Research - Case studies

Areas of inquiry

  • Can we write a history of scientific knowledge based on the transformative interplay of nature and culture?
  • Early-modern prospects on the anthropic history of Venice’s lagoon
  • Knowledge institutions of water politics
  • Water politics of sea tides
  • Life habits and political iconography in a water city
  • Comparative perspectives on the political economy of water resources
  • Towards a political-epistemology of space: praxis-oriented cosmology
The island of S. Giorgio. A detail from Jacopo de’ Barabari’s woodcat map “Veduta di Venezia” (1500), the relevance of which for the history of the geomorphology of the lagoon of Venice is discussed by Camuffo, Bertolin and Schenal, “A novel proxy and the sea level rise in Venice, Italy, from 1350 to 2014”, in Climatic Change 143/1–2 (2017): 73–86.

Method

Political epistemology

Political epistemology constitutes the theoretical framework of this project. Political epistemology brings into focus praxis (or ‘agency’) as a fundamental material-cultural dimension of science, in its collective and oriented character.

It specifically looks at science as mediating between the socio-economic and the cultural-discursive. It evidences:

  1. the function of science to secure the production and reproduction of societal formations;
  2. the ideological function insofar as science provides for ways to justify and criticize social order and helps reorient, transform and imagine alternative ways of living.

The latter discursive dimension has informed the EarlyModernCosmology of, whereas the practical-material line of inquiry will be exploited by EarlyGeoPraxis.

Interdiciplinarity

EarlyGeoPraxis brings together scholars from different backgrounds and competences ranging from the natural sciences (particularly geology and environmental studies), to the social sciences (especially, environmental history, social history of knowledge and economic history) and the humanities (such as intellectual history, philosophy and the history of art).

Multimediality

EarlyGeoPraxis also envisages to develop multimedia strategies of research, storage, analysis and communication of the results. It will strengthen and secure the continuity of editorial projects launched within EarlyModernCosmology, particularly two open-access series based on a collaboration between Ca’ Foscari and the MPI for the History of Science, Berlin (MPIWG). In this framework we will experiment with new forms of editing manuscripts and linking sources.

Research projects

A Copernican Revolution in the Lagoon: When A Galilean Mathematician Tried to Solve the Hydrogeological Problems of Venice

Pietro Daniel Omodeo
in collaboration with Senthil Babu Dhandapani (French Institute of Pondicherry and ETH Zürich), India and Swisserland and Sebastiano Trevisani (University IUAV of Venice)

The work "On the Measurement of Running Water" ("Della misura dell’acque correnti", 1629) by Galileo’s pupil, Benedetto Castelli has been considered one of the foundational works of modern hydrodynamics. It offered geometrical demonstrations aimed to make the measurement of running waters (the “misura”) possible through the isolation of few variables: the section of a waterway and its velocity. From this viewpoint, Castelli’s work represented another ‘Galilean’ attempt at mathematization.

However, Castelli was not able to convince the Venetian authorities that his method was apt to solve the main problems related to the conservation of the geoenvironmental equilibrium of the lagoon.
On the one hand, the Venetian authorities saw the diversion of rivers outside the lagoon as a measure to mitigate the infilling of sediment; on the other, Castelli argued, to the contrary, that it was precisely rivers’ diversion that produced an embankment effect, because it drove away a great quantity of water, which he accurately calculated.

His computational approach was dismissive of the comprehensive knowledge and complex methods that Venetian water experts had developed towards a systemic understanding of the hydrogeology and the environment of the lagoon.
They took into account manifold factors as varied as the rivers’ flows, sea tides, the relative positions of the sun and the moon, winds, and even the effects of anthropic interventions.
The dryness of Castelli’s reductionist approach, bolstered by his mathematical modeling of running water, was received with skepticism, even rage, thus rejected, in spite of the prestige of his connection with Galileo.

A manuscript copy of Castelli’s "Considerazione intorno alla Laguna di Venezia" (ca. 1641) preserved in the State Archive of Venice. Digital restauration by Eleni Dalle Nogare.

We reconstruct this controversy to dwell into the tension between mathematical abstraction and its claims to prescribe solutions to problems of the physical world, sparked off by Castelli’s claim that his mathematical treatment of running waters could solve all of the most urgent problems linked to the management of the Lagoon of Venice. From an epistemological viewpoint, we ask, to what extent it brought about a conflict between physico-mathematical abstraction (which resulted from the isolation of particular variables to yield a set of quantifiable data) against ‘geological’ concreteness (a form of comprehensive knowledge aimed to cope with systemic complexity). We assess whether the two different approaches were rooted in different societal arrangements and corresponding scientific practices, resulting in different modes of abstraction in practice.

To summarize, we a Renaissance case showing:

  • the practical use of the Euclidean theory of proportions;
  • its prescriptive function as a means of mathematical abstraction in landscape engineering;
  • the politics behind such mathematical assessments, forms of expertise, and management of physical resources and their political management through technical prescriptions, tested in geo-engineering practice.