The Water City
The Political Epistemology of Hydrogeological Praxis

Profils of Venetian channels (École nationale des ponts et chaussées: Collection de dessins). Provenance: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, DG_1606.


The Max Planck Partner Group The Water City brings the city and the environments of Venice into focus as the basis for historical and comparative studies on global geo-anthropological processes. We take into account the multi-faceted reality of a ‘hydropolis’, which has always constituted a crossroad of environmental, cultural, political, economic, and migratory phenomena. The Partner Group creates a bridge between the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin, and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and brings together a group of international scholars, whose research is motivated by common environmental and cultural-political concerns about the present state of the world vis-à-vis its scientific and technological transformation.

The head of the Partner Group is Pietro Daniel Omodeo.

"Vue du Golfe de Venise" (18th century) by Laurent Guyot (engraver) and Hubert Robert (painter). Provenance: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Every time that high sea tides flood the city of Venice we are forcefully reminded of the responsibility that humans share for the rise in global temperatures and sea levels. An inquiry into the geo-environmental practices and politics of Venice offers a paradigmatic case study to reflect on the intwined history of humans and their environment. Ongoing research into sustainability and geo-anthropology has emphasized the importance of evaluating alternative historical paths to achieve a dynamic balance between humankind and nature. As the research on the Anthropocene conducted at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science demonstrates, the history of science can diagnose the problems facing our societies and play a substantial role in finding a cure. The specific contribution of the partner group The Water City will be to historically comprehend geo-environmental politics, and the city of Venice was chosen as an ideal site for this both historically and symbolically. 

The research focus of early-modern Venice is a promising point of departure for concrete studies on geo-environmental history in the longue durée, and the consolidation of a historical line of inquiry into hydrogeological praxis in line with the most pressing questions of today’s Anthropocene debates on the anthropic transformation of the earth system. It offers an opportunity to establish new inter-disciplinary collaborations and comparative cross-cultural studies, and constitutes an example of how historical sources can help extract useful data for hydrogeological history.

Archival documentation of the environmental politics of Venice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is vast and well preserved in the Venetian archives (in primis, the State Archive of Venice), in the local libraries, and in the libraries of Veneto region. It calls for in-depth investigations in relation to questions of climate change and geo-environmental management. These materials are of great scholarly interest, as a means of reconstructing the scientific knowledge and practices that made the exchange between the water-civilization and its territory possible. In addition, the archival documents contain large amounts of data about the rise of sea levels in the past which need to be assessed through an interdisciplinary collaboration between historians of science and geologists.

Moreover, this project will involve an intense dialogue between archaeologists and historians of art and architecture, because the environmental history of the lagoon of Venice cannot be understood without the support of scholars in these disciplines; the enmeshment of human action and natural forces reemerges again as a central, mediating theme. Comparative historical and cross-cultural cases will be taken into account, as well, through exchanges with German, American and Indian scholars working on kindred projects.


Vittore Carpaccio, "Caccia in laguna", 1490-1495 ca., Getty Museum [detail from Wikimedia Commons].

A series of comparative studies and research activities will be developed in this framework. The first work should include:

  • Preparation of a digital publication on the lagoon management in the seventeenth century based on unpublished archival sources and rare early-modern books on running waters.
  • Creation of an iconographic database on the Water City project which includes representations of Venice and its waters at various levels: cartographic maps, vedute and symbolic representations.
  • Research on the water management of Tenochtitlan / Mexico City in the early modern period based on archival research and aimed at the publication of an Open Access volume for the Series Knowledge Hegemony.
    The book should deal with the hydraulic environment of Mexico City, its techno-scientific aspects and the social implications among the different groups of the multicultural society of the time.


Steering committee

  • Pietro Daniel Omodeo
  • Senthil Babu (Pondicherry)
  • Sascha Freyberg (Berlin)
  • Matthias Schemmel (Berlin)
  • Klaus Vogel (Berlin)


  • Jürgen Renn (Berlin)
  • Tina Asmussen (Bochum)
  • Cristina Baldacci (Venice)
  • Ifor Duncan (Venice) 
  • Corinna Guerra (Venice)
  • Heiner Krellig (Venice)
  • Francesco Luzzini (Venice)
  • Giulia Rispoli (Berlin)
  • Omar Rodriguez (Mexico City)
  • Massimo Warglien (Venice)
  • Sebastiano Trevisani (Venice)
  • Matteo Savoldelli (Pavia-Venice)

Events and publications


Anthropocene Campus Venice
2021 11-16 October 2021

The Anthropocene Campus Venice (ACV) took the case of Venice as a point of departure to collectively reflect on geo-environmental politics in the ‘water city’ and beyond. Over the span of a full week, this forum provided a space for co-learning, interdisciplinary collaborations, and comparative studies bringing together environmental scientists, artists, historians of science and technology, geologists, environmental humanity scholars, archaeologists, and architects. On Thu 14th the inauguration of the Max Planck Partner Group The Water City took place during the Anthropocene Campus.


Sebastiano Trevisani and Pietro Daniel Omodeo,
“Earth Scientists and the Sustainable Development Goals: Geocomputing, New Technologies, and the Humanities”,
Land 10 (2021): 17pp.