In Venetian history

Drinking water was not available in Venice in the early times. As Marin Sanudo explained in his chronicles of the 16th century, Venice is quite a paradox: “Veniexia è in aqua et non ha aqua”, which means “Venice is on water but has no water”. Being surrounded by brackish water, Venetians had to develop special cisterns to collect and filter the rain in order to get drinking water.

How Venice was supplied with drinking water

The first residents of the lagoon were likely inspired by the natural resources of sweet water along the Lido island and the other natural barriers of the lagoon. There, they discovered how sand dunes could filter water. The artificial wells were then built in the city islands, too, and squares (the “campi”) would be designed around them —and not viceversa.

How wells or water cisterns were built to supply Venice with fresh water

Imagine therefore digging in the ground a tank of different width and on average 3-4 meters deep. In order to make this tank waterproof, a half-a-meter thick layer of clay would be all over. This layer of clay was meant to prevent any brackish water from creeping in as well as avoid any leaking.

In the middle of the cistern you would build a “well” in bricks with special cement, composed of two parts of clay and one part of sand to let the water filter through. All around there would be sand. Above, you would find one, two or four “pilelle”, openings to collect the rainwater placed where the ground was lower. On these openings a stone like a “seal” was placed with some manholes to let the rainwater in.

In the courtyard of the New Prisons, part of the Doge’s palace museum in Venice, you can see an old well

In the courtyard of the New Prisons, part of the Doge’s palace museum in Venice, you can see an old well with the original “pilelle” and “gatoi”

Public wells in Venice were a priority for the Venetian State. It was not inexpensive, but drinking water autonomy was essential also for military reasons. If drinking water was available, Venice would not depend on external resources and therefore not fear an embargo or a siege. To get financial support, some measures were applied. For instance, gondola’s ferry services were taxed to help with the construction and extraordinary maintenance of the cisterns. In fact, sometimes high water would flood in, sometimes a drought cracked the clay layer. 

Other sources of water for Venice: the Seriola canal and the burchi business

By the 14th century, wells also served as containers for drinking water transported from the rivers emptying out in the lagoon. Later, in 1609, a narrow canal was also built on the mainland, around 13,5 kilometers long, only 1 meter wide. Its name was Seriola and it helped bring the Brenta river water at the height of the town of Dolo and divert it to Moranzani. There the “burchi” boats were ready to collect and bring water to Venice, but not before the water was purified. The State allowed privates to take care of the work in exchange for the income which derived from the water transportation. Water started becoming a good you could commercialize. No more than five families were in charge of this business… 

Wells for drinking water in Venice were beautiful art works

Considering the whole lagoon and its different islands, the city of Venice and Chioggia, it is likely we talk about around 8000 cisterns by 1858. Some well-heads were built in stone, some in marble, bronze and bricks. Quite interestingly, well-heads were not just considered useful. You can read on the one in Campo San Leonardo: “commoditati publicae nec non urbis ornamento”, which means “for the convenience of the people as well as an ornament of the city”. 

The well in Campo San Leonardo, Venice: the inscription reminding us wells are not just useful, well heads decorate the city, dated back to 1518

A well transformed into a fountain in Campo San Leonardo, Venice

Wells made the city look more beautiful. Each century would feature its own style, from the ones coming from ancient archeological remains to the ones echoing byzantine, or gothic, renaissance, baroque decorative elements. Too bad winged lions were chiseled away, but we can still admire the elegance of these well-heads and understand why many foreigners would love to take them to their mansions in Germany and Austria, Russia, or England and Hungary, France and America.

This well head in Venice is quite unique and dates back to the 15th century

And they were caring: in 1793 a law established there would always be a clean basin for cats and dogs to drink from!

And today? How does Venice get its water to drink?

As in the past, you can find public water, free of charge, as well as privates commercializing drinking water in bottles, mainly plastic.

The aqueduct in Venice

The construction of the aqueduct was a major project completed by 1882-1884. When completed, on June 23rd 1884 a fountain in St Mark’s square was set up in the middle of the night and artificial illumination made it look as if it were day time. Venetians admired those jets of drinking water shooting wildly out of the fountain as a futuristic event! 

The fountain in St Mark’s square in Venice on the Inauguration Day of the Aqueduct in Venice, 1884, Palazzo Fortuny Photography Archive, Naya Fund, Venice

Near Piazzale Roma you can also find a museum dedicated to the history of the aqueduct. This aqueduct runs under the railway bridge and still today brings to homes and public fountains in Venice excellent quality drinking water. And yet, every day as a tourist guide I get asked if the water running from the fountains is drinkable. It is. 

A fountain in Campo dei Gesuiti, Venice

We talk about aquifer, sustainable groundwater coming from nearly 50 different sources located between Venice, Padua and Treviso. Checked every day.

Venice Tap Water, a project by Marco Capovilla

I had the pleasure to interview Marco Capovilla who has made his mission to let everyone know about fountains in Venice and its drinkable water with his website 

On the website you can find the map of where fountains are located in the historical city, and not just. On the website, he invites hotels to download the leaflet to exhibit in the lobbies and inform tourists visiting Venice of this opportunity. Which opportunity? To drink healthy water, to respect the environment avoiding drinking bottled water and also to save money, as in the end, when you buy bottled water, you just pay (a lot) for the plastic, nothing for the water the bottle contains. It is not ethical or sustainable to pay to have access to water:

Millions of plastic bottles for drinking water: unsustainable Venice

Millions of plastic bottles invade Venice and they are not necessary. As the ISGlobal researcher Cristina Villanueva said in an article appeared on the Guardian

People trust bottled water because advertisers have done a good job of convincing people it’s a good option, so we need the effort on the other side

In Venice you can find 155 fountains, but some will be closed as in this difficult moment with the drought going on, the city municipality has decided it was a waste.

The fountain in campo San Giacometto in Rialto, dated 1915, turned off for the draught, Venice July 2022

In fact, very few of these fountains have a button to push and water keeps on running. Instead of updating these fountains with a normal on and off button, you will find dispensers of plastic bottles at many water buses stops and very few bins where to collect plastic.

Campo Sant’Aponal in Venice on an early morning: bottles of water next to the ancient water cistern

Trash bins along the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice, July 2022

A proposal for the future, without waiting any further

What I loved about Marco Capovilla’s words, apart being informed, passionate and straightforward, is his focus on how fountains look. If they look old, poorly taken care of, with no attention to design, how can you communicate that is excellent drinking water?

Maybe we need not to be afraid of going against transportation and commercialization of bottled water… and what about arranging a competition to re-design or restore the 155 fountains with the help of the Architecture University of Venice IUAV and announce with a new fountain in the middle of St Mark’s square that Venice has banned bottled water and is really the capital of sustainability? “Venice is on water and has drinking water” would be the right motto.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

In the cover, the well in Campo della Maddalena, Venice, end of the 15th century

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Showing 2 comments
  • Gail S

    Very nice article Luisella – thank you. Where is the “This well head in Venice is quite unique and dates back to the 15th century”?