Archive for January, 2018

A wellhead is one of the commonest, and most interesting and beautiful, features of the city. Now they’re merely ornamental, when they’re not subbing as a table or a bench. But they used to ensure survival.

The recent break in the water main was only one of many episodes over the centuries which illustrate the particular difficulties facing a city condemned to live the life of the Ancient Mariner, surrounded by water but without any to drink. As historian Marin Sanudo famously put it in 1500 or so: “Venezia e’ in aqua ma non ha aqua” (Venice is in water but doesn’t have water). If you think it’s amazing to build a city where there’s almost no land, consider living in it without any water.  You can’t drink wine all day.  You certainly can’t wash your clothes in it.  So if I say that Venetians built wells, it’s no less impressive than that they built palaces.

When the Venetian government moved from Malamocco to the Rialto area in the late 700’s A.D., it was clear that it made no sense to pay to bring water to Venice from the wells on the Lido.  So the well-digging began, and by the time the Venetian Republic ended, there were thousands of wells in the city — some of them private, many of them public, and they remained the city’s only source of fresh water until the aqueduct from the mainland opened in 1884. That’s practically yesterday in Venetian years.  There were telephones and color photography before there was running water in Venice.

The wells acquired water in one of three ways: Rainwater collected by means of an inclined pavement; water brought from mainland rivers and springs in waterboats operated by the acquaioli, or watermen, and, least common of all, artesian groundwater.  All of them are closed now, the remaining wellheads a mere symbol of their former importance.

By the time the Venetian Republic fell there were some 6,000 wells in the city; today about 600 remain.  That still seems like a lot, but an old Venetian wouldn’t be impressed.  I picture a Venetian from 500 years ago visiting the city today and perhaps even before saying “What’s that light?” as the streetlamps are turned on, he or she would be saying “Where the hell are the wells?  How do you people stay alive?”

The drain at each corner, of Istrian marble, was called a pilela or “gatolo,” and beneath it was a bell-shaped brick construction opening inward to encourage the water to flow toward the cistern.

This section shows a little more clearly how the water behaved, seeping through the filtering sand, then through the well’s brick walls.  (Wikimedia: Marrabbia2)

In 1300 there were about 100 wells in Venice.  In 1322 the Great Council decreed the construction of another 50 wells.  In the hope of continuing to create more the government generously subsidized well-building in the convents, on the condition that the water be available to everyone.  There were also wells dedicated to the sole use of the poor, such as the one at San Marcuola.

In 1424 another 30 wells were realized.  And so it went.  In 1858 the Technical Office of Venice (still under the Austrian domination) estimated there were 6,046 private wells and 180 public, not counting the 556 which had already been filled in.  Over the next century they were closed for good, and in many cases their wellheads were, to put it tactfully, removed.

An even more detailed scheme is displayed on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo.  Even a quarantine island had to have its own source of water, hundreds of people were living there for 40 days trying not to die from the plague.

Constructing a well

The Venetian well is far from being a mere hole in the ground; it is a complex and carefully created structure, and the builders must have been demon geometers to figure out volumes and areas, not to mention calculating the tons of muddy soil to be removed.

The first thing to consider was the available area for what I call the platform, the inclined pavement which covered the entire opening of the pit and caused the rainwater to run into the “gatoli,” or drains, at each corner and ultimately into the cistern.

Whether the space was a square or a rectangle, squads of men known as pozzeri (well-builders) belonging to the bricklayers’ guild would dig a crater; one source says it never exceeded 16 feet (5 meters), another states that it could go down as far as 32-40 feet (10-12 meters).  In any case, at the bottom the diggers hit the extremely hard clay substratum known as caranto.  One source says they stopped there, another says they dug past it.  I would gladly pursue this point further when I find the time.

To protect the well from possible pollution by salt water, some campi (or parts of them) were raised. A few typical examples are Campo San Trovaso, Sant’Angelo, and the Piazzetta dei Leoncini at San Marco.

Those campi weren’t heightened just to give tired tourists somewhere to sit, convenient as they may be.

Once dug, the floor and sides of this cavity were lined with bricks, clay, or even caranto, to form a thick impermeable barrier.  Then the pit was filled with layers of river sand of varying finenesses which filtered the rainwater running down into it..

