The Venetian diarist, Marin Sanudo (1466-1536), summed up one of the paradoxes of Venice when he wrote: "Venexia è in aqua et non ha aqua." (Venice is in water and it doesn't have water.)
Given the location of the city, the sinking of wells was out of the question. And so the Venetians had to solve the problem of providing fresh water for its large population (in the 14th century Venice was the fourth largest city in Europe) by collecting rainwater.
The city's numerous campi and cortili were turned into extremely efficient facilities for collecting and storing the wet stuff. Large underground cisterns (up to 5 meters deep) would collect the rainwater, which flowed through small stone drains (gatoli or pivelle). The rainwater was sifted through sand to remove any impurities. The water would then be drawn up through the wellhead (vera da pozzo).
The wellheads in the campi were locked and the keys held by the local parish priests, who decided when the well should be opened. This centuries-old practise changed in the 1880s with the advent of piped water from the mainland. This ensured that the wells never ran out of water. When water was piped directly into people’s houses the wells became redundant and thousands of wellheads disappeared. Many were sold off to foreigners, some were broken up, and some found other uses, often as rather elaborate plant pots.
Taking many forms (round, square, hexagonal, octagonal, cylindrical), most wellheads, which date from the 9th to the 19th century, were carved out of Istrian stone, a few out of Verona marble, and at least two were cast in bronze. Some are elaborately carved, others less so.
According to a census of 1858, there were 6,046 private wells, 180 public wells and 556 disused wells in Venice. Assuming that each well had a wellhead, that comes to a grand total of 6,782. I wonder how many there are today. Alberto Rizzi in his fascinating and fact-filled volume The Well-Heads of Venice comes up with a figure of 2,500.
We all have our favourite wellheads and one of mine sits in the garden of the Hotel Stern. It is over a thousand years old, the wellhead, that is, not the hotel!