The Water Cultures of Italy, 1500-1900

Washerwomen in Bologna, late 19th century post card.

February-June 2024 - 5th cycle seminars

  • 24 May 2024, 10.30-12.30 (CET), Venice, Ca' Foscari, sala Berengo: Tessa Storey, “Cosmetic and medicinal waters in early modern Italy: texts, ingredients, people and practices”
  • 28 June 2024, 10.30-12.30 (CET), Venice, Ca' Foscari, sala Berengo: Solène Rivoal, “I pescatori veneziani: esperti profani della laguna in età moderna”

After 400 years Giovanni Antonio Nigrones's manuscript is in print

Download your open access copy: “I disegni e i discorsi di Giovanni Antonio Nigrone, «fontanaro e ingegniero de acqua» (1585-1609 ca.)” [ITA], Gaia Buno, ed. Rome: Viella, 2024. ISBN: 9791254695555.


What would a history of a society look like with water placed at its core?

The "Water Cultures" concept aims to create a new holistic approach to the study of human interactions with water over time.

It will enable us to write the history and culture of a given society, the construction of its identities and forms of self-representation, based on its changing relationships with water: the ways of controlling, using and conceiving it; the religious, symbolic and knowledge dimensions it assumes, and the forms of cultural production it leads to.

By "water cultures", we mean both material aspects – such as hydraulic engineering, water capture techniques, legislation, and management – and non-material features – symbolic responses, beliefs and practices, changing knowledge.

In the process, "Water Cultures" also aims to contribute historical awareness and sensitivity in the vitally important area water resource use, management and protection.


Focus and methodology

The project focuses on Italy, with its social, political and geographical variety, and its unparalleled wealth and variety of archival resources and rich print history.

These can effectively document the ways in which the history of water is a story of political authority and conflict, social hierarchy and material realities, changing medical and scientific knowledge and technological expertise, and religious beliefs and practices.

The project’s temporal span is 1500-1900, an extended periodisation, in order to track changes and continuities, local variations and regional patterns. 

The "Water Cultures" concept is based on the synergistic braiding of five key Streams. These have been chosen to represent the most important elements, approaches and ways of understanding the cultures of water; to inform and shape one another, as they are taken forward; and to constitute innovative subject areas in their own right and fill wide knowledge gaps.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Paolo Veronese 1585.
  1. Springs: from sacred waters to bottled waters.
    Explores the complex overlap between the sacred (healing shrines), the medical (thermal springs) and the commercial (bottled mineral water) over time. 
  2. The science and health of water.
    Explores how the science and medicine of water changed over the full period, how this affected water use and consumption, and how both responded to Asiatic cholera. 
  3. Supplying Italian Cities: Large-Scale Hydrological Infrastructure and Water Management.
    The capacity to deliver water made the city possible, as did the ability to discharge waste. Focuses on the competing demands put on the urban water supply, adopting a comparative approach.
  4. The hydraulic landscape: irrigation, land reclamation and rural water management.
    Rural  Italy comprised markedly different hydraulic landscapes, which gave rise to a wide variety of mitigation strategies. This extended to small towns, forced to make the most of the water resources available, often with little assistance on the part of the State.
  5. The occupations of water: skills, status and interactions.
    Focuses on the range of actors involved in supplying and utilising water and their social and cultural worlds: how they learnt, how they practised and earned a living, how knowledge and skills circulated.
A Neapolitan water-seller, 18th century.
The baths at Abano, 16th century.
Hydrographic map of the Lazio hills, early 20th century.
A water-carrier at the well in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, late 19th century.


David Gentilcore

Principal Investigator

David Gentilcore is professor of early modern history in the Department of Humanities at Ca’ Foscari University Venice. In a range of books, scholarly articles and data sets he has explored the areas where the history of health and healing, the history of food and diet, and social and cultural history come together, with a focus on Italy. Previous research projects have been funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and the Economic and Research Council (all in the UK). His most recent books are Food and Heath in Early Modern Europe (Bloomsbury 2016) and (co-edited with Matthew Smith), Proteins, Pathologies and Politics: Dietary Innovation and Disease from the Nineteenth Century (Bloomsbury 2018). At the moment he is particularly interested in drinking water – its provision, management, consumption, and material and symbolic value – in early and late modern Italy.

Lavinia Maddaluno

Researcher in Early Modern History

Lavinia Maddaluno is a historian (Cambridge, History Faculty, PhD) and historian of science (Cambridge, HPS Department, MPhil). Her expertise is situated between the history of science and intellectual history, and her central research question concerns the role of scientific knowledge production in the realisation of ideas of wealth, state and society in early modern Europe. She has held fellowships at the British School at Rome, The Scaliger Institute (Leiden), the Università Federico II (Naples), and the EUI (Florence) and has been the first recipient of a joint Warburg/Villa I Tatti fellowship for the History of Science. In the context of the “Water Cultures” project, Lavinia will be examining how medical knowledge regarding the quality of waters and airs was produced in relation to land management, and of rice and cheese production especially, in the Spanish Habsburg Duchy of Milan.