The barrel of the well rested on a disk of Istrian marble, and was made of special bricks called pozzali which allowed the filtered water to enter the collection cistern.

Remains of the well on the Lazzaretto Nuovo, one of the plague quarantine islands which the Archeoclub Venezia has been excavating for years.

Finally the entire filled-in pit was covered with a layer of herringbone brickwork, upon which, in later years, the familiar stone paving blocks (masegni) were laid.  Taken as a whole, this ingenious design not only kept the fresh water in, but kept out the brackish water surrounding it. People may complain about high water today because it’s a nuisance, but there were some acque alte in the distant past that were so high that documents chillingly report that “all the wells were ruined.”  That prospect certainly puts a busted main in a different light.

All this work was expensive, of course, partly due to its complexity and partly from the sheer quantity of wet, messy, heavy material that was being moved around, and it had to be perfect. No weak spots, no miscalculated angles.  Because of its value, the gift of a well to the city by a noble or wealthy family was considered an act of tremendous civic spirit, and of course made the donors look very good indeed.  The government obviously encouraged these gifts, and permitted the generous family’s name to be incised on the wellhead.  Venetians generally weren’t allowed to indulge much in “Look at me, look at me,” but a few encomiums could be allowed for giving a public well.

The glory is fading from this family’s name, and the well, in Campo San Isepo. All I can make out by now is: “PRINCIPE FRANCISCO DONATO BENEDICTUS DEI PHNO PROVISOR (?) COMUTIS PRO POPULO MDXLVII.” “The Prince (i.e., doge) Francesco Donato (also commonly spelled Dona’) blessed is he who provides fully for the people 1547.” In other words, “I am a river to my people.”

Using the wells

Commercial enterprises — especially those, such as cloth dying, that needed large amounts of water — were forbidden to use the public wells.  They had to buy it from the waterboats, otherwise there’d obviously be nothing left for anyone else.

The regular people could draw water when they needed it, but only in the daytime.  At night the wells were closed by heavy covers, usually of iron but sometimes of wood, and locked until the campana dei pozzi (bell of the wells) rang in the morning when they were opened, and again in the evening when they were covered again. The keys to the well-cover were kept by a specifically authorized person, either the district warden or, more commonly, the parish priest.  Rainwater is called acqua piovana (pyo-VAH-na), and so eventually the priest was nicknamed the piovan.  Keeper of the rainwater.  I think that would look excellent on somebody’s resume.

Along with discouraging theft, locking the wells should have deterred suicides, but occasionally a desperate person — despite being surrounded by canals conveniently full of water — would put an end to it all by throwing him- or herself  into one.  This seems to me to be an unusually harsh way to drown, not to mention rude and thoughtless considering that you thereby ruined countless gallons of precious H2O for God knows how many months for an entire neighborhood.  I can’t imagine your average Venetian would feel much sympathy for the victim when the day’s bucket was empty.

On August 15, 1736, a certain wool-weaver named Giacomo disposed of himself in the well in the campo of San Francesco della Vigna. (I surmise that the erstwhile well has been replaced by the fountain; the gattoli drain on the pavement indicates there must have been a wellhead there.)  What puzzles me even more than the missing well is why he decided to drown himself there, because he lived in the parish of the Santi Apostoli; it’s reasonably distant today but back then to go there must have been like going to Milan.  I’m guessing it was because of a girl.  But how he could have known a girl from such a distant parish also puzzles me.  There were people even into the last century who had never gone to San Marco.  Was there an outstanding account that the client refused to pay?  Kill the client already, not yourself! I’m not making light of someone who was willing and able to die in a well, but it just raises so many questions, including whether anybody tried to stop him.  It had to have been daylight, and there had to have been a thousand more people in the area back then than on a recent weekday morning.  A million scenarios leap to mind, none of them very entertaining.

And then there’s this. I can’t even guess how many Olympic swimming pools could fit under that slanting platform.

Either there was a well here at one time, or there was supposed to be one. I have some doubt as to how efficient it would have been, considering that the pavement surrounding the future wellhead is completely flat. Did somebody not read the instructions?

