Water Harvesting System in Matera

View of Sassi di Matera and Gravina di Matera.

Traditional water harvesting system in Sassi di Matera, Italy

Wenting Gao

The two districts of Matera, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, were built in the eroded terraced land near the natural water courses, called Grabiglioni, and formed by buildings and rock architectures carved into the rock of the Murgia Matera. Together with the Civita district (built on the spur that separates the two Sassi), they constitute the historic centre of the city of Matera. The water-harvesting system was composed of cisterns, catch basins, ponds, wells, fountains, condensers, neviera, as well as horizontal and vertical water channels. About 2210 cisterns were identified using a statistical approach, including 2039 small bell-shaped cisterns, 170 neighbourhood cisterns and two large cisterns of 1,300 and
5,000 m³ each. Water not only shaped the physical part of the city, but also influenced the way people live and work. The successful water-harvesting system created an an agro-pastoral society where most people were engaged in agriculture and husbandry, and about 56% were still land working peasants in 1754.

Traditional water system plan of Sassi di Matera in 1700s.

The grabiglioni, an important water channel in Sassi di Matera, is also the centre of public life. The vicinato, a common courtyard where children would play together and everyone helped each other out, is always accompanied by a cistern serving 4-6 families, so it naturally becomes the place for different domestic chores and social interactions.

People gathered in ‘‘vicinato’’ for social intercourse and domestic chores (Bottom right).

Circular Stories

Cicular diagram of the traditional water harvesting system in Sassi
di Matera around 1700s; Circular diagrams of water usage (Bottom left).

There are three types of water sources in Sassi, rainwater, natural springs, and moisture. In a natural condition, they will directly go into the Gravina di Matera, but with the help of the circular water system, they are used in a sustainable way for production, domestic use and drinking purposes.

Public rainwater cycle (Left); Private rain water cycle (Top right); Moist cycle (Bottom left); Spring water cycle (Bottom right).

Firstly, the rainwater, which is also the dominant source in Sassi, is collected in lakes, ponds or catch basins at first, then goes into cisterns of different sizes with the help of horizontal and vertical water channels on roofs, stairs, wall and ground. Some cisterns are interconnected by underground pipes, while others are quite private and isolated. There is a water tank that is completely isolated, and it is used as the condenser to collect moisture, which is also a hidden water source in Sassi. In addition, a natural spring near Tramontano Castle is the only drinkable water source, which later led to the Fountain Ferdinandea for people to use.

The Roman Aqueducts

Aqua Claudia, Parco degli Acquedotti, Rome.

A system of pipes, canals, and supporting structures used to convey water from its source to its main distribution point.

Camilla Di Nicola

The Roman Aqueduct systems were built over a period of about 500 years, from 312 B.C. to A.D. 226. Both public and private funds paid for construction. The city of Rome had around 11 aqueduct systems supplying freshwater from sources as far as 92 km away.

The aqueducts were made from a series of pipes, tunnels, canals, and bridges. Gravity and the natural slope of the land allowed aqueducts to channel water from a freshwater source, such as a lake or underground springs, to a city. As water flowed into the cities, it was used for drinking, irrigation, and to supply hundreds of public fountains and baths. The principle was relatively simple: pure and abundant sources in the hills around Rome could be tapped, and their waters diverted into artificial channels running gently towards the city on a gradient designed to deliver them at a useful height, to flow around the city and feed street fountains, baths, and (for a fee) private houses.

Map of the aqueducts in the Municipality of Rome, from the countryside to the city center.

The aqueduct system consisted of several elements, of which the remains can still be seen. The piscina limaria, where sedimentation tanks were used to purify the water, the cisterna, cistern, which collected rainwater or excess water from the aqueducts for periods of drought. At the end of the aqueducts, there was the castellum aquae which distributed the water inside the city. The aqueducts were fundamental to provide drinking water to the city but also for other functions such as thermae, baths, that helped the well-being and health of citizens.

Circular Stories

The first thing to do to start the construction of an aqueduct was to find a source of water that was drinkable and at a certain height that could allow its exploitation through pressure. After the inspection of the water quality, long underground tunnels were built in which the water flowed. Furthermore, the purification of the water was also guaranteed by the porosity of the soil (mainly tuff) that filtered the rainwater.

Finally, the settling tank (piscina limaria) improved the water purification by collecting the debris at the bottom of the tank. The canal, or specus, was constructed to maintain a constant slope so as to overcome the differences in height the arches. Excess water from the aqueducts and rainwater was collected in the cisterns.