Gaia Bruno

Researcher in early modern history

Gaia Bruno is the author of Le ricchezze degli avi. Cultura materiale della società napoletana nel Settecento (Naples, 2022). Having obtained her PhD in the History of European Society from the University of Naples "Federico II" with a thesis on the history of material culture (2016), she was post-doc at the same university for the research projects ‘STAR: Disasters, communication and politics in south-western Europe’ (PI Prof. Domenico Cecere) and, successively, ‘DeCiVe: Dealing with the collective interest in early modern Europe’ (PI Prof. Diego Carnevale), on the topic of waters. She has been with the Water-Cultures project since 2020. Amongst her journal articles: "Vivere a Napoli nel XVIII secolo: il Tribunale della Fortificazione, Acqua e Mattonata", Società e Storia (2018). For this project she is preparing a critical edition of the "Vari Discorsi", an illustrated manuscript produced by the ‘fountaineer and water engineer’ Giovanni Antonio Nigrone at the end of the 16th century (held in the National Library, Naples) and will be pursuing her research on the hydraulic infrastructure of early modern Palermo.

Oscar Schiavone graduated at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (2005) and went on to obtain two PhDs: one from the Universities of Florence and Bonn (2009) and another from University College London (2016). He then became a Teaching Fellow at UCL and Durham University (2014-21), before working as a Senior Research Fellow at the Medici Archive Project (2021-22). Oscar’s research, teaching experience, and publication record is interdisciplinary in nature. He has authored a book on Michelangelo Buonarroti, which won the Giuseppe Giusti literary award in 2014, as well as articles and book chapters on environmental and territorial management, migration and identity, cultural reception, and the intersection of forms of knowledge. He is editing Brill’s forthcoming "Companion to Ferdinando I de’ Medici" and collaborates with the journals "Albertiana", "Artes Renascentes", and "Rassegna della letteratura italiana". For the “Water-Cultures” project, Oscar is investigating the role of water as resource in the pursuit of health, primarily focusing on baths, bathing practices, and medicinal waters as recorded in early modern archival (and printed) sources across Medici Tuscany.

Rachele Scuro is an economic historian whose primary interests focus on Venice and the Venetian State, and Jewish history between the late medieval and early modern period. She graduated in History at Ca’ Foscari University and later earned a PhD in Medieval history at the University of Siena. She has worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the universities of Basel, Verona, Milano-Bicocca and Ca’ Foscari. She has also been part of the research project Technological Invention and Architecture in the Veneto in the Early Modern Period, based at the University of Cambridge. For the “Water-Cultures” project she is investigating the relations between environment, institutions and economics in the Venetian Mainland State, with regard to the use and management of water resources.

Salvatore Valenti studied History at “La Sapienza” University of Rome and in 2016 I joined the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester, where I completed his PhD in 2021. He was born in Sicily where the Mediterranean and the Ionian see meet. For this reason, perhaps, water and its relationships with societies are his favourite subject of enquiry. Rivers, lakes, channels, streams, aqueducts, fountains are something which he always looks for, including in his cycle bike rides in and around Rome, the city where he lives. For the “Water-Cultures” project he is undertaking a comparative study of changing hydraulic infrastructure in several Italian cities and their hinterlands during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Samuel Barney Blanco
Samuel Barney Blanco

PhD student

Samuel Barney Blanco received his BA in French and English bilingual history from the University of Toulouse—Jean Jaurès (France), with a third-year study mobility at the University of Saint Andrews (UK). He then obtained an MA in medieval studies at the University of Toulouse—Jean Jaurès, specialising in 14th-century guilds, corporations and other urban communitarian institutions in central and northern Italy. He is currently interested in the study of fresh water management communitarian politics in Late medieval and Early Modern western Mediterranean regions, with a focus in 16th-century irrigation and consumption management associations in the Venetian Terraferma for his ERC-funded PhD.

Dario Bassi

PhD student

Dario Bassi is a former aspiring philosopher who later turned into an anthropologist who actually looks into the past. He graduated in Philosophy at the University of Milan and then obtained a Master’s Degree in Anthropological Sciences at the University of Milan-Bicocca. He is fascinated by how socio-cultural practices and meanings shape human existence, both collectively and individually. Now that his research focuses on the interactions between human groups and the water element in an Alpine area of Italy, for his ERC-funded PhD, the task is far more intriguing as these are highly changeable, persistent and ambivalent at the same time. Cycling (not professionally) along waterways and playing music always make him feel great.

Andrea Toffolon holds an MA in History and an MA in Art History, both from the University of Verona. He is the author of a monograph on clashes and feuds in a border area of the Republic of Venice: Montagne di sangue. Faide, violenza e giustizia a Belluno in età moderna, and from 2017 is co-editor of the book series “Parentesi Storiche” (QuiEdit). His ERC-funded PhD thesis focuses on the therapeutic uses of thermal waters and the overlap between medical and religious aspects in the spas of the Republic of Venice (1550-1800c). He is also interested in the rhetorical and propaganda features of printed treatises that deal with foundation myths.

