September 2021. H2O. An Italian Perspective.



If you don’t live in a country where the temperature can reach 40°C (104°F) one may not be seriously concerned about that most ubiquitous of substances, H2O, or water. Boring stuff perhaps, but never I would hope, with absolute contempt. We all might have a cavalier attitude to the matter, but have an inkling, perhaps, that it’s important in the scheme of things. That is just as well as this necessary liquid covers 70% of the earth’s surface being absolutely essential to human life while, at the same time, having no organic value at all despite existing in all living organisms. Indeed, the disparaging remark that a person’s “wet”, seems excessive when our bodies are 60% water!

Very few of us will ever take the time to consider how society has, throughout history, gone to great lengths, often with enormous difficulty, to deliver and regulate water to its citizens. It is a substance that we in the west take for granted. The Romans, however, meant business when they constructed aqueducts over extensive distances to deliver water into their cities, a tradition continued in Tuscany by the Medici. They were always built with great care, which is why the Roman Acquae Vergine still operates to this day.

To make a point, Doctors, at least in Italy, consider 1.5 litres a day something of a minimum, which probably explains why 2.0 litre bottles are widely available. I have known some Italians who insist on interspersing their glasses of wine with one of water, which seems a sound practice, though not exactly a scientific prescription!

But I am not writing a history of such things, only relating a once annual event that made me consider how the Romans, and succeeding generations, considered constructing architectural miracles that carried water to those heights, where many large cities were defensively situated, for the domestic needs of the day. Though the Romans did discover how to make water run up hill they couldn’t quite manage the 1700 feet or so to where I happen to live. Not that I know if they ever tried. Anyone who is interested in the Roman obsession with such things can do no better than to read H.V.Morton’s “The Waters of Rome”.

The modern event I refer to was the inconvenience of a drought, or shortage of water, an occurrence that happened every summer, forcing the local commune in Volterra to turn off the taps. Many of our friends, having escaped from England for a holiday, were nonplussed to have their bathroom requisites curtailed by a lack of water. This has happily now been rectified by extra resources in the region, but at the time begged a question on how things were accommodated over 2000 years ago, or for that matter, a mere two hundred, when the population of the city was at least three times as large, if not a great deal more.

One may recall the ruinous remains of a private Roman bath complex in the February blog, and I have to say it contrasted rather shabbily with that of the public Roman baths situated behind the Roman theatre, clearly laid out for the imaginative.



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The baths can be seen situated behind the scaenae frons, or back wall, of the stage. What’s left on the ground are merely foundations and one has to conjure up for oneself how it probably once looked, a substantial white Carrara marble clad building with terracotta tiled roofs linked to the iconic Roman pillars. It obviously contained a more social ambience than just a place for a good scrub!

But I digress. The latter complex must have needed a great deal of water from somewhere, and if not from aqueducts, then from wells fed by springs. On the acropolis situated on the highest part of the city in what is now the Parco Fiumi, the Roman citizens built a substantial covered cistern, or reservoir, a cavernous chamber with cemented walls and floor, partitioned into three chambers by two rows of brick pillars, and in itself a small-scale wonder of Roman skills. For some reason it is known as the ‘Piscina’, which is of doubtful nomenclature, given the word in Latin describes a public fish pond.

How they distributed the water is not clear – probably through lead pipes, a material known to have been imported from England, and extensively used for example in Pompeii, where they remain in excellent condition. If Vesuvius didn’t get them, then lead poisoning surely would!

The quantity of water collected in this extensive chamber could not have been supplied by the later mediaeval method of collecting rain water from the roofs of buildings and stored in cisterns. In the autumn the first downpour was run off to clean the roof tiles and tank, before closing and filling for domestic use.  For a country villa this was a common practice, but the Romans were nothing if not socially orientated, and distribution for the benefit of the community leads us naturally to consider that other, more consistent source of natural, or ground water.

