nt. J. Global Environmental Issues, Vol. 14, Nos. 3/4, 2015
Copyright © 2015 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
From the Middle Ages to 19th century: a journey into
the water system of Palermo (Italy)
Giusy Lofrano* and Maurizio Carotenuto
Department of Chemistry and Biology,
University of Salerno,
via Giovanni Paolo II 132,
84084 Fisciano (SA), Italy
UNESCO IHP (Programme Hydrologique International),
1 rue Miollis – 75015 Paris, France
Department of Civil Engineering,
University of Salerno,
via Giovanni Paolo II 132,
84084 Fisciano (SA), Italy
Italian Alpine Club (CAI),
Sezione della Conca d’Oro di Palermo,
via Nicolò Garzilli, 59 – 90141 Palermo, Italy
Ioannis K. Kalavrouziotis
School of Science and Technology,
Hellenic Open University,
Aristotelous 18, 26 335, Patras, Greece
rom the Middle Ages to 19th century 297
Abstract: The present investigation aims at examining the underground
environment of Palermo city and its wide surrounding plain in relation to the
human hydraulic structures and to their influence on the cultural, social and
economic life of the city. The amazing craftsmanship, skilfulness and dexterity
of the ancients is reflected in the complex underground hydraulic structures
with the intent to control and manage effectively the underground water
sources to the benefit of the ancient society, in spite of the limited available
technological means. Structures such as qants, Scirocco chambers and
miqweh which made available the water to the public, have influenced
significantly the ecological environment, the civilisation of the area and the
economic and social progress of the city of Palermo.
Keywords: ecology; history; geomorphology; Palermo; qant; ingruttati; pozzi
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Lofrano, G.,
Carotenuto, M., Todaro, P., Maffettone, R., Sammataro, S. and
Kalavrouziotis, I.K. (2015) ‘From the Middle Ages to 19th century: a journey
into the water system of Palermo (Italy)’, Int. J. Global Environmental Issues,
Vol. 14, Nos. 3/4, pp.296–305.
Biographical notes: Giusy Lofrano had a Post-Doctoral Researcher position at
Salerno University for the development of advanced oxidation processes
applications on high strength wastewaters. She is author and co-author of more
than 50 articles published in international journals, congress proceedings and
book chapters and, finally, she is the editor of two books on green technologies
for wastewater treatment, published by Springer Verlag.
Maurizio Carotenuto is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Chemistry
and Biology of Salerno University.
Pietro Todaro is a consultant expert hydrogeologist of UNESCO.
Roberta Maffettone is a PhD student at Sanitary Environmental Engineering
Division of Salerno University.
Silvia Sammataro is responsible of Italian Alpine Club (CAI) – Sezione della
Conca d’Oro di Palermo.
Ioannis K. Kalavrouziotis received his PhD in Environmental Geochemistry of
the Department of Geology, University of Patras, Greece in 1999. Currently, he
is working as an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and
Natural Resources Management, in Agrinio, University of Western Greece
(2000–2013). He was an Associate Professor in the Hellenic Open University,
School of Science and Technology, in Wastewater Management (from 1 July
2013). He is the Director of the MSc programme Waste Management. He is
serving as an editorial member of several reputed journals like Water Reuse
and Desalination (IWA), Environment and Pollution (Canadian Center of
Science and Education), Journal of Environmental and Analytical Toxicology
and Frontiers in Green and Environmental Chemistry Journal.
298 G. Lofrano et al.
The existence of hypogeum environments, in Palermo and its surrounding is not a recent
event. The more ancient structures can be dated back to the prehistoric times and the
appearance of the first Eneolithic inhabitants in the Conca d’Oro (III millennium BCE) to
whom have been associated the characteristic underground burials shaped as sacks, ovens
and wells (Todaro, 2006). The use of the underground has lasted to the present day,
although for different purposes related to the provision of infrastructure and services in
the public interest. However, the most significant period associated with the use of these
underground environments started during the Islamic Middle Ages.
