18th Century Venice: the Water Lady

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By Robin Saikia

In this Zompini engraving, a young woman has just filled two large buckets of water from a nearby well and will set off around the city selling drinks for a bezzo (a “groat” might be a good English translation). Watercarriers were known as bigolanti on account of the distinctive curved pole (bigol or bigolo) on which they carried the buckets. In the accompanying rhyme she describes her service in Venetian dialect: “Co sto bigolo porto un bezzo al sechio / L’aqua a boteghe, a chi no ha pozzo in casa / E assae dolce, e chiara co fa un spechio.” “With this bigolo I’ll bring for a groat my bucket to the shops and to those who do not have a well in their house – my water is the sweetest and clear as a mirror.” Pasta enthusiasts will know all about bigoli, a fatter and jollier version of spaghetti, that takes its name from the carrying pole.

Like other trades, bigolanti were regulated by the city council. They had to pay an annual license fee for the right to sell water in the city. The trade continued well into to the first quarter of the 20th century. Water supply had always been problematic in Venice and was partly solved by the provision of wells that collected rainwater.  The underground cisterns were regularly checked and the wells were officially opened twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, to the sound of a special bell. A council-appointed foreman regularly checked the quantity and quality of the water.

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