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The Water Cultures of Italy, 1500-1900

Project description

Refocusing Italian history on water’s role

The Water-Cultures project examines the role of water in society, offering a new field of study in social and cultural history through the focus on a precious yet often overlooked commodity. The epistemological method used will integrate several aspects in the study, ranging from water resource management to cultural beliefs and practices. The project will focus on Italy between 1500 and 1900 AD because of its detailed archival material and the richness of its political, cultural and geographical factors. The project hopes to highlight the role of a society’s relationship with water in constructing its identity and self-representation in history.


Behind this project lies a paradox: water, although vital for life, has historically had little intrinsic value. Considered base and common as a drink, it was nevertheless the most symbolically charged of the elements; of limited monetary value in and of itself, access to it was in fact hard-fought, the foundation and driving force of society. The Water Cultures project aims to create a new field of study, based around the social and cultural history of a people’s polyvalent interactions with water, applicable to a wide range of places and times.
The project proposes an epistemological method of structuring, analysing and presenting the diverse range of findings and approaches into a new holistic understanding. The Water Cultures concept is based on the synergistic braiding of five key 'Streams': the symbolic beliefs and practices associated with water; the circulation and evolution of knowledge about water and disease and its effects; the water management systems of large cities and demands on them; the changing hydraulic landscape of rural areas; and the occupations of water, exploring the professions and trades associated with water and its delivery and uses.
Italy has been chosen as the case study—for its rich archives and social, political and geographical variety. The Italian history of water, from the 1500s to the end of the 19th century, is a story of authority and conflict, social hierarchy and material realities, changing medical and scientific knowledge and technological expertise, and religious beliefs and practices. Yet Italian historians have undervalued water and its uses.
This transformative project conceptualises a new way of writing history, with water at its core. It proposes the history and culture of a given society, the construction of identities and forms of self-representation based on relationships and interactions with water: the ways of controlling, using and conceiving it, and the symbolic, creative and material dimensions it assumed.


Net EU contribution
€ 2 433 520,25
Dorsoduro 3246
30123 Venezia

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Nord-Est Veneto Venezia
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Other funding
€ 0,00

Beneficiaries (2)