The Arab conquest of Sicily began in 827 and Palermo was taken in 831. During their
empire lasted for two hundred years, Palermo became a flourishing and wealthy city with
all the characteristics of a Middle Eastern city, mainly due to the spread of water through
a wide system of qants called ingruttati (Todaro, 2000).
The scarcity of sources and surface water against the groundwater abundance, led the
inhabitants to use groundwater both for irrigation and domestic usage. As consequence
the subterranean layer of the plain and city of Palermo is characterised by a series of
galleries (cunicoli) which capture water from the water-table and thanks to a slight slope,
transport the water to the surface by gravity, thus creating artificial springs and supplying
drinking water to Palermo until the beginning of the last century, through a network of
pipelines called catusi and incatusati.
So far few researchers investigated the history of the multifaceted and complex
hypogeum in Palermo (Todaro, 2006; Lofrano et al., 2013). Therefore this underground
heritage has remained latent. The efforts to open the whole qants system have not been
completely successful and other underground environments associated to the these
systems such as Scirocco chambers and miqweh have been only in recent times brought
to the light.
This paper reports a brief history of the hypogeum environments in Palermo Plain and
discusses the impacts that the groundwater exploitation produced in this area, influencing
significantly the ecological environment, the economic and social progress of the city of
The rediscovery of qants, in Palermo Plain, is quite recent and their systematic study is
made complex by the difficulties of access and exploration of many of their parts
(Lofrano et al., 2013). So far, 25 qants located in the south of the hydrological basin of
the Palermo Plain have been identified, together with five surface canals, two of which
fed from the Gabriele’s headwaters (Todaro, 2006). Most of them have not yet been
studied in detail and only three can be visited: Gesuitico Basso, Gesuitico Alto e
Uscibene. What we know now is that the investigated ones generally develop over a
kilometre approximately, but they may be as long as 2 km. The Uscibene qant is the
first qant discovered in Palermo and it is considered the oldest one. Although the
Uscibene qant has been dated at Islamic high Middle Ages (ayn al-Tis), the maximum
qants spread was achieved only after the 16th century during the Spanish period.
Palermo’s qants have had a continuity of use in the centuries. In 1525, the city still
received water from Uscibene and paid fees for its maintenance. The Gesuitico Basso
rom the Middle Ages to 19th century 299
alla Vignicella was brought to the light by chance in 1979, during the excavation for the
construction of a residential building in via Pindemonte, by the geologist Pietro Todaro.
Till that time these galleries were considered as ‘Beati Paoli passages’, escape routes for
the imaginary ‘men of honour’ of the Luigi Natoli novel. The Gesuitico Basso presents a
variable height, with a minimum of 1.5 m, while the width is around 80 cm. The
temperature of water is about 10°C. The qant continues to be fed by a flurry of springs
which are shown in Figure 1(a). Its average height is 2.5 m, while the width is 60–70 cm.
The section of the canal is partially flooded up to a maximum height of 40 cm.
Figure 1 Gesuitico Alto qant, (a) springs feeding [(b)and (c)] smoke blackened walls
(d) limestones walls (see online version for colours)
The latest digging of the qant seems to date from the 16th century (Gesuitico Alto) but
still at the beginning of the 19th century, a particularly productive qant was built in the
Palermo Plain at Cruillas (Amato-Bova of Villa Trabia) (Todaro, 2006). It reached the
length of about 2 km, providing at the surface from 2 to 5 zappe (hoes water)
corresponding to 26 65 l s–1, in relation to the season. In the past, the hoe (zappa) was
the unit measurement of flow rate in Sicily. It has been estimated that one hoe
corresponded to the amount of water that overflows from a pipe of about 10.5 cm with
pressure provided by a water level of a palm (25.971 cm) above the axis of the pipe,
corresponding to 63 m3 h–1 (Barbera et al., 2006).
