A modern water sorting system for private use in the city of Palermo dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when water obtained from the Scillato springs began to be used.
The village of Scillato, located at the foot of the Madonie mountains, is a charming place, with its characteristic layout by concentric circles, in which the buildings, built with two facades, enclose large gardens and orchards. he guide of Sicily by the Italian Touring Club describes the village as follows: “the place is especially known for the numerous and rich springs, which flow from the slopes of the Madonie and contribute to the water supply of the territory of Palermo”.
The springs are located above the level of the village; the water emerges at 376.68 metres above sea level, as stated by a painted inscription on the external walls of the aqueduct conjunction barrel construction. From a geological point of view, the catchment area of the springs is formed by Monte Fanusi, Castellaro, Cozzo di Castellazzo, Monte dei Cervi, Cozzo Morto, Piano della Madonna, Balata di Caltavuturo, Cozzo Vuturo. The area is strongly affected by the Karst phenomenon; this is due to the chemical composition of the rocks, with a strong limestone component. Calcium carbonate, which is the main compound of which the rocks of the Monte Fanusi massif are formed, in contact with water rich in carbon dioxide, reacts in a way that tends to break up the rock mass, creating funnel depressions, typical of the phenomenon, which are called sinkholes. The water infiltrates here, flowing into subterranean cavities, almost like rivers. The Karst phenomenon, which takes its name from the Karst area in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, includes reversible reactions: it is not uncommon that stalactites and stalagmites are formed. In Sicily, Karst is a rather frequent phenomenon, determined by the prevailing chemical composition of the island’s mountainous massifs; also Monte Pellegrino, for example, is particularly affected by this phenomenon, denoted by the presence of gorges and ponors. In the case of Scillato, as we said before, water flowing in the subsoil emerges at the altitude of 376.68 metres, upstream of the village, in a place called Contrada Sorgive; the three different springs that are created are called Agnello, Bosco and Golfone.
Going back to the history of the aqueduct, it is necessary to mention the fact that for hygienic reasons, as a result of two cholera epidemics that hit the population of the city of Palermo, at the beginning of the twentieth century it was considered necessary to provide the city with a modern and efficient water distribution system.
Therefore, in 1886, the mayor of Palermo, Giulio Benso, Duke of Verdura, launched a tender for the distribution in the city of the water provided by the Scillato springs; it was a British company that was awarded the tender but, for reasons never clarified, they never started the work and lost the sum of 200,000 lire, a rather high amount for the time, which had been paid as a deposit to the municipality.
Seven years later, in 1893, the mayor Ugo delle Favare assigned the works for the construction of the aqueduct to the brothers Giovan Battista and Celestino Biglia, and to Alessandro Vanni, from Piedmont. The aqueduct structure was completed in a very short time; in addition to the network of connections that, from the place where the water was drawn, brought the water supply to the city taking advantage of the slopes, it also included two reservoirs, which are located in San Ciro, on Mount Grifone, on the south-eastern outskirts of the city, and the network for distributing water to the population. The king of Italy, Umberto I, was not present at the inauguration of the aqueduct, he sent Francesco Crispi to Palermo instead. The ceremony coincided with the opening celebration of the Teatro Massimo, designed by the two architects who best represented Sicilian Liberty (Art Nouveau), Giovan Battista Filippo Basile and his son Ernesto. Until the first post-war period, the aqueduct adequately covered the needs of the Palermo homes. Below, we will quote some passages taken from the authentic document, recently reprinted, compiled in 1897 by the three aqueduct authorities. The first passage which we deem appropriate to quote talks about the motivations that led the notable persons of the City of Palermo to launch a tender for the creation of a system for collecting and distributing healthy water to the citizens: “The problem of equipping the city of Palermo with good and abundant water had long worried the Municipality leaders, but the solution of this problem became imperative after the cholera outbreaks of 1884 and 1885 and after the postulates of science stated that bad water was a vehicle for infectious diseases. And since the mayor was the honourable Senator Duke of Verdura, a tender was launched to convey the fresh and pure waters of the Scillato springs to Palermo. But the purpose was not achieved immediately. Only after many lengthy negotiations, on 12 February 1892 was it possible to conclude a concession agreement under the Marquis Pietro Ugo delle Favare, a Senator of the Kingdom, who was now the Mayor. Under this agreement, in order to ensure a supply of water to the city sufficient to meet the needs of the population and the sanitary requirements, Giovan Battista and Celestino Biglia together with Alessandro Vanni undertook to convey to Palermo from 350 to 500 litres per minute of water from the Scillato springs”. As we have said, the district of the Scillato springs is located at the foot of the Madonie; the road climbs through the woods, in a peaceful hilly landscape. It is not common to meet someone, silence is almost absolute, the scent of plants and flowers is very pleasant; once you enter the area where the springs are located, walking along a tree-lined avenue, you reach a clearing where there is a building once used as a home for the caretakers, and the conjunction barrel construction. The springs themselves, as in the case of the Gabriele, are hidden by completely anonymous buildings, constructed only for the fundamental purpose of protecting the purity of the water. Also in this case, therefore, from the outside the appearance is absolutely ordinary, while inside, with the tumultuous flowing waters, it is very fascinating. Even the so-called conjunction barrel building has a special charm; it is a set of basins, in which the waters are collected, to make sure that they lose the flow velocity acquired by crossing the steep slopes.
