Drinking water in Venice: from the traditional  “vera da pozzo” to the modern aqueduct

9 August 2021

Venice, 20th July 2021 – Having access to drinking water in our daily life is essential. Nowadays, we just have to turn on the tap in order to have running water in our houses. This represents the last step of a long process in which modern pumps and plants soak up and boost water to every house in Venice and its islands. Today, drinking water comes both from the local wells and from the water purifier, located in Cà Solaro. Nevertheless, such simple action should not be taken for granted, especially in a city such as Venice which, although floating (on water) it lacks, paradoxically, of drinking water.

Since the establishment of the city – which dates back to 421 and so this year will celebrate its 1600 birthday- Venetians had to think about possible ways to get drinking water. Originally, they used to collect rainwater, while later they projected the “vera da pozzo”, yet present in the typical “campi” of Venice. Under the wellhead laid an insulated clay system which, by means of specific manholes, guaranteed the filtration, purification, and storage of rainwater (the standards of drinking water filtration at that time could be compared to the ones we have in our modern sewage system). These wells were essentially public tanks, which were filled both by rainwater and by the members of the “Acquaroli” association. Public tanks were controlled – in order to avoid robberies - and managed by “the Acquaroli”. Due to the lack of any water supply source available in the city, drinking water was considered such a precious commodity. As a consequence, four were the judiciary departments – today’s ministries - in charge of managing water supply throughout the city. 

In the mid 1400s the river “Brenta” was declared by local authorities as the only drinking water source. Therefore, Venetians began to control the conditions of the riverbed, later modifying its original structure. In the early 1600s a new source of drinking water, the Seriola canal, was built. Consequently, drinking water was carried through the canal by means of huge boats called “burchi”. Although throughout time, several were the projects presented to improve the city water system, wells, filled with rainwater and water collected by the Seriola canal, remained for centuries the main supply source of drinking water in the city. It was only at the beginning of the ‘800 that the idea of projecting a system which would allow Venice with the supply of drinking water emerged, mainly as a consequence to the French influence. Providing Venice with drinking water was essential, especially in relation to the constant growth of population. In point of fact, in 1857, Venice had more than 120.000 citizens, whose living conditions – concerning health and hygiene - were definitely poor. Moreover, the poor maintenance of wells, paved the way to several epidemic outbreaks of cholera. 

At this point, the need for a public aqueduct could not be ignored anymore: the city of Venice had to find a solution. In 1874 - 300 years and dozens of projects later- the Mayor of Venice decided to build the aqueduct. Water would have been collected from the Brenta and Seriola rivers and, through pipelines placed at the bottom of the Venetian lagoon, would have been taken to Venice. The work was commissioned to an English society first, and later to the French “Societè generale des eaux”. After four years, the 23rd of June 1884, the aqueduct was opened. For the occasion, Saint Mark’s square was completely enlightened and under the belltower’s shade a temporary fountain, powered by the aqueduct’s water, was built. Although the project had already been approved, the Mayor of Venice decided not to collect water from the Seriola aymore, since the water quality was considered no more salubrious as a consequence to several plumbing in the area. Therefore an alternative water source had to be found. Few weeks later around the area of Sant’Ambrogio, in Trebaseleghe, several pristine water sources were found, the same water sources that these days provide drinking water to Venice. 

At the beginning, the aqueduct provided water to wells, fountains and few houses, as a consequence to its cost, unbearable for the average population. As a matter of fact, most citizens continued to use water flowing from wells and fountains, although some years later the aqueduct’s functions would be enlarged and, at the end of the ‘800, the islands of Murano, Giudecca and Lido would also be reached. The turning point came with 1923, when the Mayor of Venice decided to confirm the Company in charge of managing the aqueduct’s functions for the following 50 years. Today’s Venetian water system is the result of several improvements that were mainly supported by private citizens, who decided to invest in hydraulic connections for their private houses. When the contract with the General Company of Water, in charge of managing the aqueduct’s functions, expired in 1973, the Mayor in 1977 decided to create Aspiv, a public society that, later in 2007 will be called Vesta (currently is known as Veritas).