18th Century Venice: Sewage

Zompini’s engraving shows a workman, the Cura gatoli, deferentially greeting two immaculately-dressed toffs. The image is very much à clef, as only a Venetian would immediately grasp how disgusting the job really was. In the accompanying rhyme the workman describes his task in Venetian dialect. “Co xe l’Alba per tute le Contrae / I gatoli curemo dal sporchezzo; / E se mantien le strade ben netae.” My translation: “At dawn we trudge round all the lanes / Unblocking all the filthy drains / And keep the streets clean for our pains.” The word gatoli means not only drains for rainwater but also the labyrinth of conduits channeling human waste out of buildings and into the canals. It was critical to keep these in good order at all times, and the draincleaner’s job was as important as that of the canal dredgers mentioned in a previous post. The gatoli are still with us today, as witnessed in a fascinating article by Luisella Romeo entitled Sewage in Venice: How Does It Work? The piece explains the history of the gatoli and how over the last fifty years steps have been taken to readdress and modify the centuries-old system.

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