December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Water in their blood

By |2022-04-30T12:05:39+02:00April 23rd, 2022|"In Cucina"|
Rome is certainly no stranger to the human need for water, and lots of it.

hether they’re living through the best or worst of times, Italians are water drinkers. In a year, they guzzle an average of 182 liters per capita — and who knows how high the number went in the last 18 months, with people cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

In Rome, the country’s capital, these numbers are even higher. But if you dig further — and digging is useful when you want to get to the heart of what you believe is a “new” trend — you soon find there’s a reason behind the avid guzzling that, like Rome itself, dates back a very long time.

During the Republic (509–27 BC) and throughout the Empire (27 BC–476 AD), Romans constructed aqueducts to bring water from outside sources into cities and towns. The spring water fed latrines, fountains, private households and, mostly, public baths (the term “spa” is an acronym for salus per aquam — health by means of water). Aqueducts also supplied water to mining operations, mills, farms and gardens.

By the 3rd century A.D., Rome had a dozen aqueducts bringing in water and sustaining a population of over a million.

Despite their engineering prowess, the Romans were unknowingly poisoning their population.

Roman engineers and architects were phenomenal, designing and building aqueducts that used gravity with a 1% incline from the source straight into people’s homes, sans computers and projections. Later, this technology spread with the expansion of the Empire from Northern Africa to Eastern Europe. Gradients followed the contours of the uneven terrain and, where there were obstructive peaks, the aqueducts circumvented them or sometimes even tunneled through. In the case of valleys or lowlands, conduits carried water on complex raised bridgework.

Life expectancy, though, was short: 35 years at best. There was no way of knowing (or preventing) it back then, but despite their engineering prowess, the Romans were unknowingly poisoning their population — the high-pressure lead pipes siphoned lead-contaminated spring water into their homes.

Since Romans didn’t use pumps, only those living on the lower floors of insulae (multi-storied dwellings) had the privilege of running water. Servants lived in the upper, hotter (and stinkier) floors where water pressure was poor, if nonexistent. This made public water fountains and baths vitally important.

Water has always played a crucial role for the citizens of the Eternal City and its far-flung colonies. And it still does today, thousands of years later.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, some aqueducts were deliberately destroyed by barbarian enemies, with more falling into disuse because of the crumbling infrastructure and lack of maintenance. Rome went from a megalopolis of one million to a slum of 30,000 inhabitants. Some blame its decline precisely on the lack of precious water.

Later, like the canons of art and architecture, the surviving remains of Rome’s once-massive aqueducts inspired engineers, architects and their patrons during the Renaissance — namely Popes, who used the renovation of the main channels as their personal propaganda. Lead pipes were swapped with ones made of non-hazardous materials, and Rome started feeding water into its beautifying fountains — think Villa D’Este in Tivoli, where water plays the starring role in the terraced hillside Italian-style Renaissance garden with a profusion of fountains.

Less than a century later, Pope Urban VIII made plans to renovate the terminal point of a famous aqueduct that fed water into the Baths of Agrippa and served Rome for more than four hundred years. The project remained on the drawing board until Pope Clement XII took over in 1730, creating a majestic fountain marking the terminal point of the “modern” and revived the Aqua Virgo aqueduct, located at the junction of three roads (tre vie) that give the monument its name.

Political agendas and the rebirth of art and culture in the 16th century brought water back, and its importance for the city was re-evaluated by those in power. Thanks to this shift, residents of Rome still have free, clean (and now safe to drink) water in their homes and infrastructures. We call this water acqua del sindaco — the mayor’s water.

The city of Rome provides free, filtered spring water — acqua diretta — that flows abundantly from some of those original aqueducts, always cold and rich in minerals, directly to our homes. As a result, the local population is less affected by osteoporosis with strong bird of prey-type talons and healthier teeth.

Though environmentalist groups have raised eyebrows over the years at Rome’s nonchalant use of free-flowing water from the city’s 2,500 public drinking fountains scattered across town, locally nicknamed nasoni for their big nose-looking spouts, the fountains can also help the environment — residents can refill portable water bottles, reducing single-use plastic bottle waste. Public drinking fountains with healthy potable water also come with reduced carbon emissions for the transportation of bottled water.

Despite all of the benefits, there are also negatives to this otherwise idyllic water extravaganza — limescale build-up being the primary.

For us Romans, calcium-removing products are like a religion, and water-filtering carafes are our lovers. We are accustomed to replacing appliances like washers and dishwashers every two to three years. The kettle gets changed every six months.

Pasta may be Italys rocket fuel and good wine its lubricating libation, but water is at the center of everything.

Before the direct water supply was regulated by ACEA — an acronym for “Azienda Comunale Elettricità e Acque, the Italian water and power company that manages the water supply of many regional areas — in apartment buildings recently, water was collected in so-called cassoni — large, protected and covered tanks kept on the roofs of buildings and allotted to each tenant. This was a post-war policy in case of shortages. I was present when the cassoni were dismantled and saw what flora and fauna lived in the containers. (It is no wonder Romans have such amazing antibodies!)

Now the water runs freely, fed from that very same dozen Roman aqueducts straight to the pipes that heat our homes (the outdated and polluting gasoline-fueled caldaie centralizzate that once regulated central heating were replaced with water-operated ones at least a decade ago).

Roman water flows mightily from the faucets in our bathrooms and kitchen sinks and can be drawn from a variety of public water outlets, in addition to the aforementioned nasoni. These include the nifty Case dell’Acqua points — high-tech “water houses” that dispense free filtered, chilled water that can be either sparkling or still, year-round in the form of drinking fountains. Moving beyond the consumption water itself, just waiting for your bottles to fill up has expended its horizons. Do you just need to sit or stand there and wait? No. You can recharge your electronic device or browse the built-in digital displays for information about public utilities — all this thanks to plain old water. The Romans would have been envious: imagine honing spears while also filling water jugs.

Pasta may be Italy’s rocket fuel and good wine its lubricating libation, but water is at the center of everything as it always has been. Even the surfer-era Beach Boys (appropriately) knew this: “In an ocean or in a glass, cool water is such a gas…” And, in Rome, it’s a gas that never runs out of ways of making its singing presence felt.

About the Author:

Eleonora Baldwin lives in Rome dividing her time between food and lifestyle writing, hosting prime-time TV shows, and designing Italian culinary adventures. She is the author of popular blogs Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino and Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine.