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.
Aesthetic sensibility in an age of crisis: radicalizing environmental styles
PhD project by Matteo Savoldelli

In the picture sargasso and motor oil (Giacomo Bianco, Untitled, 2023)

How does the aesthetic experience of the environment unfold and how would it be appropriate to articulate it? Since the 1960s, a new field of study has emerged that seeks to address these two issues. In the same years, the climate crisis began to make its way into the public debate, framing nature with a new political and ethical dimension.
The first part of my research will be devoted to an analysis of the field, highlighting the difficulties of environmental aesthetics in engaging with these issues. An attempt will thus be made to map and critique the various positions that maintain a fallacious description of experience, based on both the transcendence of scientific objectivity and on the immediacy of bodily perception, a description capable of leading to an autonomist conception of aesthetic judgment.

For the possibility of questioning these first two assumptions, recourse will be made to the concept of styles, showing how stylistic articulation is a condition of possibility for both perception and ontology. The aesthetic experience is thus dependent on a dynamic triangulation between society, subjectivity, and environment. The three basic dimensions of styles, namely the shared, acted, and possible, will be explored through the sociology of perception (Simmel, Baxandall, Crary), American pragmatism (Dewey, Dreon), and postmodern epistemology (Fleck, Hacking, Daston). I will draw on the ontological turn in anthropology to consider the possibility of applying the concept to perception and the metaphysics of the natural environment (Ingold, Viveiros De Castro).
The autonomist approach can thus be questioned, highlighting the political dimension of the articulation of objects (Foucault-Deleuze) and sensibility (Rancière), and demonstrating, thanks to eco-queer theories (Butler, Barad, Haraway), how nature and the gaze that scrutinizes it are dense with power relations.

Rather than giving in to the temptation of a passive and defeatist approach, I will conclude by pointing out how the current situation of profound social, individual, and environmental crisis can propel the critique and abandonment of traditional environmental styles, in order to move toward unpredictable and radical ones capable of sketching out new subjectivities and new worlds to come (De Martino, Guattari, Campagna). Will we be able to radically rearticulate our aesthetic habits of visualizing natural entities (Calarco, Povinelli), narrating climate change (Malm, Tsing, Haraway), and acting inside multiple ecological crises (Bifo, The Care collective, Srnicek/Williams, Vasallo)?


  • Pietro Daniel Omodeo (main responsible)
  •  Jürgen Renn (Berlin)
  • Tina Asmussen (Bochum)
  • Senthil Babu (Pondicherry)
  • Cristina Baldacci (Venice)
  • Sascha Freyberg (Berlin)
  • Corinna Guerra (Venice)
  • Heiner Krellig (Venice)
  • Francesco Luzzini (Venice)
  • Giulia Rispoli (Venice)
  • Omar Rodríguez Camarena (Venice)
  • Matthias Schemmel (Hamburg)
  • Matteo Savoldelli (Pavia-Venice)
  • Sebastiano Trevisani (Venice)   
  • Klaus Vogel (Berlin)

Events and publications


 5-7 July 2023, Jena
CROSSCURRENTS. Historical Waterscapes in Crosscultural Perspective. Jena, Max Planck Institut of Geoanthropology
Workshop webpage on the website of Max Planck Institut of Geoanthropology.

11-16 October 2021 - Anthropocene Campus Venice
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.


In collaboration with the Unesco Chair “Water, Heritage, and Sustainable Development”:

  • 21 March 2023 at 14:00-15:00 - discussion of Chakrabarti, "Inscriptions of Nature", introduction and chap. 1
  • 18 April 2023 at 13:00-14:30 - Maddalena Bassani and Fantina Madricardo, "Crossing Waters: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach to the Venice Lagoon"
  • 23 May 2023 at 14:00-15:30 - Ludovica Galeazzo, "Venice’s Aquascape: The Islands of the Venetian Lagoon in a Geo-Spatial Infrastructure"
  • 20 June 2023 at 1400-15:30 - Nicola Di Cosmo, "Floods and Dynastic Change in Seventeenth-Century China: A Case Study"


file pdf 29/09-1/10/2022, Gargnano - Palazzo Feltrinelli [ITA]
P.D. Omodeo, R. Garau, C. Guerra, J. Regier presented the project ERC Early Modern Cosmology: Institutions and Metaphysics n° 725883, at the XI Seminario sulla scienza antica e la sua tradizione, Dipartimento di Filosofia, University of Milan
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Venice as a paradigm

  • Baldacci C., Bassi S., Capitani L., Omodeo P. D. (eds.), "Venice and the Anthropocene: An Ecocritical Guide", Venice, Wetlands, 2022

Geoanthropological enquiries

Social-cultural flows