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The Voices of Venice. Anthro-Ecological Perspective on the Making of Medieval Europe

Final Report Summary - VOICESOFVENICE (The Voices of Venice. Anthro-Ecological Perspective on the Making of Medieval Europe.)

VoicesOfVenice aims to stimulate a critical reappraisal of the one of the most well-studied European historical and social phenomenon, the “Origins of Venice.” The research is developing a new archaeological viewpoint, including a comprehensive environmental approach. It is implementing innovative methods for re-interpret the formation of the new settlements in the Venetian lagoons between Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages. A unique archaeological dataset, derived from the privileged viewpoint offered by ongoing excavations in Torcello (Venice Lagoon), forms the basis of the project.
New theoretical approaches have been developed, informed from the new tendencies of social studies. The project is shifting from European current model where Material Culture has been used to establish historical models, suitable for the explanation of significant past events, to a different ecological and anthropological approach.
Paying particular attention to the physical processes in which the “things” of the past (artifacts, landscapes, technologies) have been exposed, archaeological and environmental data are interrogating for knowing how ancient and present societies have been entrapped into the maintenance and sustaining of a very concrete material world. A significant part of the training is devoted to Public Archaeology, reconsidering how the tale of the “Origins” has been narrated. VoiceOfVenices aims to trace the anthropological perspective of the story, starting with the review of the medieval chronicles, going on with the contemporary studies, and ending with the narration today, between academia, the web and social networks.

The Problem of Venice Origins, from history to ecology, First Result from Voice of Venice

Venice’s birth is entangled with the historical problem od the Fall of the Roman Empire and the economic landscape between 4th and 10th century in the Mediterranean Europe.
Is the economy dated from 700 onwards part of an entirely new world? Can we define it a European economy, which movements are difficult to detect at the beginning?
After McCormick’s scholars agree that the Carolingian economy is revealing itself as not impoverished or stagnant at all, mainly due to archaeological excavations “From the Earth has come proof that commerce surged in and among these regions in the 8th and 9th centuries” (McCormick 2001, 12).
New research during the 2000s years in Venice and in the lagoon developed: thanks to detailed stratigraphical archaeological analyses, they have uncovered new and important evidence on the Venetian lagoon and in general the northern Adriatic shore between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.
We can perceive a gradual transformation indicating a new colonization of the lagoon towards the sea, following the natural changes happening in the environment and the transformation of the river delta. This transfer started during the Late Roman period and was characterized by the presence of workers particularly in the salt trade and fishing, ruled and funded by the elite that economically controlled the area. Already in the late Roman period, the ancient Roman cities of the mainland were no longer able to function as ports, due to the climatic changes taking places with the gradual enlargement of the coastline towards the sea, and therefore this activity had to take place elsewhere in the lagoon. Therefore the lagoon seems to attract the interest of Late Antique local aristocracies which were most probably linked to military environments, which pushed the social and economic scenario of those earlier sites. In the lagoon, archaeology attests for a peculiar flourishing of settlements of a commercial nature: San Basilio, Cavarzere, Chioggia, Rialto, Olivolo, Malamocco, Torcello, Jesolo, Cittanova, Caorle, Grado (and Comacchio). At river mouths (like the Po, Adige, Sile, Piave, Livenza, Tagliamento) a new system of small ports for commodities exchange developed. Wood now seems to be the main material used to built docks and infrastructure related to port activities. Sandbanks and riverbanks became places of settlement after the late Imperial period because before this epoch simply they did not exist: these are entirely new lands. This area they may have been large imperial properties: estates with fields, lagoons, and forests.
The impact of the myth on the interpretation of the historical data is still noticeable. The myth was further reinforced over the centuries by other chronicles like those of the 12th and 13thC and that of Andrea Dandolo, doge in the 14thC. It has been widely used to reaffirm the identity of the Venetians and their city. VoicesOfVenice takes somewhat a different approach to this argument. The lagoons and coasts were a perfect environment to develop protected trade, without facing the perils of navigating the open sea. The move towards this kind of environment, the lagoon, was voluntary. The aim of the people living here was to take economic advantage of life on the waters.
Was Venice a Byzantine city? According to the little historical evidence (such as John the Deacon) the titles held by the aristocratic elite (as tribunus, magister militum, spathario or ipato) who contributed to the creation of the first Venetian institutions, are Byzantine. The strong Byzantine component and perception apparent even in the most recent historiography on the origin of the Venetians is because in Venice everything appears in some sense Eastern, including the beautiful architectural works still visible in the city today. VoiceOfVenice is demonstrating that the Byzantine component has been overvalued in the historiography.
The lagoon environment, as a borderline context, is also reflected in the social and political scenario; the Venetian lagoon lies between two entities: the Carolingian and the Byzantine worlds, the west, and east. The sea and the mainland are different geographical elements. The archaeological evidence shows that they are not in conflict but rather perfectly integrated into the where material culture imported from the eastern Mediterranean and southern Italy is found in association with very local material culture, mainly represented by wooden features such as houses, workshops, waterfronts, riverbanks. This is probably made the fortune of the lagoons in the Adriatic region, which expanded considerably as autonomous emporia. This archaeological evidence attests for a strong similarity with the Carolingian emporia/cities of northern Europe rather than with the Byzantine cities of the Mediterranean.

The ongoing research questions:
Problem: how can we assess the extent to which early Venetians conceptualized their ecological impact, and what were the social implications for maintaining exploitative practices?
Problem: how did technology transfer allow the first Venetians to produce vessels capable of long-distance travel, at a time when this knowledge was not anymore present in the western Mediterranean?
Problem: Given the geographic constraints of the lagoon, what social, political and logistical mechanisms did the Venetians‟ employ to secure their food (fauna & plants, but NOT aquaculture) supply?
Problem: being surrounded by salt marsh, the lagoon has no naturally occurring sources of fresh, drinking, water. What were the social outcomes of a constrained water supply?
Problem: how can we evaluate the social and labor provision costs of achieving affordance, maintain specific „things‟ i.e. the Venetian Galea vessel, ports, piers, Venetian glass goblet.
Problem: ethics within a historic perspective. Viewing slaves as a material commodity, how can we reconcile the historic narrative on slavery with modern debates regarding human rights?
Problem: ethics today. UNESCO have played a critical role in furnishing our modern conceptualisation on the origins of Venice; how will the present proposed project be most effectively integrated into the present memory of local Venetians, and how will present-day knowledge be affected in light of the now-dynamic (moving away from a static view of classical archaeology) nature of archaeology.

The first two years of the project have been dedicated mainly to the training activities to strengthen the anthropological and environmental skills of the researcher. The Fellows learned how to integrate the material studies theory in the post-classical Mediterranean archaeology, using Venice as a test case. The main researcher, during the third year, prepared the final research-book with an anthropological approach. The chosen title well synthesizes the global perspective adopted: “Water, Wood, and Labor. Venice’s origins and the ecology of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Europe”. The last year, also, has been devoted to the transfer of knowledge: Diego Calaon has directed an important archaeological excavation in Torcello with a team of young research fellows, specifically appointed for the project: the new antrhro-ecological approach has been successfully tested.