Venetian rainwater wells
While walking around Venice you won’t be able to help noticing that almost in every square (Campo) there is at least one well.
One of the paradoxes of Venice is that Venice is on the water but has no water; the provisioning of drinkable water was always a major problem as the subsoil of Venice does not have any water bearing stratum within easy reach. The only attainable fresh water springs are in the mainland and on the Lido land-strips. Fresh water was therefore supplied by boats that would carry water to Venice from the river Brenta and by the rainwater wells in town.
None of the wells in Venice are actual wells as they do not draw water from underground aquifers; all of them are underground cisterns that only collect and filter rainwater.
There are about 600 cisterns/wells in Venice but nowadays water is supplied by the waterworks and none of the wells is actually used anymore.
How do Venetian cisterns work
The construction of a rainwater well was very expensive because of the very complex building procedure and the many different materials that had to be used. Workers had to dig the soil up to 5/6 meters underground, below sea level, therefore in order to carry out the works very special equipment had to be used such as sheet-pile walls and quarterdecks. First of all the building of a rain water well required a large area: as you will notice most wells are located in town squares (Campi and Campielli) and courtyards (Corti).
Section of Venetian rainwater well
The selected area had to be dug for a 5-6 meters depth. The recess was then lined with a water proof clay layer of about 60 cm in the bottom, gradually reduced to 30 cm in the upper end.
The clay layer both prevented infiltration of brackish water into the recess and the dispersion of the fresh water from the tank. The recess was then filled in with river sand of various sizes. A small but long bell-shaped tunnel (Cassone) with open base was built just underneath the surface, all around the well head; at the angles of the tunnel 2 or 4 manholes (Pilelle), usually made with Istrian stone, collected rainwater. When you come across a well, take a look around and you’ll easily spot the white Istrian stone manholes a few meters from the well. The underground tunnel was built as close as possible to the edge of the clay-lined reservoir so that the water had to go the longest way possible before reaching the central chamber and could thus be purified as much as possible through the sand.
In most cases, the pavement had to be raised in such a way to create descending slopes to allow rainwater to flow into the manholes. The water was then filtered by the different layers of sand before reaching the well shaft. Sometimes cistern makers could not dig as deep as 5 meters because they would not find earth but just muddy waters; as they could not carry on with the work they had to raise the whole pavement in order to get the right height for the sand filter of the cisterns. You can find a good example of such technique in Campo San Trovaso, Sestiere Dorsoduro, where the whole pavement in front of the church was raised for about 1 meter in order to build the rain water cistern. Rainwater cisterns installed in private houses could make use of an extra source of fresh water as it was diverted into the cistern from the roof gutters.
The well shaft was built on a circular slab of Istrian stone and was made up of special porous bricks called “pozzali”. The water flowed slowly into the shaft through the "poor lime" (lime with little mortar) joints between the bricks..
The well-head was called “vera” and was usually made of Istrian stone; some of the oldest “vere” were actually made with ancient Roman marble column capitals that were adapted to be used for the wells. Well-heads are one of the most characteristic features of the urban environment and became works of art in their own right.
It was obviously very important that rainwater wells were kept in good order and periodically maintained. Venice Administration organized a system to thoroughly check and maintain the wells. The Superitendency to the Waters, the parsons and the Heads of the town Districts were in charge of control and maintenance. The Heads of the town Districts kept the keys of the well covers: the wells could be opened 2 times a day, in the morning and in the evening at the toll of the “well bell”.
Rainwater collection unfortunately was not enough to meet the needs of the citizens.
The well-head (vera) was initially a very simple structure that was installed on top of the wells to meet safety requirements.
As time went by the structures of well-heads became more and more elaborated to the extent that they actually developed into sheer works of art.
The early artistic well-heads were built with stones taken from the ancient Roman ruins of the nearby town of Altino: capitals, pillar sections and even cinerary urns were reshaped and adapted to be used as "Vere".
The wellhead located in the courtyard of Cà d’Oro is one of the most beautiful “Vera” and also one of the few that carry the signature of the author: Bartolomeo Bon carved it in 1427 in red marble with the symbols of Charity, Justice and Fortitude.
Given the shortage of water in Venice, the Republic always encouraged the aristocracy to participate in the construction of rainwater-wells: any rich family who would donate one for public use was entitled to have their coat of arms carved onto the “Vera”.
The wellhead located in “Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo” was built in the beginning of the 16th century by the Cornèr family, one of the richest and more powerful patrician family of the Republic. This well head was actually installed in their beautiful palace Ca' Corner, but was moved to Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo in 1824.
The well is decorated with cherubs that carry a shield with the Corner family coat of arms.