Once arrived in the city, the water was distributed through the castellum in three different directions: for public fountains, for baths, and for some privileged private houses. The water was also used to clean the streets, improving the sanitary quality of the city. Only then, the water was channelled into the sewer system and then ended up in the river which was organized with a system of grain mills.

The spatial representation of an aqueduct and the different functions that the water has before its final destination, the river.

Valli da pesca of the Venice Lagoon

Fishing valley in Lio Piccolo, northern Venetian Lagoon.

A traditional extensive aquaculture system along the border of the Venetian Lagoon.

Amina Chouairi

The fishing valleys aquaculture system is located in the Venetian Lagoon, Veneto region, Italy. Their first traces have been found since the first 11th century A.D.

Nowadays this extensive fish cultivation system is spread over 8500 ha. of the current lagoon, and its main elements are the fishing ponds, the embankments separating the valleys from the lagoon, the mansions, and the waterworks able to calibrate the amount of fresh water and salt water to introduce in the valleys.

Veneto region, its watershed and the fishing valleys located in the Venetian Lagoon (orange).

The fishing valley master, capovalle, the fishing valley workers and the guardian are the three fundamental figures for the fishing valley management in the Venetian Lagoon. The capovalle is the chief of the fishing valleys, regulating the water regime and employing of seasonal workers; the workers are in charge of different managing activities; the guardian monitors the valley daily.

Circular Stories

Circularity between aquaculture, agriculture and agro-tourism in the fishing valleys nowadays. A synthetic scheme.

Since the first decades of the 20th century, the fishing valleys can be addressed as an extensive polyculture, where the main activity of fish farming has been juxtaposed by farm animals breeding (as horses, sheep, hens, goats, cows, etc.), vegetable gardens and orchards (cultivating horseradish, radicchio, asparagus, artichoke, etc.), reeds, mulch, fertilizer
and hay production.

Despite its relatively low rates in terms of production, compared to other intensive aquacultures, this activity is associated with reasonably low management costs: fishing valleys in the Venetian Lagoon are mainly family farms employing seasonal workers during the busiest seasons
(spring and autumn). Recently, many of the fishing valleys have implemented their accommodation activity, providing a slower and lighter touristic alternative to discover the outer lagoon territory, in counter-trend to the mass tourism suffocating the historical centre of Venice.


Freshwater drinking fountain

Literally the term Nasone means big nose. It is the typical roman freshwater drinking fountain. The city of Rome began installing nasoni around the 1870s to provide fresh water supplies for citizens; today there are still between 2500 and 2800 Nasoni in Rome.

  • Project Name: The Roman Aqueducts – Rome, Italy.
  • Climate: Temperate – Mediterranean Climate
  • Year: 1874
  • Water Type: Drinkable
  • Meaning: Fountains of contemporary Rome
  • Users: Citizens
  • Accessibility: Public
  • Materials: Cast iron
  • Temporality: Fixed
  • Form: Point
  • Use or function: Aside from the social-welfare benefits of supplying drinkable water to citizens, nasoni serve as needed ventilation valves for the Roman water-supply system.

Mostra d’acqua

Mostra d’acqua
Water fountain

From Latin mostrare, to show, to reveal, to exhibit. It was the name for a large public fountain with monumental functions. Usually, they were the terminus of an aqueduct.

  • Project Name: The Roman Aqueducts, Rome, Italy
  • Climate: Temperate, Mediterranean Climate
  • Year: III B.C – I A.D. century
  • Water Type: Drinkable, freshwater
  • Landscape Type: Not relevant
  • Meaning: Representation, exhibition
  • Users: Citizens
  • Accessibility: Mainly public
  • Soil condition: Not relevant
  • Materials: Travertine and Carrara marble
  • Temporality: Fixed
  • Form: Point
  • Use or Functions: To drink, ornamental


“The Roman Aqueducts”, Rome, Italy

An artificial channel for conveying water. It was built underground and on embankments, according to the level, but also for great distances on long arcades.

  • Project Name: Roman Aqueducts, Rome, Italy
  • Climate: Temperate, Mediterranean Climate
  • Year: III century B.C – I A.D. century
  • Water Type: Drinkable, fresh water
  • Landscape Type: From the mountains to the city
  • Altitude: 400 – 20 m a.s.l.
  • Soil condition: Not relevant
  • Materials: Bricks and lime
  • Temporality: Fixed
  • Form: Network of line
  • Use or Functions: To bring drinkable water into the city