The Etruscan well in Perugia

The centre of Perugia’s upper town features an ancient Etruscan well that dates back to the third century BC and is open to visitors.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Located on the Piazza Piccinino, in the upper town of Perugia, is the top of a well. It’s known as the Sorbello Well, named after the aristocratic family that once owned the building that was built partially on top of it. This visible part of the well dates to the modern era, going back to the sixteenth century, with later restorations.

The smallish superstructure of the well here on the Piazza Piccinino, elements of which date back to the sixteenth century and later, belies the fact that there’s a sizeable Etruscan well directly underneath. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The well is also known as the Pozzo etrusco or the “Etruscan well”. That’s because the Etruscans are thought to have originally dug the well in the second half of the third century BC, after which it continued in use throughout the rest of the ancient and medieval periods.

Modern tourists can visit the ancient, underground portions of the well via the entrance on Piazza Danti no. 18. The well extends to around 37m below ground level. The main cistern of the cylindrical well, which starts about three meters or so below the modern ground level, has a diameter of about 5.6m at its widest point.

The top portion features travertine blocks, with massive truss beams at the very top supporting the “roof” of the well (i.e. the street level). According to the visitors’ centre, each of these travertine truss beams weighs an impressive 8,000kg. None of the beams or stone blocks are fixed in place with mortar. In short, the well is an impressive piece of ancient engineering.

A cross section sketch of the Etruscan well at Perugia, drawn after one of the displays in the visitors’ centre. Street level (0m) is at Piazza Piccinino. The upper section (white) is made of travertine stone blocks and features heavy truss beams that support the superstructure of the well. The middle section, cut into the rock, sports a modern footbridge.

In ancient and medieval times, the well was an important source of water for the town. It’s still fed by three veins of water. The interior is quite humid, with water dripping from the walls and ceiling. The entrance therefore features a sign that rightfully warns visitors that the steps down to the well are slippery. Mind your footing!

Modern visitors can get to the lower portion of the wide upper section of the well. There’s a glass footbridge here that spans the diameter of the well, affording an excellent view of the interior of the well. Looking up, you can see the travertine truss beams and the opening of the top of the well on Piazzo Piccinino. If you look down, you can see the level of the water, with coins thrown in by tourists lining the edge of the more narrow section.

Near the top of the stairs that lead to the modern footbridge, there’s a window that affords a look at the massive truss beams near the “roof” of the well. Each of these travertine blocks has been estimated to weight approximately 8,000kg. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The site has its own website, with information offered in both English and Italian. To reach the site, you’ll have to park your car at one of the parking garages located outside of the upper town proper and take an escalator or walk to the inner city.

This article is part of the series, Exploring Umbria.