The Latin inscription at the base says; "Mira silex mirusque latex qui flumina vincit" which means "Wonderful stone and wonderful is this water, that surpasses that of the rivers."
The Mint Rainwater well
This well head was specifically designed for the Mint in the middle of the 16th century by Jacopo Sansovino (who actually designed the whole building); the statue of Apollo that carries gold bars was carved by Danese Cattaneo. The wellhead is now located in Ca’ Pesaro (San Stae). The architectural structure of the well head is rather unusual: four columns support a broken arch. As the Mint is a very peculiar place where money is coined, Danese thought that the courtyard wellhead had to be very peculiar too and instead of being decorated with the usual representations of Justice, Charity and Fortitude it should convey a different message, more suitable to the Mint operations. Danese’s design is based upon the medieval belief that gold can be fabricated by an alchemical transmutation process and the mixture of different metals (namely copper and silver): this is the reason why on top of the arch stands a statue of Apollo which symbolizes the sun but also gold; at the sides there are bass reliefs that represent the Moon (silver) and Venus (copper).
Rainwater wells in the Monstery of Santa Maria dei Frari
This baroque-style well-head is installed in the cloister of Trinity (Chiostro della Santissima Trinità) inside the monastery of “Santa Maria dei Frari” located in the “Santa Croce” District and belongs to the "Archivio di stato" (Venice State Archive).
Built in 1250, the Basilica of Santa Maria dei Frari is the largest church of Venice and hosts masterpieces of great artists such as Giovanni Bellini, Donatello, Titian and Jacopo Sansovino.
Unfortunately the cloister is open only a few times a year, during exhibitions organized by the Venice State Archive.
The cloister was designed by Andrea Palladio, but was completed only in 1589; the square shaped porch is supported by 44 marble columns.
The well-head was commissioned by Antonio Pittoni and built by Giovanni Trognon around 1712.
The name of the cloister, designed by Andrea Palladio, comes from the group of statues, made by Francesco Penso (better known as “Cabianca”) that is positioned on top of the arch of the cistern and represents The Holy Trinity (Santa Trinità, in Italian): the Father, the Son (carrying a cross) and the Holy Spirit (the dove that irradiates light).
When the rain water cistern was built, the population had free access to the cloister and could also draw water from the well.
The construction of the cloister dates to the first half of the XVI century, but it was redesigned and rebuilt around 1560 by the Florentine architect Jacopo Sansovino.
The peculiar trapeze shaped porch is supported by round arches with 32 marble columns.
The well-head was commissioned by the priest Giuseppe Cesena in 1689, on top of the arch there is a statue of Sant'Antonio da Padova.
San Lorenzo cloister
It is believed that Marco Polo was buried here but his sarcophagus went lost during the reconstruction of the church.
This beautiful cistern is actually located very close to the church, in a retirement home that, as early as the VI century, used to be a convent.
On top of the arch there are 2 sea monsters that hold Neptune's trident.
Unfortunately only the guests of the retirement home have access to the cloister.
The Doge's Palace head wells
The only two bronze cast head wells in Venice are installed in the courtyard of the Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale). Both well heads were made in the middle of the XVI century: the one close to the "Giants' Stairway" was made by Alfonso Alberghetti, the other by Nicolò de Conti (Director of the Foundries of the Republic of Venice).
Conti's well head has 8 sides divided by "talamons" (caryatids) that is male decorative figures that support the weight at the angles. The middle of the sides are decorated with bass-reliefs of lions (emblem of Venice), sirens, flowers, fruit and the image of the Doge. Alberghetti's head well also has 8 sides, decorated with images of the Doge, Jupiter, tritons, nymphs, fighting sirens and the coat of arms of the Doge.
The only other possible way to compensate for the lack of fresh water was to have someone bring it to Venice from the mainland or from the Lido. Water carriers used to bring fresh water to the city from the river Brenta. A Corporation of the “Water Carriers” was established in 1386. There were also illegal water carriers, who would bring water to Venice and sell it to the people. They were tolerated though, and could acquire the right to sell water against payment of a 20 ducats fee to the Corporation,
Around 1610 a small artificial canal, 13,5 km long and 1m wide, was specifically built to bring fresh water to Venice. The artificial canal was called “Seriola” and brought water from the river Brenta to the village of Maranzani. The water carriers would then collect the fresh water in Maranzani and carry it to Venice. Then they would pour the water into the manholes of the cisterns from their boats using special small wooden ditches.
In 1858 there were about 7000 wells in Venice of which 6046 were private and 180 for public use. The public waterworks was built in 1883 and little by little the rainwater well were less and less used until the metal covers were all welded for safety.