Well-head thumbnail 1
Well-head thumbnail 2
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 50a, The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery


1425-1430 (made)
Place of origin

This functional object is also a display of flamboyant virtuoso carving. Its sides depict a shield with the arms of the Contarini family, Justice holding a sword, a putto leaning on a tree trunk, and Fortitude holding a crown. Bartolomeo Buon had been previously employed by the wealthy merchant Marino Contarini on his sumptuous palace, the Ca’ d’Oro.

Object details

Object type
TitleWell-head (generic title)
Brief description
Square well-head carved from orange-red Verona marble
Physical description
This square well-head is carved from orange-red Verona marble. The outer edge of the pediment is decorated with strips of rope-work and diamond patterns. The four faces show:
A) A half length figure of Justice, crowned and holding a sword
B) A putto leaning on a tree trunk
C) A half-length figure of Fortitude, crowned and holding a small column
D) A tournament shield decorated with a foliated roundel which bears the arms of the Contarini.
  • Wellhead height: 86.5cm
  • Width: 103cm
  • Depth: 105cm
  • Weight: 856kg
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries
Object history
Purchased from the Cavendish-Bentinck Collection, Brownsea Island. Number 47 in a manuscript inventory of the collection made at the time of the sale reads: "This Pozzo was purchased in 1874. It came out of the courtyard of a house, Palazzo della Zoya close to the Church of San Giovanni e Paolo". The well-head was noted by Tassini in 1871 in the interior courtyard of the palace owned by the Contarini dalla Zogia family; it was removed from that location three years later.

The well-head is shown in a drawing by Grevembroch in the Saggi di familiari magnificenze preservate tra le moderne nelli chiostri e palaggi di Venezia, 1760 and is reproduced from the Grevembroch drawing in Ongania (ii pl 211).

Historical significance: The similar well-head from the courtyard of the Ca' d'Oro which is of comparable proportions and decorative design is recorded as having taken two hundred and thirty three days to carve.
Historical context
This work comes within a group of gothic well-heads sumptuously decorated with allegorical figures inspired by the fourteenth-century capitals of the Palazzo Ducale, but differs from the others in that the two reliefs depicting Mildness and Fortitude are half- length. Pope-Hennessy considered this well-head to have come from the workshop of Bartolomeo Buon, basing his opinion on a comparison of this work with another specimen in the Bode Museum, an attribution contested by Rizzi.

Excavations in Sicily and Pompeii have unearthed cylindrical well-heads 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 Venetians were acquainted with these classical precedents. However, the earliest recorded Venetian well-heads were not purpose-made but improvised from classical remains.

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 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 which was fed 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.

The wells which were protected by the Venetian well-heads are most accurately described as cisterns, for rather than being sunk below the water table, they were filled by rain water channelled from roofs or specially designed collecting apparatus. The water was filtered through a dense layer of gravel and sand before being deposited in the cistern in a method that was both simple and effective. In times of drought the cisterns were topped up with water brought from the river Brenta - in the year 1498 an extra one hundred boat loads of water were required to service the city .
The building, upkeep and the use of wells was kept under strict control by the Venetian state authorities for which a great deal of documentary evidence survives. The oldest surviving laws concerning the wells are from 1303 and relate that the wells and courtyard of S.Marco were the responsibility of the "Procuratori di S.Marco" and were maintained with money raised in rents by the Commune. From 1487 there were three state authorities responsible for the wells: The Magistrato della Sanità which bought water from those that transported it, the Provveditori of the Commune which supervised the construction and upkeep of the wells and the Magistratura alle Acque which was responsible for the "Seriola", an artificial canal which enabled boats to reach the Brenta and fetch river water during dry spells. Each public well-head was secured by a locked cover which was opened twice daily by the head of the district an event announced by the ringing of a bell. The Republic contributed to the building of wells inside monasteries and obliged the monks to allow the general public the use of their cisterns.
Considered on acquisition to be "one of the finest specimens of its class" and "no doubt" the work of Bartolomeo Buon.Attributed to the Workshop of Bartolomeo Buon by Pope-Hennessy on the basis of similarities with a well-head in the Ca' d'Oro, Venice commissioned from Bartolomeo Buon in 1427 and another from the Palazzo Morosini also from the Buon workshop. This is contested by Alberto Rizzi who believes the Morosini work to be much earlier. Wolfgang Wolters assigns the work to an anonymous sculptor and dates it to the 1430s..
Subjects depicted
This functional object is also a display of flamboyant virtuoso carving. Its sides depict a shield with the arms of the Contarini family, Justice holding a sword, a putto leaning on a tree trunk, and Fortitude holding a crown. Bartolomeo Buon had been previously employed by the wealthy merchant Marino Contarini on his sumptuous palace, the Ca’ d’Oro.
Bibliographic references
  • Wolters, Wolfgang. La scultura Veneziana Gottica (1300-1460). Venice. 1976. Cat. no. 184#
  • Rizzi. A Vere da pozzo di Venezia (Venice, 1981) p.325
  • Pope-Hennessy assisted by Lightbrown, R. Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: HMSO, 1964) Cat. no. 370
  • List of Objects in the Art Division South Kensington Museum acquired during the Year 1892. Arranged according to the dates of acquisition, with appendix and indices. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1893. pp. 232.
  • Raggio, Olga. 'Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum' in Art Bulletin Vol. L. 1968. pp. 102.
Accession number

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Record createdJanuary 27, 2005
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