300 G. Lofrano et al.
The flow rate of Castelforte qant in Piana dei Colli, about 1.4 km long, was
much smaller than Cruillas, in fact, during the summer provided a flow rate of 1/2 hoe
(6.5 l s–1). The Maurigi qant in Villagrazia, recently rediscovered by the Italian Alpine
Club (CAI), branched into four levels, reached a maximum depth of 20 m with an over
1.5 km long. In 1885, this qant provided a capacity of 6.8 l s–1 which was used both for
drinking water (southern network of small castles) and irrigation. Today, its flow rate is
reduced to less than 1.5 l s–1 (Lofrano et al., 2013). The hydraulic model of the qants has
been reported in our previous study (Lofrano et al., 2013). Qants were excavated by a
class of professional diggers called puzzari in Sicily, highly esteemed and paid for their
long-lasting and dangerous work: more than ten years were required for the construction
even of a short (few km long) qant, and death toll was not unusual, due to the flashing
water or tunnel collapse. Because of soil friability, the tools of the puzzari were only a
broad-bladed pick, a shovel and a small oil lamp or a torch (Lofrano et al., 2013) that
often blackened the vaulted walls by the smoke, as shown in Figures 1(b) and 1(c) where
the walls of Gesuitico Alto qant are depicted. When the flame faded from lack of
oxygen, puzzari knew that had to leave the tunnel and dig another vertical shaft to
provide more air. Where the qant’s tunnels were very deep and ventilation was
particularly poor, vertical shafts were dug on both side of the tunnel. A fire was lit to
make the stale air rise up one shaft and draw fresh air down the other.
Figure 2 Gesuitico Alto qant, (a) arthropod (b) roots of trees from the fields above
(c) little coral branch (d) Pecten jacobeus (e) Pecten maximus (f) Callista chione
(see online version for colours)
(a) (b) (c)
(d) (e) (f)
rom the Middle Ages to 19th century 301
The presence of qants made Palermo Plain fruitful and blooming ant at the same time
the underground environments were enriched by living organisms and preserved ancient
fragments of marine organisms. The animal species discovered in the Palermo’s qants
have been substantially small-arthropods [Figure 2(a)], most of them usually present
in ancient underground caves as well as in vestibule zones of natural caves
(De Feo et al., 2010). As shown in Figure 2(b), the roots of trees from the field above
pass through the walls of qants, finding favourable conditions for the plants growth. The
presence of fragments of marine organisms [Figures 2(c), 2(d), 2(e), 2(f)] proved marine
genesis of these sedimentary rocks, indicated in the geological literature like
bio-calcarenites (lower Pleistocene).
3 The Scirocco chambers
The Scirocco chambers were vaulted and well-ventilated underground rooms, where
people could shelter away from the burning heat and oppressive sultriness that prevails
when the Scirocco wind blows in from Africa (Lofrano et al., 2013). The suggestive
name of Scirocco Chamber, used to indicate these characteristic environments has been
found for the first time in a deed dated on 5th August 1691, where a cave with a fountain
in the middle and all around coated with ceramics of Valencia was described. The place
was the famous Villa of the Four Rooms (Villa delle Quattro Camere) of the Duke of
Terranova, of which today remains only the name, which was located near the Capuchin
Monastery in Siccheria. The qant of Siccheria, with its fresh waters, go through the
Scirocco Chamber permitting a cooling passive effect. The main records of the Scirocco
Chambers have been left by Nino Basile, an expert of the city’s history who rediscovered
and studied these underground environments at the beginning of the last century. The
Scirocco Chambers were typically spread in the 18th century in the villas and farmhouses
hunting, during a flourishing period for the Palermo economy, where the nobles
rediscovered the pleasures and idleness summer staying in the country homes of some
locations of the Plain such as: Piana dei Colli, Cruillas, Olivuzza, Mezzomonreale,
Villagrazia, Santa Maria di Gesù.
