Positioned Cosmology in Early Modernity:
The Geo-Praxis of Water-and-Land Management in Venice


EarlyGeoPraxis addresses the cosmological embedment of geological praxis in early modernity by focusing on the ‘water city’, Venice, as a case study for the comprehension of the relationship between nature and civilization in the light of fundamental questions that have been raised by the ongoing debates on the Anthropocene on the consequences of the geological definition of a new age marked by the anthropic transformation of the earth-system as a whole:

  • can we write a history of scientific knowledge based on the transformative interplay of nature and culture?
  • what are the epistemological consequences of a historico-political inquiry into the co-evolution of knowledge and territory?

The political economy of a water city like Venice constitutes an emblematic case for the reassessment of such questions in the longue-durée. A series of closely interconnected studies address the cosmological bearing of transformative geo-praxis. They consider the dynamic interplay of humankind and the environment in the Venetian early modernity from the perspective of the global knowledge that was activated in the service of local environmental politics:

  • what natural knowledge and technical expertise were developed and mobilized (e.g., for the study and transformation of the lagoon’s hydrography)?
  • against what cosmology (e.g., at the intersection of tidal theories with matter theories about the elements and pre-classical celestial physics)?
A 16th-century map of the lagoon of Venice by the water engineer Cristoforo Sabbadino preserved in the State Archive of Venice.
The Arsenal of Venice by Maffioletti, Disegno II (1797), preserved in the Archivio Diplomatico della Biblioteca Civica of Trieste.

As a matter of fact, in early modernity, water engineering, territorial politics and the management of the environment and its resources were inserted into wider frameworks of natural comprehension. The most relevant levels of this comprehension relate to:

  • the scientific (geological, natural philosophical, socio-political, mathematical, mechanical, meteorological and even astrological) theorization of the complex dynamic system of water flows centered in the lagoon;
  • the cosmographic and political comprehension of Venice as the hub of a wide maritime network that was the basis and the consequence of its geo-politics;
  • the astronomico-cosmological analysis of the deepest causes of meteorological and tidal phenomena deemed necessary for the maintenance and defense of Venice and its vital interests.

To broaden this perspective, the investigation of geo-praxis in early-modern Venice should be enhanced through the opening up of historical and global comparative studies.

During the Renaissance Venice was a center of publications on sea tides, which connected considerations on the element water and cosmology. Frontispiece and diagram from Federicus Delphinus, "De fluxu et refluxu aquae maris" (1559).


The main goal of this research endeavor on the knowledge economy of environmental politics is to inquiry into the cosmological embedment of hydro-geological agency and the forms of knowledge that are necessary to its implementation, reproduction and redirection. EarlyGeoPraxis specifically investigates the cosmological embedment of Venice’s environmental politics at a culminating time of its history. It integrates the ERC project EarlyModernCosmology by ‘bringing cosmology down to earth’, to the practices and materiality of natural science.

The insular, man-made foundations of the most artificial city of Venice in the midst of a lagoon mark its specific relation to the element of water, which has always constituted a vital resource for the city (e.g., fishing, transport, defense), but also a threat of dissolution. Venice is the most apt place, historically and symbolically, to conduct a project on the history of the sustainable interplay between human civilization and nature according to new historiographic questions raised by ongoing debates on climate history. Sustainability directly refers to the knowledge that was necessary to safeguard the ‘critical zone’ of intense water-flow interaction between the anthroposphere and the geosphere. Water and earth, as elemental spheres, were conceptualized as functional parts of the whole, according to an organic conception that preceded the modern notion of the Earth-system.

The economic and political interests linked to water management and hydrogeological engineering were at the origin of intense scientific debates during early modernity. These debates produced in Venice and abroad a large body of knowledge, including scientific works on topics connecting hydrology to mechanics and engineering, geology and tidal theories. They can be seen as the epistemic expression of the knowledge-mediated relation between the water civilization of Venice and the transformation of its natural settings. Venice offers a privileged perspective for the inquiry into these entangled themes due to its political and cultural positioning as a continental and maritime cosmopolitan power in the complex geo-politics of the Mediterranean Sea.

Portion of the geomorphological map of the Province of Venice, from: “Geomorphological map of the Province of Venice, scale 1:50000, Bondesan A., Meneghel M., Rosselli R., Vitturi A. (Eds), (2004) LAC, Florence (Italy)”.
High resolution orthophoto image of the same area of the geomorphological map (image from Google Earth Pro, image year 2012, map data: Google, Maxar Technologies 2019).