Well-head thumbnail 1
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 50a, The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery


ca. 1450
Place of origin

The earliest Venetian wellheads were made of ancient Roman capitals and other remains, hollowed out and placed over a well shaft. By the 1450s, they were all purpose made, but this example, with its octagonal cornice and projecting lions, still reflects the original form.

Object details

Object type
TitleWell-head (generic title)
Materials and techniques
Carved marble
Brief description
Stone Italian 15th cent
Physical description
Octagonal well-head carved from white marble. The pediment is adorned with a formalised leaf pattern. The body is decorated with foliage and the heads of lions. One face bears an unidentified coat of arms probably that of the family for whose palace it was made. The inside edge of the well-head shows considerable ware.
  • Height: 88.5cm
  • Width: 123cm
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries 2006
Object history
A well-head with similar lion-heads and foliage, apparently from the same workshop, is recorded in a house near the Ponte delle erbe in Venice.
Historical context
Excavations in Sicily and Pompeii have unearthed the earliest known well-heads; cylindrical and made of terracotta, decorated on their exterior surface as altars which are thought to have derived from the screen-walls or parapets of religious monuments in the Greek and Roman world. Magnificent sculpted marble well-heads were later sought out by wealthy Romans of the late Republic and early Empire. Athens seems to have been the source of these, as testified by Cicero’s request to Atticus (ad Att., I.x) to send him two figured well-heads ( putealia sigillata) from there. The type is represented in numerous examples taken from the luxurious villas of the Roman Campagna and the Bay of Naples and now to be found in the museums of Rome and Naples (where they have traditionally been employed as statue bases). They have circular bases reminiscent of Ionic columns. Leaf patterns and cyma reversa were the mouldings most often applied. It is possible that the Veronese were acquainted with the remains of these classical precedents or that they developed the well-head form in tandem with Venice with whom it had close links.

Although surrounded by water, the supply of fresh water was historically a problem for Venetians. The need to store and supply drinking water in the city gave rise to a vast number of wells, possibly exceeding six thousand. These water sources needed protection at the surface to avoid pollution of the supply. Initially the remains of capitals, columns, funerary urns and other archaeological finds served the purpose of well-heads; cisterns were protected by effectively extending the well shaft up-ward and away from the ground, while still allowing access to the water beneath.
The various forms which emerged during the development of purpose made Venetian well-heads owe a great deal to the archaeological and particularly the architectural origins of the phenomenon. The earliest surviving purpose made Venetian well-heads date from the seventh century and take the form of a hollow cube. Cylindrical well-heads followed, developing in the late seventh to early eighth centuries and from 1200 onwards cube well-heads with rounded corners appeared. The first known example of a well-head with eight faces and an octagonal cornice is thought to date from 1344 and this form was frequently adopted from the mid-fourteenth century onwards. Well-heads with a cylindrical shaft surmounted by a square or octagonal cornice proliferated in the fifteenth century and may reflect the influence of the capitals in the Doge's palace.

The present well-head is adorned with lions a common symbolic beast in religious and secular art of the Renaissance and especially common in Venice where as the emblem of St Mark, the city's patron saint, the animal had special significance.

The export of Venetian works of art to the United kingdom became a financial operation of considerable proportions during the nineteenth century. Enthusiasm for Venetian well-heads in particular assumed the proportions of a fashion, a combination of the inherent attractiveness of these well-heads, their presence in considerable numbers, their relative portability, the ease with which they could be converted to ornamental use and the historic circumstances of Venice in the nineteenth century led to the export of hundreds of well-heads across the world. The fashion was fed not only by well-heads from Venice but from other centres in the Veneto and not only by medieval and renaissance well-heads but also by nineteenth century imitations. The well-heads were used as garden ornaments and frequently as huge and magnificent plant-pots for lemon and orange trees.
Subjects depicted
The earliest Venetian wellheads were made of ancient Roman capitals and other remains, hollowed out and placed over a well shaft. By the 1450s, they were all purpose made, but this example, with its octagonal cornice and projecting lions, still reflects the original form.
Bibliographic references
  • Voltolina, G. Le antiche vere da pozzo Veneziane (Fantoni Libri Arte 1984)
  • Rizzi, A. Vere Da Pozzo Di Venezia (Stamperia di Venezia 1992)
  • List of Objects in the Art Division, South Kensington Museum acquired during the Year 1882. London, 1883, pp. 9
Accession number

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Record createdOctober 20, 2005
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