I see the wellhead and the gatoli, or drains, but here by Campo Santa Marina there are three gatoli in a row.  The builders clearly made the most of an inconvenient space.  I’ve gotten to the point where the drains are almost more interesting than the wellhead, probably because now I know what lurks beneath.


Categories : Water
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Drink up (part 1)

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And you thought leaks just went drip drip drip. (Photo: La Nuova Venezia)

Saturday morning a week ago I turned on the kitchen tap and water came out as usual except that it was wobbling.  I soon learned that certain stretches of the city — Sant’ Elena, parts of Castello (us), and even parts of Cannaregio and San Marco — were suffering water pressure problems and the fresh water was down to trickles in some houses.

The water company was already on the case, having discovered that at about 8:00 PM on Friday evening, some sort of heavy transport boat had driven blithely over a slightly submerged water main 60 cm (23 inches) in diameter and ripped it open.  The tube is of steel, so I’d say that was quite a little navigation error.  And I say this disaster was created blithely because the tide was low and the tube was in an area clearly marked as being forbidden to navigation.  Conclusion: The rogue boat was taking a short cut (sorry) across an area that shouldn’t ever have been crossed, especially not at low tide.  So the water main was doomed.

Meanwhile, fresh water was surging to the surface of the lagoon on the north side of the Arsenal like a submerged geyser, at the rate of 52 gallons (200 liters) per second. By Sunday the tube had been repaired but 7,132,645 gallons (27 million liters) of fresh water had poured into the lagoon. It must have been a shock to the fish, who may well never have tasted (or breathed, or whatever they do) salt-free water.

The boat hasn’t yet been identified, except that traces of zinc on the steel victim left by the propeller and rudder make it fairly clear which sort of vessel was involved.  If the perpetrator is ever identified, he’s going to have to face accusations not only of breaking the traffic law, and damaging city property, and the environment (I assume), but, just as bad, of not reporting it, which I suppose amounts to leaving the scene of an accident.  Hitting and running is frowned on, even if the victim is a steel pipe.

Perhaps you can make out where the real channel is located (hint: it’s to the left of the pilings, which is why they’re there; the motorboat leaving a foamy wake clearly indicates where boats are supposed to go). The space between the wall and the pilings is totally off limits. Does it seem particularly hard to discern where the channel is? Only about a thousand boats per minute (made up) travel back and forth on it.

The space is rather tight between the wall and the cement pedestal with its two warning signs. Of course, they’re pointing outward, so if you had decided you needed to slink along up next to the wall, you wouldn’t have much indication that it was a bad idea. But why would you be slinking along the wall?  It seems like an inherently bad idea, considering that it is almost guaranteed that the boat wasn’t heading under the arch in the wall and into the Arsenal.  That’s because it’s a military zone and its dwellers don’t look kindly on civilian intruders.

Now that I’ve introduced the subject of water in Venice — I mean in it, not around it — I’ll be dedicating a few upcoming chapters to how Venice managed to survive for 1,000 years without a steel water main, not to mention faucets.  Yet fresh water there was, and the system for providing it was just as amazing as anything else the Venetians have ever done, from building the Doge’s Palace to the invention of italic type.

Categories : Problems
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Carnival closing in

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This year Carnival is starting early, thanks to the lunar schedule which governs Easter (January 27 – February 13, if you’re keeping track; two and a half weeks, which seems long, but it’s three weekends, which is what really matters).  Therefore we are enjoying a shorter-than-usual interlude of calm and tranquility between Epiphany and the aforementioned Carnival — a mere three weeks, which isn’t nearly long enough to take all those deep breaths you so urgently need.  But there’s no arguing with the Paschal Full Moon, counting backwards from, and I imagine the city fathers would be happy for it to run for six months, as it did in the olden days, considering how much lucre spills into the municipal coffers therefrom.

What I am enjoying are the jolly signs of its approach.  Here are just a few glances around the neighborhood.  And yes, as every year, the frittelle are appearing in the pastry shops, and wild swaths of confetti have already been seen strewn across the pavement.  I notice that the garbage-collectors have been sweeping them away.  Why?  They’re not a health hazard.  They’re not a safety hazard.  They’re not ugly or offensive.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible to find yet another reason to complain about the garbage-collectors-and-sweepers, but I can’t see why they don’t devote whatever small, random spasms of energy they may experience with their brooms to sweeping away real trash, and just leave these merry little fragments of frivolity on the pavement, where they can cheer people up.  But so many things perplex me, no point in picking just one.

