The mind-blowing innovation which allowed venetians to survive and thrive

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    Since the very beginning of Venice, on the Rivo Alto, now Rialto, Venetians could count on plenty of fresh air and fish to feed themselves, but one major need for survival was missing: drinkable water.

    In the past, and at times still today, in some areas of the world, the lack of water could be solved through the construction of draw-wells thanks to which people could access water sources on the underground;

    Venice, however, being built on a swampland area in a salty lagoon, had nothing else to offer from the underground than even more salt water!

    A solution had to be found, was indeed found quickly, and it is even possible that is has been a key factor in the beginning itself of the construction of Venice.

    The solution Venetians found to have drinkable water was to filter rain water. But how? Well, there were few steps in the process.

    The first was to find a big surface around every well; this is why they are found exclusively in “campi”, squares, and in “corti”, courts.

    The second step was to dig these campi and corti until a depth of 5 to 6 meters and use clay, which is available in big amounts in the Venetian soil, to make a thick isolating layer at the bottom.
    Then these ample and deep holes had to be completely filled in with river sand of different dimensions.

    Finally, 2 or 4 gutters were created and placed symmetrically around the well, which would drain the rain water from the campo and make it pass through the sand underneath its surface. This is the reason why squares are not perfectly flat but tend instead to lower around every gutter, making it easier for the water to naturally flow towards them.

    Once the rain fell on the campi of Venice, the water naturally flowed towards the guts, was then filtrated by the sand and finally stopped by the layer of clay. The bricks, “pozzali”, used specifically for the wells allowed then the water to filter through them and fill in the pipe, from which Venetians could then collect water through a bucket, just like it would work with any other kind of well.

    The Serenissima, which was well 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 respectively of 50, 30 and 55 new public wells all over the city.

    Due to the importance of their content, the use and supervision of the public wells were very strict, with the Superintendency supervising all of them, and the local priests and block leaders being the only persons having the keys to access their assigned wells. Wells were accessible twice per day, in the morning and in the evening, at the ringing of the “wells bells”.

    In 1858, a report by the Comune di Venezia made a census of the wells in Venice: 180 working public wells and 6.046 private wells! The same research also showed that in previous centuries 556 wells had been closed and removed, one of which from the most famous places of all: Piazza San Marco.

    The creation of a well was complex, requiring very specialized workers and resulting, therefore, a big investment. For these reasons, the Serenissima created a corporation specialized in the construction of public wells. No other entities were authorized to do so. Contributions, nevertheless, were welcome and encouraged: the Government always rewarded largely, with kudos and prestige, every rich Venetian family who would donate (read finance) a well to the city. This is why on many “vere da pozzo”, the visible part of the wells, inscriptions or bas-relief referring to the generous family can be spotted within the decorations.

    Being a member of the specialized corporation aforementioned and called confraternita dei Pozzeri, or well-makers confraternity, was a very prestigious title which, along with the specific knowledge and expertise, was passed on from fathers to sons, at one condition: every Pozzere had to vow to build wells only for the Venetian Republic.

    Despite the high number of wells, the growing population and its need of water lead to the creation in 1386 of the “corporazione degli acquaroli”, a corporation which had to make sure the city had enough water during the whole year, and in case of need, to fill in the wells with water from the Brenta river, a river of the mainland.

    In 1609, at a demographic peak for Venice, the “acquaroli” decided to dig an artificial channel to speed up the process; the canal, 1m wide and 13,5km long, started from the Brenta river and ended in Moranzani, much closer to the city.
    In Moranzani, the “acquaroli” were filling up their boats with drinkable water and then rowing back to Venice to fill up the wells directly from their boats, with the use of wooden pipes. Even though it was public water, the “acquaroli” had the permission to also sell the water for direct consumption, just like modern street vendors.

    Since the “acquaroli” were navigating through most of the city to fill in the wells, they soon started collecting the garbage. They kept the same type of boats, called “scoazzere”, to do so, but had to store the water in closed bowls, to make sure to preserve its purity: healthcare and prevention were always a very serious topic for the Serenissima.

    Another indirect contributor, however, has always been the Vatican.
    We refer to the Church as an indirect contributor because Venice welcomed the construction of hundreds of churches and cloisters with their private wells while enforcing its own Law on private orders. One of these laws made it mandatory for the Church to give free access to its wells to the Venetian citizens, at several given times of the day.

    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 Serenissima, however, the care in the administration of the city diminished, and the quality of the water and the functionality of the wells, with their delicate balance, started falling short. The only solution, at this point, was the construction of a more modern and efficient system: an aqueduct.

    Started in 1881 with the lay-down of a cast iron pipe (800mm diameter) under the lagoon, connecting Moranzani to Venice, it was finished in 1884 and celebrated with the construction of a fountain in the middle of Piazza San Marco!

    Curious Facts:

    • There are only 3 signed wells: the pozzo 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 in 1559
    •  There was a well in San Marco’s square, but it had to be closed because it required continuous intervention. The water inside of the well tended to be contaminated and to become smelly too quickly; the water was therefore not drinkable but even worse it was also polluting the area with its bad smell.
    •  The total surface of wells is equal to 10% of the whole surface of the city!
    •  Every inhabitant had the right to have in average of 5.5-6.8 L of water per day.

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