Volterra is famous for its springs, the main beneficiaries would have been the public buildings, such as the baths in Roman times, but by the Middle Ages, they found a domestic use as well, one that was probably extant until a water system was developed enabling water to be fed directly to private dwellings.  (An older friend remembers women still using the fountains in Florence during the 1930’s, though this seemed merely to collect water.) A more interesting social use was the public fountains in the city of Volterra where the women gathered to do their laundry. Two of these interesting historic constructions remain. They are both situated next to old city gates, one known to have been a spring in use during Etruscan and Roman times. The larger, inside the Porta Docciola, and known by that name, is probably the most visited, despite being at the bottom of hundred of steps up into the city – the city fathers have made a generous car park opposite for the feint hearted.



This fountain retains an interesting detail in the oval cut outs along the stone edge, with an additional sloping angle where the women knelt to do their work. It seems capable of accommodating five in each of the two sections. Probably a very noisy affair.


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Its sister fountain, the Fonte San Felice, has been restored, having at one point lost its source of water, regained by discovering another spring and diverting it into the original. The construction is Medieval, and dates from 1319 though it is almost certainly of Etruscan origin, of which some remains of its once colossal structure can still be seen, demonstrated by the enormous stone building blocks of the gateway by which one can access the fountain. Jumbled together they are recognisably from the three periods, Etruscan, Roman and Mediaeval – a period of c. 2500 years. The number of people who must have passed under these portals during the preceding millennia gives one pause for thought.  




Both fountains are now home to a variety of marine life, some large enough to be accommodated comfortably on a plate, which fits in nicely with the Roman description of a Piscina.


Sometime during the period when the Fonte San Felice lost its original source of water, a new facility was established just outside the gate. Built in brick, and nowhere near as visually attractive as the medieval neighbour, it is now a sorry spectacle of neglect. Apparently, the powers to be are totally oblivious to the considerable historical and social interest. Opposite is the also abandoned pumping station, that provided the means for this once essential family facility, a labour that fell heavily on the shoulders of the city’s female inhabitants. They deserve a better monument.





Though these matters are now a fleeting glimpse of the distant past, water still exercises the mind of the civil agencies responsible for its control and delivery. It is therefore of considerable interest that Volterra maintains the once common facility of public drinking fountains. The only other civic example extant that comes to mind with its historical city use – that is, beside numerous country examples mostly provided for animals of burden – resides in Ponsacco, a small Tuscan town in the Pisa region. It still provides water, but there is no advice, or other indication, of the present quality!




The modern fountain in Volterra is probably not unique, but this facility provides an interesting contrast to the ubiquitous domestic facility provided in every home. Not blessed with any architectural elegance it demonstrates the sad ephemeral manner of the modern attitude born of the conviction of a high obsolescent scrapping economy. Everything manufactured will be out of date in a decade or two, so no need to build longevity into it! Despite this the fountain today fulfils adequately its purpose in supplying something a little more refined than the public water supply. Obviously, all domestic water must be cleaned and purified, a system carried out meticulously by the provincial suppliers. However, the water treated can be supplied from a number of outlets – rivers, lakes and springs – before being processed for consumption, a method that besides coagulation, and filtration, including disinfection with chlorine and chloramine. In the last few decades, they have also introduced fluoridation to diminish tooth decay. Reading these scientific necessities does little to enhance its popularity and suggests a reason for the tremendous sale of bottled water at every supermarket.




To describe its qualities is difficult, but one can say it arrives in your bottle at a very cold temperature, having passed through the necessary purification process housed in the back of the structure. One can hazard a guess that its colder than Pliny’s “water of Nonacris.” However, the most noticeable difference is in the taste. It hasn’t any! The chemical after taste has been eliminated due to the water being purified to remove everything except essential minerals for the publics well-being. It’s just wet, refreshing, and very popular with the locals, who fill a couple of 5 litre glass wine bottles to last them a few days.


 One can even have it ‘fizzy’ if wished, at the exorbitant cost of 5 cents!