Again quoting the same text, we discover that “the water pours into the so-called conjunction barrel building through almost entirely accessible connection tunnels, part of which are made with masonry and part are perforated in the shaft at a lower level than that from which the springs had previously gushed. Due to the steepness of the slope, decreased by some vertical falls of 2.40, 3.00, 5.85 m, water flows into this building at very high speed; therefore, in order to slow down the velocity of the flow the barrel was divided by diaphragm walls into several basins communicating with each other so that the water, forced to rise and descend several times, reaches the measuring chamber with lower force”.
As we have mentioned before, alongside the area of the springs, the whole system of pipes that conveys water to Palermo for being distributed to the inhabitants is also part of the aqueduct; obviously, the path is quite long, so there are passages through bridges, slides and other suitable structures. Upon arrival at the gates of the city, the water is collected in two reservoirs located in San Ciro, just outside Palermo. The two buildings, visible at the entrance of the motorway, looking towards Messina, externally are similar to apartment blocks with yellow ochre walls, surrounded by greenery. Two plaques placed on the facade of the upper reservoir commemorate the work carried out for commissioning the great engineering masterpiece represented by the Scillato aqueduct. There is also a plaque placed on the facade of Palazzo delle Aquile in Palermo that commemorates the construction of the aqueduct, a sign of prosperity and growth for the city. The plaques are similar in many respects but, strangely, while one of those placed at San Ciro correctly reminds us that the waters flow “from the cool breast of the Madonie“, the plaque placed at Palazzo delle Aquile refers to the Nebrodi. The reason for this peculiarity is not clear; it can be assumed, however, that in the past, not only the mountain chain now known as Nebrodi, but also the Peloritani and the Madonie, were indifferently designated with the same toponym. However, this does not explain why the plaque placed on the outer wall of the upper reservoir of San Ciro bears the correct wording; it is not excluded that it could simply be a mistake.
Now, continuing to quote from the previous text, we read that “in order to be able to regulate the water distribution service in a constant and uniform way and to feed the internal network even during possible interruptions of the canal, two reservoirs were built in an alpine village called S Ciro, a few kilometres from the city, one high and the other low, with a total capacity of over 35,000 cubic metres of water. The high reservoir (sic), largely under the mountain, is divided into two tanks, and has a total capacity of more than 26,000 m3; the low reservoir instead, has only one tank with a capacity of over 9,000 m3 of water. Both the part of the open-air high reservoir as well as that of the low reservoir are covered by barrel vaults supported by arches and pillars”.
It is precisely these vaults and pillars that, more than anything else, hold the attention of those who have the opportunity to access one of the reservoirs. Once inside, the first sensation you experience is a vague feeling of oppression due to the strong smell of chlorine, which is added to the water for obvious hygiene reasons, and to the dim light, then you enjoy a very suggestive sight of water flowing into the pool clearly reflecting the brick pillars and the barrel vaults that cover the rooms. The exterior of the building, almost a garden of delights located at the top of a steep winding road, has a beautiful view stretching from the castle of Maredolce towards the sea.