If there is something the city of Milan, the Italian fashion capital, is not known for, but which is equally a symbol of the city, as much as the Duomo or La Scala can be, are its green, dragon-shaped water fountains. They can be found in public parks and squares, and they are numerous: the city hosts 580 of them. The Lamperti foundry, based in Castellanza, a few kilometers away from Milan, has been producing them for about a century.
Here are their distinctive elements: they are green, 1.55 m tall, weighing 280 kg, made of cast iron for the main body and of brass in the faucet part. The iconic dragon, which is represented in the faucet, is a reference to the snake that was the symbol of the Visconti family, one of the oldest noble families in Italy. The fountains are commonly known as “green dragons”, yet their most famous and official name is vedovelle, “little widows”: it is said that they were named this way in remembrance of the tears of the widows of the victims of World War I.
Between past and present
The first fountain was placed in piazza della Scala, in the city’s heart, in 1932, to relieve passers-by from their thirst. In fact, one of the most distinctive elements of the vedovelle is that their water flow is uninterrupted, in order to maintain the water fresh and to avoid the gathering of bacteria around the faucet. The continuous availability of water is now proving very useful given the drought that is currently affecting the Northern regions of Italy. Despite a state of emergency, due to the high temperatures and lack of rain, which have led the authorities to impose limitations over the use of water, in fact, the city’s administration has decided not to shut the fountains, instead allowing inhabitants and tourists to have the water available at all times. Nevertheless, the continuous flow does not mean that there is any dispersion: whatever water is not collected by people, it goes through the sewers, passes into purifiers and is then used to irrigate the crops around the city.
Where is the water coming from?
The city has a network of 2,235 kilometers of water pipes, and the vedovelle play an important role in it: they are strategically placed close to the dead ends of the aqueduct network, in order to give a way out for the air bubbles that tend to form in the pipeline, which would otherwise create too much pressure on the pipes. This also explains why certain areas of the city gather numerous fountains within a few meters from each other, and other parts of town are a lot less equipped. The water flowing through the fountains does not come from rivers or lakes, but originates from water sources in the ground: it is purified through the ground layers, it is then disinfected through a minimal amount of chlorine, and it is then distributed around the city through 587 wells.
A small but steady production
The Lamperti foundry, which is the sole producer of the vedovelle, produces about twenty new fountains every two or three years for the city administration. Normally, the production requires about 60 days, although at the moment the manufacture has been slowed down by the consequences of the war in Ukraine, as explained to Italian newspaper Il Post by Andrea Lamperti, young heir of the business, who is involved in managing the company alongside his parents. The company shut down the furnace in 1994, and nowadays the single parts are produced elsewhere in the world, but they are still assembled in Castellanza. For those who might want to buy one for their garden, an original vedovella is on sale for 2,099.99 euros.