As you walk along the driveway leading to Prospect House, on your right you will see two Venetian wellheads that were gifts from collector and benefactor Dan Fellows Platt, Class of 1895. One wellhead is next to the driveway; the other is beside the path next to the Museum.
For centuries, Venice relied on wells for part of its water supply, so there were numerous wellheads in the city and surrounding Veneto region. Wellheads can still be seen on communal wells in piazzas and in private courtyards in Venice, but when water management was modernized many wellheads were sold. They were popular with collectors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and could be purchased from art dealers. For those of us who love Venice and its art, encountering a Venetian wellhead on the University campus evokes the mystique of the Serenissima, the Most Serene, as the Republic of Venice was called.
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Text provided by Alan M. Stahl, Firestone Library, RBSC
Ornamental wellheads, or vera da pozzo, were the centerpieces of the Venetian water supply system; they provided convenient access to drinking water and also served as meeting places for local populations. In Venice, wellheads did not serve to retrieve water from wells tapping into underground streams, as in most of the world, but rather supplied access to the system of underground cisterns necessitated by the city’s unusual setting.
Venice’s location on a series of islands in a lagoon offered it invaluable protection from invasion—it was the only major city of medieval or early modern Europe without perimeter walls. The opening of the lagoon directly into the Adriatic Sea allowed large ships to tie up in the very heart of the city but meant that the surrounding water was salty and not potable. As an alternative to bringing fresh water from the mainland by boat, Venice developed a system of cisterns to trap rainwater. On each of the dozens of islands, a central space (called a campo, or field) was excavated to a depth of at least ten feet, lined with an impermeable layer of clay, and filled with sand. Drains placed symmetrically around the edges of the campo gathered rainwater, and a shaft in the center gave access to the purified water at the bottom of the cistern.
By the eighteenth century, access to the water was provided by over 150 wellheads, formed of cylindrical pieces of Istrian marble. Some were very ornate, with heads of lions and the coats of arms of the prominent families of the island, while others (such as Princeton’s) bore simple geometric decoration. After an aqueduct bringing water from the mainland was constructed in the nineteenth century, the wellheads were closed off, and some were removed and dispersed.
The two Princeton wellheads came to the Art Museum as part of the bequest of Dan Fellows Platt, Class of 1895, who died in 1938. They were probably acquired early in the twentieth century and had been at his house in Englewood, New Jersey. The one near the path is simply geometric. The one nearer the Museum has the depiction of an ewer on two faces, appropriate for a source of drinking water. On the other faces are shields divided horizontally (per fess) into three areas. As there is no indication of shading or other details, it is not possible to identify the arms with a specific Venetian noble family.