However their use may be dated back prior to this period for the presence of the
Scirocco Chamber discovered in Villa Naselli Agliata, described by the historian
Vincenzo Di Giovanni in his work ‘Palermo ritrovata’ (restored Palermo) (1552) and
subsequently in an article written by Basile on some villas of Palermo, published in the
Journal of Sicily (1928). This Scirocco Chamber in Villagrazia is characterised by the
presence of an out and out wind tower, a truncated cone shape structure which surmounts
a room with seats, working as the Iranian badgir of Yazd (the city of wind towers), that
carries cooling air inside the buildings, expelling the hot one. The farmers of Villagrazia
called this tower, u toccu, for its characteristic hat shape. A similar structure to the
Scirocco Chambers was constituted by a wide vaulted gallery equipped with ventilation
shafts, called u passiaturi (gallery walk) where spring water flowed into a canal along the
walls, allowing to walk in the cool and escape the sultriness. At the beginning of the last
century, as consequence of the drilling of irrigation wells, the ancient source of Ambleri
was dried up producing the deactivation of the Scirocco Chamber that remains integrates
in its structure thanks to the foresight of Count Francesco Naselli, owner of the historic
estate. The Scirocco Chamber at Villa Savagnone in via Miciulla, Altarello di Baida
302 G. Lofrano et al.
(Figure 3) was carved in the calcarenites rocks and crossed by the qant Uscibene.
Finally another typical Scirocco Chamber is the Grotta dei Beati Paoli al Capo,
considered the meeting place of the elusive men of honour.
Figure 3 The Scirocco Chamber at Villa Savagnone in via Miciulla, Altarello di Baida
(see online version for colours)
In 2002, Todaro (2006) brought to term the reliefs of an underground bathrooms
submerged by the rise of the water table, located in the heart of what was once the
Giudecca of Palermo. Considered till that time only a cooling chamber, the room showed
the typical features of a miqweh, an ancient Jewish ritual bath, consisting of a deep
stairway to reach pure water aquifer, a dressing room and a room for diving. The miqweh
could be dated back to Middle Ages or to an early period. It was abandoned with the
expulsion of the Jews from Sicily at the end of 15th century, then fell into disuse before
to be reused as a Scirocco Chamber. According to records of Al Idrisi (1994), the
Moroccan traveller-geographer, in 12th century there were numerous bathrooms in
Cassaro (the oldest core of the city). However it has been successively shown that they
were certainly hammams, those that Arabs today call Turkish baths. None of these has yet
been found although there is some topographic indication in the studies of the historian
Di Giovanni (1897) according to which hammams were located at various points of the
Cassaro, close to the misidie, Latinised name of mosques still open for worship in the
rom the Middle Ages to 19th century 303
5 Water towers
Two circuits of water towers were used for the drinking water supply of the city at the
end of the 19th century (Figure 4). The former fed by the headwaters of Gabriele
(Campofranco – Guccia) and later (1789), also by the Vignicella Gesuitica qant –
Acqua Nuova di Benenati – supplied the northern sector of the city from Altarello di
Baida to Borgo Vecchio. The second circuit fed by the waters of the Gesuitico Alto in
Miciudda qant supplied the southern city from Mezzomonreale to Mandamento Kalsa.
Figure 4 The two circuits of water towers in Palermo (see online version for colours)
The castelletti (sharing tower) which were brick towers up to 20 m high are still found
scattered and incorporated into the old urban fabric of the historic city (Figure 5), as
silent witnesses of a secular hydraulic technique known as ‘flow-through’ that exploited
the principle of communicating vessels, lacking of tanks and constituted by fragile clay
pipes known as catusi and incatusati (pipe line of catusi) (Todaro, 2006). At the early of
20th century, the Golden period of Palermo, when several buildings where constructed in
Art Nouveau style, many of these structures were built in a such way.
Some authors believe that this ingenious mechanism was developed by Arabs; some
others trace it back to the roman period. This last theory is confirmed both by the name of
these structures: castella dividicula (distribution towers) which is of Latin origin and by
the finding of analogous water distribution systems in ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii
(Hodge, 2002; Tolle-Kastenbein, 2005). Till 1885, water was conveyed in underground
pipelines, carved into the rock, incatusati before to be collected in sharing tanks, named
ricettacoli magistrali, which routed the flow in different directions. Through clay pipes,
catusi, water reached the city and was conveyed on the top of the castelletti located
mainly on the outer walls of Palermo. On the top of each castellum, water collected in
storage tanks known as urne, flowed down to reach the top of castella secondarium
which were usually pushed to the outer walls of buildings. Hence, water was distributed
to the homes through clay pipes, named doccionati and was stored in zinc or clay tanks
(the jars) or to the fountains from which the population could draw it. To avoid of mixing
304 G. Lofrano et al.
water coming from different sources, on top of each castle could be found even more than
one urna, placed at different heights. That is why it is possible to see ascending and
descending, catusi distributing water in homes.
