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The Burchiella of Cervia

An ancient barge used by salt workers to deliver the white gold from the salt pans to the storehouses.

Cervia Salt Pan extends over an area of 827 hectares and is located at about 1600 meters from the sea. It's here that the so-called "white gold" is produced since ancient times, otherwise known as the sweet salt of Cervia.

It became the wealth of the territory in roman times and during the Middle Ages. Once produced it had to be "transferred from the mounds, placed on the 200-150 ponds, to the inside of the spacious storehouses" and in order to do this it was needed a suitable means of transportation: the burchiella.

 

Features of the burchiella

The burchiella of Cervia was a flat-bottomed boat, perfect to navigate even the shallow lagoons. Contrary to the larger boats, it was this feature that helped the burchiella to get closer to ports and river banks to unload its wares.

It was composed by a platform (paradura), an inner cover (paiul), a bulkhead (tulìr), an oar (rèm), a rope (resta) and two bows. The latter were used to reverse course, an otherwise impossible maneuver to perform along the 45 km of narrow canals that connected the salt pans, where only a few places allowed the passage of two boats at the same time.

They were used mainly for transportation of the salt from the crystallizing ponds to the storehouses, but during downtime they were also used to transport sand, rocks and generally anything that could be carried by water.

 

With their length of 12.20 meters, a width of 2 meters and a height of 1.12, these barges covered a distance of two to five kilometers on average. They had to be towed by two salt workers that received the burchiella by drawing lots. One of them towed the barge by wearing a large crossbody rope that culminated with a long lead ring, while walking along the canal bank. The other led the direction through the help of a long oar.

There used to be several shipowners (burchiaroli), except in the early 1900, when the 105 burchielle were all owned by a single person. It was the Savoia family to change things by forcing the owner to sell them by paying a paltry sum.

 

Burchiella foto storica - Ph. Gabriele BernabiniBurchiella a MUSA

 

Transition from wood to iron

Burchielle were initially built in wood, after a failed experiment to make one in cement they started to build them in iron: "until the year 1927 the wooden burchielle were still in use, reinforced with a cross-sectional iron bar to avoid the curving of the sides. Later the iron barges were preferred, they were about eighty and with a shape much more regular and unvarying, enough to allow an accurate determination of their usable payload volume by using specific wooden dunnage. (From "Le Saline di Cervia, Gino Pilandri, 1989)
While the wooden barges could hold as much as eight thousand kilos of salt, the iron ones reached around one hundred thousand kilos.

 

The salt harvest

Burchielle played a crucial role in the salt production process. The long line of barges created during the salt storage attracted plenty of people. The crowd gathered from Cervia and all the surrounding cities to witness the Armèsa de sel, a moment that celebrates the ending of the salt production season.
Today a faithful reproduction based on the original model of 1925 is used each year during the salt storage re-enactment.

Burchielle were used until the year 1959, when a "single salt gathering" system was preferred to the former "multiple gathering" one. For this reason the 144 salt pans were turned into a single large salt pan where the salt was extracted from the crystallizing ponds at the end of summer in a single solution thanks to more advanced mechanical equipment.

A few years ago, a burchiella has been bought from Governolo di Mantova and exhibited at MUSA, Cervia's salt museum.

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