This is all it takes to make me happy.  The people just distract me — it’s much better if I come across the confetti as if thrown by an occult hand.

The first indication I saw of the oncoming juggernaut was the entire section of the Coop supermarket window stacked with boxes of galani, bags of confetti, a packages of streamers.

Shards of flour, fat and sugar. You deserve a close-up of these little monsters, they are so good.  But what — no masks?  Not so fast…

Just around the corner, in the sensible-food aisle next to the shelves of dried legumes and cellophane-wrapped bread are some masks. They thought of everything.

As did Mario and his wife in the nameless housewares and detergent and mops and toothpaste shop.  You can get glitter eyeliner here too, while it lasts.

They’re keeping pace with the Carnival Diet in the Conad supermarket on the Lido. Boxes and boxes of galani brought in from some demented factory where the ovens are baking night and day.  I wonder if these are any better than the ones in our neighborhood?  I wonder if I should seek the answer to that question?


Categories : Venetian Events
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Just glimpsing

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One could do very well here not reading or listening to the news — though eventually one would miss something good — but there would be no point in living in Venice if you couldn’t wander around just looking at things.  And things there always are, needing no introduction and often no comprehension.  If you require that the world make sense, don’t come here.  Go somewhere logical, like Naples, or Lagos.  I speak from experience.

But back to Venice:

This building has clearly led several useful lives.  You don’t need that archway anymore? Brick it up and punch out a window. But the arch presented problems for later revisions; the owners had to slice a corner off the panel on the wall near its arch ring to accommodate it.  And what to do with that fireplace hovering above it?  That fireplace has become  a small obsession of mine. Its floor should be parallel to the street, one would think, but the arch has left it to fend for itself.

Speaking of trying to fit things into a squeezy space there is this barge, which needed to park here. No room? No problem! Just let the part that doesn’t fit stretch out into the street. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a truck parked like this in some city on the mainland, so why should it make me blink here by the canal?

This is a very happy scene. A few whiles back, somebody smashed the plaque and offering box to bits.  In a cit y where everything is tending to fall to pieces that might not merit much attention.  But the inscription has always intrigued me: “Acknowledging Archpriest Giovanni Cotin 1915 1918 the inhabitants of Quintavalle.  Offerings.”  Quintavalle is a little lobe of land behind the church of San Pietro di Castello, and it is truly the back of beyond.  What Giovanni Cotin did to merit the love and gratitude of its residents is something I AM going to find out.  But meanwhile, by some miraculous hand(s), the damage has been repaired.  The story could end here, but I am fascinated by the fact that they installed an awning to protect the relief image of the Madonna and Child from the blazing sun. The image is of bronze, for heaven’s sake. Does bronze need protection? I wouldn’t have thought so, but perhaps they think it’s the mother and her baby, and not the art work itself, that need some shade, which is enchanting, and somehow shows as much reverence and affection as the plaque.  Quintavalle, I underestimated you.

Let’s move indoors.  There is an art to managing the superstitions involving the number 13.  We were invited to a festive lunch in a popular and crowded place where they tape a piece of paper by your table to indicate the time and number of people to be seated. (Also the name of the person who made the reservation, which I have removed.) It is known to be desperately bad luck to write that there are 13 people in a group — as I understand it, which I mostly don’t — so they have cleverly written the number of diners as 12 + 1. It doesn’t seem that there BEING 13 people is a problem, you just can’t write it.  But the time is 1300 hours, or 1:00 PM. Obviously “13” gets all kinds of waivers in the luck department.

More messages, and chalk is just as good as carved stone if the sentiment has that lapidary character. On the bar at a cafe by the Rialto market: “The client is always right … is a concept invented by a client…The person who is right is one who is polite, courteous and understanding of whoever is working.” If you don’t agree, by all means feel free to get out and go elsewhere.  That’s written in invisible chalk.

On the door to the restroom of a bar/cafe. Speaks for itself.

I’m on this staircase in the Doge’s Palace only once a year — it’s closed to the public — so I have to make the most of it. Late afternoon makes so many things look good.


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Categories : Venetian-ness
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