Venetian Wells – The Need for Drinking Water.
As the population of Venetians in the Rialto area developed, there was one item lacking to ensure survival; a plentiful supply of fresh drinkable water.
The lack of fresh water could normally be solved through the construction of typical draw-wells to access underground water sources. Venice, however, was built on islands of low-level marshland in a salt water lagoon; the normal way of obtaining fresh water was impossible.
These early Venetians quickly found a solution, which was a key factor in the development and success of the city; until the eventual fall of the Republic.
The Venetians developed a water system relying on public, private and church owned wells; focusing on the careful maintenance and rigorous control of the access and the use of the water. This system allowed the city to grow and thrive over many centuries.
The solution to have drinkable water was to collect and filter rainwater, which could be drawn as usual through a well-head; the most visible part of the system.
The first step was to ensure a large enough collection surface area around every well head. This is why they are found exclusively in squares, courtyards, in palaces of the wealthy class and religious buildings.
The second stage was to dig out the area to a depth of 5 to 6 metres, which was then lined with an impermeable layer of clay readily available in the Venetian soil. Following this the holes were filled with a graded layers of river sand and gravel.
Finally, 2 or 4 gutters were created and placed symmetrically around the well, which drained the rainwater away from the paved surface and into the filtering system underneath. The whole paved collection area was gently sloped towards the well, to ensure natural drainage into the system.
The bricks or “pozzali”, used specifically for lining the central well pipe, allowed filtered rainwater to seep into it; from which Venetians could then collect using a bucket; just like any other kind of well.
Construction, Design and Decoration
Well heads are usually made of Istrian Stone and occasionally of marble and the design (or shape) and decoration depends on the era they were constructed and according to the patron’s taste. They were engineered to a high standard of manufacture and carved with exquisite workmanship.
Certain ancient wells, are cylindrical in shape and decorated with fantastic animals and stylised motifs.
Those built in the Veneto-Byzantine style, display twisted columns and animals.
During the Renaissance, polygonal shapes decorated with masks, heads, garlands and cherubs started to appear. Most notable are those to be found in the Ca D’Or courtyard, a 15th C construction in Veronese red marble and the 16th C well-head in the Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo.
During the Baroque years, they were decorated in capitals and rich volutes.
Finally, in the Neo-classical period they featured an essential and linear construction.
State provision and control
The Venetian State, aware of the real needs of Venice and its population; always promoted and coordinated the creation of wells. Decrees written by the Great Council, in 1322, 1424 and 1768; ordered the construction of respectively 50, 30 and 55 new public wells, all over the city. State constructed well-heads featured the Lion of St Mark.
Due to the importance of this vital resource to the city, the use and supervision of the public wells was very strict and closely supervised. Local priests and leaders were the only persons having the keys to access their assigned wells. Accessibility was twice per day, morning and evening; marked by the ringing of a “well-bell”.
Public, Private and the Church
In 1858, the Comune di Venezia produced a census of the Venetian wells; showing the figure of 180 working public and 6.046 private wells. It also showed that in previous centuries, 556 wells had been closed and removed, including one from the Piazza San Marco. The latter well had to be closed because it required continuous maintenance, becoming contaminated and foul smelling.
The creation of a well was complex and a big investment, requiring specialised workers. For these reasons, the State created a specialised corporation solely for the construction of public wells.
Contributions from wealthy families were welcome and encouraged; money from any source to build wells was always rewarded with kudos and prestige in the city. Well-heads (vere da pozzo), may show inscriptions or bas-relief evidence (such as coats-of-arms), within the overall decoration; referring to the family of generous donations made. There are only 3 signed wells: at Ca’ D’Oro created by Bartolomeo Bon in 1427 and the bronze wells in the Palazzo Ducale court, created by Nicolò Conti and Alfonso Alberghetti in 1556 and 1559.
Being a member of the Confraternity of Well-Makers (Confraternita dei Pozzeri), was a prestigious title; knowledge and expertise being passed from father to son. This was on condition that every Pozzere, had to vow to only build wells for the Venetian Republic.
The Vatican also constructed many private wells for its churches and cloisters and passed internal laws that made it mandatory to allow public access, at given times of the day.
The Corporation of Water Providers – the Acquaroli.
in 1386, the growing population and demands for fresh water, led to the creation of the “corporazione degli acquaroli”, in order to make sure the city had enough water over the whole year. If required, water from the Brenta, a river on the mainland, was used to fill the wells.
In 1609, with Venice at its peak population, the acquaroli dug an artificial channel to speed up the process. A canal 13.5 km long and 1 m wide, was constructed from the Brenta river; ending and ended in Moranzani, a town much closer to the city.
In Moranzani, they loaded up their boats with fresh water and rowed back to Venice, in order to fill up the wells directly from their boats using wooden pipes. Even though it was public water, they also had permission to sell the water for direct consumption; just like modern street vendors.
Since the acquaroli were navigating through the city’ canals to service the wells; they began collecting the garbage. Thankfully for sanitary reasons, their water containers were isolated from the general waste.
The Venetian water system relying on public, private and religious wells and focused on the careful maintenance and rigorous control of the access and the use of the water; allowed the city to grow and thrive for many centuries.
With the end of the Republic, due to lack of administration and poor maintenance; the quality of the water and the functionality of the wells, started to decline.
The final solution – a pipeline from the mainland.
The only solution was the construction of a more modern and efficient system: an aqueduct. Started in 1881, a large bore cast-iron pipe was laid under the lagoon; connecting Moranzani to Venice. It was finished in 1884 and was celebrated with the construction of a fountain in the middle of Piazza San Marco. Today, the Ponte della Liberta connecting Venice to the mainland; carries the pipeline.
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