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Venetian wells

itinerari

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For centuries they have been an essential element of Venetian daily life. Usually located in the middle of squares and courtyards, on higher ground, the wells supplied the population's freshwater. The way they functioned was quite simple: the rainwater was channelled through stone gratings into a sandy sump that acted as a real filter, and was then collected in a central cistern situated below the well-head. A funnel-shaped layer of clay was placed around the well to prevent saltwater infiltrating. The water was drawn up in buckets. Strict laws regulated the drawing of water and also controlled the purity of the font: it was absolutely prohibited to approach the well with soiled hands or containers or to let animals drink from it. Visiting Venice, we can discover wellheads that are true works of art of the utmost importance. Absolutely not to be missed is the one in the courtyard at Ca' d'Oro: it was made in red Verona marble by Bartolomeo Bon in 1427 when he had just turned twenty. The figures of Justice, Charity and Fortitude adorned with leaves foliage remind us of the capitals of the Ducal Palace, and at the same time, they have that plastic resilience so typical of the Venetian sculptor. As public facilities came to be improved during the 16th century, the wells, as utilities and decorative elements, received attention too. The two bronze wellheads (the only ones in Venice) standing in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace are a case in point. That near the Giants' Stairway was made by Alfonso Alberghetti (1554-59), while the other was realized by Nicolò Conti (1556). Still in the 16th century, Jacopo Sansovino designed a well for the courtyard of the Zecca (the mint) that
was to have been the most monumental of all. The work was carried out by Danese Cattaneo and is at present in the garden of Ca' Pesaro: on the summit of the surmounting arch stands the figure of Apollo. The most classical of Renaissance wellheads, however, is the one in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, datable to the first decades of the 16th century; it comes from Palazzo Corner della Ca' Granda (the present seat of the Provincial Council, not far from San Maurizio) and is richly decorated with eight cherubs in high relief who are holding up large festoons with fruit and a shield bearing the coat-of-arms of the Corner family. There are very few chances to admire and study the subsections of the wells below the surface; but the maintenance work now being carried out by Insula throughout the city has meant that technicians and archaeologists have been able to survey and photograph the normally 'invisible' parts of the wells in Campo Santa Marina, San Samuele, San Nicolò dei Mendicoli and in Corte del Malibran.
The wells of Venice are an itinerary to consider, a walk taking in art and history and, naturally enough, the daily life of Venetians in early times, in a quest for the oft-forgotten wells.