Figure 5 (a) Castellum dividicula on the outer walls (b) Castellum secondarium close to the
outer walls of buildings (c) Castellum secondarium of Villa Lampedusa (d) Castellum
secondarium in Piazza Cappuccini (e) Castellum secondarium in Albergheria
(f) Catusi (see online version for colours)
rom the Middle Ages to 19th century 305
The system quickly fell into disuse at the end of the 19th century with the construction of
water reservoir of San Ciro where waters of the Scillato Spring were collected. With its
70 km of pipelines and two tanks located in the village of San Ciro, this structure allowed
to fulfill the water supply until the first world war, when, with the increase in population,
it was thought necessary to strengthen the sources of supply. At that time, between the
decades ‘20s and ‘30s, the sources Gabriele and San Ciro – Maredolce started to be used.
After the Second World War, the water distribution system suffered a huge blow. In
addition to the extensive damage caused by the conflict, the city coped with a serious
shortage of water and, the need, therefore, to find alternative sources. As consequence a
new reservoir was built, close to Marineo on Eleuterio river. Water was conveyed to the
city from this dam as well as from the sources of Risalaimi. In addition, groundwaters of
Ciaculli-Gardens, Bagheria and Trabia and later those of Piana degli Albanesi were also
exploited through several wells.
The underground hydraulic structures (qants, Scirocco chambers, miqweh) constructed
by the ancients in Palermo Plain, played an important influential role in the advancement
of the cultural, economic and social life of the Palermo city, and of its wide ecological
environment. The availability of water made through these structures, contributed to the
development of civilisation, reflected by the external (above ground) and underground
structures, that resisted the influence of time, and survived till the present days, constitute
the basic evidence of the efforts of the ancients to control the underground water
resources and to promote the civilisation of Palermo and its wider area.
Al Idrisi, A.M. (1994) Il libro di Ruggero, Flaccovio Editore, Palermo, Italy.
Barbera, G., Corselli d’Ondes, G., Ala, M., Basile, A. and Fiammella, F. (2006) Proceedings of the
International Workshop ‘Giardini Islamici’, Palermo (Italy), 12–14 October 2006.
De Feo, G., De Gisi, S., Malvano, C., Capolongo, D., Del Prete, S., Manco, M., Maurano, F. and
Tropeano, E. (2010) ‘Historical, biological and morphological aspects of the Roccarainola
Qant in the district of Naples, Italy’, Water Science and Technology: Water Supply, Vol. 10,
No. 4, pp.647–655.
Hodge, A.T. (2002) Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply, 2nd ed., Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd,
London, ISBN 0715631713.
Lofrano, G., Carotenuto, M., Maffettone, R., Todaro, P., Sammataro, S. and Kalavrouziotis, I.K.
(2013) ‘Water collection and distribution systems in the Palermo Plain during the Middle
Ages’, Water, Vol. 5, No. 5, pp.1662–1676.
Todaro, P. (2000) ‘The ingruttati of the plain of Palermo’, Proceedings of the First International
Symposium on Qanat, Vol. 4, Iazd, Iran.
Todaro, P. (2006) ‘Sistemi di captazione e gestione dell’acqua nella Piana di Palermo nel
Medioevo’, Proceedings of the International Workshop ‘Giardini Islamici’, Palermo (Italy),
12–14 October 2006.
Tolle-Kastenbein, R. (2005) Archeologia dell’acqua (Water Archaeology), Longanesi-Collana
Biblioteca di archeologia, ISBN 8830411655, Italy (in Italian).