation marks this point on the east side of the river where the Pieve canal exits and joins the Schio canal.
Northern Part of the Canal in Pieve Belvicino
“Pieve” was the first urban settlement of the Schio area which came up during the first millennium. It was linked on the south to the settlements of Magre, San Vito, Malo and Vicenza through a Roman road. The present day Schio was cut off from that road by the Leogra river. Pieve had a church, an old fort and a tower. The people living on the mountains around it, came down here to sell their wool and dairy products. It still has an area called Valle dei Mercanti (Valley of the merchants) from those early days.
The Catholic church had some influence in this area. Other influences were the Republic of Venice (Serenissima) starting from the 8th century CE and the Holy Roman empires (from Charles the Great to Fredrick Redbeard). In 11th century, this area came under the Count of Vicenza, the Malatraversi family. At that time, the old St. Mary church of Pieve was the principal church of this whole area. The first water canal of Pieve probably pre-dates this period. It still passes next to that old church.
Building the canal must have needed a lot of money – who had paid for it? The church or the Malatraversi family? It provided hydraulic energy through the use of water-wheels for setting up flour mills and wood-sawing mills. It also provided water for agricultural use.
In the 15th century, Pieve lost its importance as Schio became more important. The new cathedral along with different other important churches were built in Schio. The arch-priest also shifted from the old St Mary church of Pieve to the new Duomo church of Schio.
Pieve regained some of its importance in 1870s when the Rossi wool factory was opened along the old canal to power its machines. However, by the end of the 19th century, gradually hydro-steam and hydro-electric powers replaced the simple hydraulic power of the water-flow and thus the canal slowly lost its importance.
The Canal in Schio’s Centre
During the 14th and 15th centuries, Schio became more important due its geographic location - it connected the Agno valley on the west to the Astico valley in the east, and through the mountain pass of Pian delle Fugazze on the north, it connected Venice to the northern region of Alto Adige (South Tyrol) which leads towards Austria and Germany.
The water-canal in Schio was built in the 12th centuy CE. Most of the churches of Schio including the Duomo came up two centuries later. The whole path of the canal was dotted with small sawmills, flourmills and textile mills, as the city was authorised to use waterwheels and to produce fine textiles. In late 19th and early 20th centuries, different industrial wool mill units were setup along the canal. The most important of these wool industrialists was Alessandro Rossi.
The Schio part of the canal starts in the northern end of the city where the torrent Gogna merges with Leogra. Soon after it enters the old Cazzola wool mill, which was converted into a war hospital during the First World War, where a young Ernest Hemmingway had worked as an ambulance driver.
The canal then proceeds towards the Rossi and Conte wool mills near the city centre. Initially when bridges on the canal were few, it's passage influenced the early urban development of Schio and provided empty land to industrialists for building their mills. However, after the mills were built, in early 20th century they increased the urbanisation. Thus, many parts of the canal in the city centre were covered and became underground.
Some of the old names of city areas are the only memory of those old days. For example, the Castle hill of Schio was once also known as the Hill of the Canal Knight (Collina del Cavaliere del Canale), while Via Pasini, the main street of the centre today, was once called Via Oltreponte (Beyond the Bridge street) as it had a bridge over the canal.
Towards the end of 20th century, with globalisation the wool factories of Schio gradually lost their market and closed one after another. With increasing urbanisation, most of the agricultural use of the canal water also decreased. Thus, the water-canal lost its importance.
The last part of the canal located in the city centre still has the old “lavanderia”, the community washing space, where a wooden sculpture of a washer-woman remembers those days when women used to gather here to wash clothes.
Southern Part of the Canal
After passing through the Schio city centre, the canal comes out near Via Pariabo and proceeds to the rural part of the city along Via Mollette. The old ruins of the Cavedon sawmill are located here. The last tract of Via Mollette running along the canal has been converted into a beautiful walking/cycling area.
From here, the canal comes closer to Timonchio torrent and runs alongside it to the area known as Giavenale-Maglio, where a new cycling/walking path has been created.
A few kilometres down this walking/cycling path, finally the water-canal ends in Timonchio.
Today the economic and industrial importance of the water-canal of Schio has decreased, yet it has become important in other ways. Evolution has taught human beings about the importance of water. Schio and its surroundings are full of beautiful walking and cycling areas that are located next to Leogra torrent and its water-canal.
Perhaps the cycle of the history will turn once again and one day the water-canal of Schio will play a role in the city’s economic life. Till then, the aesthetic pleasure of its beauty and its importance for the nature are its contribution to the city life.
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