From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 40
Il Pozzo Nero (The Cesspool)
Until recent years, every house in Gioviano was equipped only with a pozzo nero, ( a “black well” or cesspool) as there was no running water in even the most luxurious Renaissance palazzi until after World War II. However, at that time, there was still no sewer system in the village. The lack of modern plumbing in much of Italy until the 19th century contrasts sharply with the spectacular and luxurious baths, toilets, and sewer systems of the Romans in ancient times.

Christianity rejected things Roman, and so from the Dark Ages until 1933, in the case of Gioviano, the only source of water for the villagers was a single faucet behind the Church of San Rocco at the edge of town. The early Christians were so adverse to bathing or cleanliness that they regaled in having developed the “odor of sanctity” about themselves. This term is frequently used to describe a sweet odor coming from the bodies of Saints, but it was more certainly a reference to persons such as the 4th -Century pilgrim who had not so much as washed his or her face in 18 years for fear of washing away the vestiges of the holy water that had been used in baptism.

But I digress. The modernization of the public water supply took a giant leap forward with the construction of an aqueduct which brought sufficient quantities of drinking water into the heart of Gioviano to allow for four additional faucets in different parts of the village: “una al Mulinaccio, una nell’Aiotttola, una sul Crociale e l’ultima alla Porte.” (“one at the mill, one within the walls, one at the crossroads, and the last at the gate.”)

Some of the wealthier families tied onto the public water supply after the war, but there wasn’t a sufficient volume of water to serve more than just a few houses.

When we arrived in Gioviano in 1973, a new aqueduct leading from the sorgente di Sant’Andrea (spring of Sant’Andrea) into the village had just been constructed. Subsequently, over the years, most of the houses were served, at least with a cold water faucet in the kitchen, but very few had modern bathrooms. Our neighbor Rosina’s “bathroom” consisted of a balcony on the back of her house that had been enclosed for privacy. Inside the bathroom, there was a tiny stone seat with a hole in it that emptied into a series of interlocking terracotta tiles that led to the pozzo nero below the floor of the cantina. We have preserved this interesting artifact of days gone by, and I occasionally sit on it in remembrance of our first years in Casa Giorgio.

When we cleaned out Rosina’s cantina and tiled the dirt floor, we opened the stone lid to the pozzo nero and discovered that it had not been used for its intended purpose. It was virtually empty as Rosina refused to waste anything, including what the Giovianini called “concime” and what we politely call “fertilizer.” Every morning Rosina would take her bucket of concime to her garden. Needless to say, she grew some of the healthiest tomatoes I have ever seen.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s when many families in much of Europe lacked modern plumbing, it could be a very unpleasant experience to be trapped in a train or the Paris subway with dozens of people who hadn’t taken a real bath in years and were unaware of the invention of deodorant. Yet, I never detected the “odor of sanctity” emanating from any of the Giovianini who took fierce pride in their personal hygiene despite the primitive conditions of the time.

The Giovianini adapted to the 21st century with a vengeance. Today, each home is equipped with practically every modern convenience imaginable. When the Emilio wing is restored, Palazzo Margherita will have six modern bathrooms, two laundry rooms, and two full kitchens. The kitchens patiently await the day that someone will actually prepare a meal there instead of rushing out to eat at Al Cantuccio, the Valle Verde, or another wonderful restaurant where the food is prepared for us and where we are not required to wash the dishes.

We should be very grateful indeed that up to 200 inches of rain fall in the mountain heights to feed the sorgente di Sant’Andrea, which in turn quenches the thirst of the Gioviannini for water. Long gone are the days of women laboriously carrying copper conche (jugs) of water on their heads from the spigot behind San Rocco. But why should I be happy? The old days were far more colorful and interesting, and it was the women who had to tote the water. (Just joking!)

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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