Antonio Ferigo
Antonio Ferigo

Project manager

Antonio Ferigo has a degree in Politics, Administration and Organization from the University of Bologna, focusing on the relationship and the integration of the EU laws in the Italian context, especially in public administration. Since then, he has worked on EU co-operation projects, with a focus on the INTERREG Italy-Austria and Italy-Croatia programmes, dealing both with the management and auditing phase and the project design stage. He has also contributed to project planning for the Fondazione Cariverona. He is currently completing a Masters in Policy Innovation and Sustainability Impact Assessment at the University of Padua, in the Dept. of Political Sciences, Law and International Studies.

Giacomo Bonan
Giacomo Bonan

Project Research Associate

Giacomo Bonan was fomerly Researcher in the History of Science and Technology at the Water Cultures project and is now assistant professor in the Department of History, University of Turin. He is Italian regional representative for the European Society for Environmental History. He has worked at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm; the Centre for the History of the Alps at the University of Italian Switzerland; the Department of History and Cultures at the University of Bologna; the Historisches Seminar at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt and the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. He is member of the editorial board of the journals Global Environment and Passato e Presente. He is the author of The State in the Forest (Cambridge, 2019) and Le acque agitate della patria (Rome, 2020). His research interests include forest history, water history and rural social conflicts associated with modernisation.

Giacomo Savani
Giacomo Savani

Project Research Associate

Giacomo Savani is a Marie Curie Fellow at Ca' Foscari. He is an archaeologist interested in the cultural and social role of bathing in antiquity and the early modern period. He has published extensively on the reception of ancient baths in antiquarian texts, works of art, and medical treatises, focusing on gender-specific medical knowledge, and his book Rural Baths in Roman Britain: A Colonisation of the Senses is currently in press (Routledge). Giacomo's current project, entitled "Women and the Baths: Ancient Medicine, Pleasure, and The Female Body in Renaissance Italy" is funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship and focuses on women’s experience of baths in Renaissance Italy, revealing their prominent role as consumers and patrons of medical treatises as well as users of spas.

Ana Duarte Rodrigues
Ana Duarte Rodrigues

Member of Project Advisory Board

Ana Duarte Rodrigues is professor of history of Science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon. She has pursued an unusual path, crossing disciplinary boundaries of history of art, garden and landscape studies and history of science, developing a truly interdisciplinary research on gardens, water and historic books from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. She has co-ordinated several multidisciplinary projects funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, most recently: ‘Sustainable Beauty for Algarvean Gardens: Old Knowledge to a Better Future’ (2015-2019); and ‘Horto Aquam Salutarem: Water Wise Management in Early Modern Gardens in Portugal’ (2018-2022). She has worked extensively with landscape architects, agronomists, architects and hydraulic engineers. From 2020 she has been the co-ordinator of the Inter-university Centre for the History of Science and Technology. Her publications include the co-edited volume (with C. Toribio Marin), The History of Water Management in the Iberian Peninsula (Springer 2020), O Triunfo dos Jardins (National Library of Portugal, 2020), as well as numerous scholarly articles, most recently, ‘Building green urban xxpertise: politicians, agronomists, gardeners and engineers at Lisbon City Council (1840-1900)’, Urban History (2022), pp. 1-20, and (co-author), ‘The water culture of the Order of Christ in the making of hydric self-sufficient and sustainable hydric systems’, Historia Agraria (in press).

Petra Van Dam
Petra Van Dam

Member of Project Advisory Board

Petra J. E. M. van Dam holds the Chair for Water and Environmental History at the Free University (Vrije Universiteit - VU), Amsterdam, in the Faculty of Humanities. She investigates environmental change and resilience to nature-induced disasters, for instance in the current research project ‘Coping with Drought: An Environmental History of Drinking Water and Climate Change in the Netherlands, 1550-1850’. Funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), the project focuses on drinking water and in particular on coping with water shortages due to drought in Dutch cities during the early modern period. As vice-chair of the European Society for Environmental History, Petra co-organised the ESEH Summerschools and the ESEH Amsterdam 2007 Conference, ‘Global Perspectives’. She is co-founder of the VU Environmental Humanities Center. Her recent publications include: ‘The great transformation of the dune ridge landscape. How water management, peat extraction and sand excavation led to agricultural innovation in the dune region between Haarlem and Leiden, 1400-1650’, in Communities, environment and regulation in the premodern world. Essays in honour of Peter Hoppenbrouwers (Turnhout 2022), 177-200, and ‘From clean canals via stinking canals to wastewater treatment plants. The quality of surface water in Dutch cities, 1500-1970’ (in press).

Publications and resources


Bringing logs down the River Piave, late 19th century.


"In conversation with"

This is a series of short filmed conversations between members of the Water-Cultures team and renowned international scholars working in the field. They discuss what drew them to their respective topics, the sources and approaches they use in their research, challenges faced and future directions.

Dr. Ludovica Galeazzo: ERC Starting Grant- VeNiss - Venice's Nissology. Reframing the Lagoon City as an Archipelago (Università degli studi di Padova)


file pdf 26/10, 24/11, 12/12/2023 - Fourth research seminar series, autumn 2023 "The Water Cultures of Italy"- poster [ITA]
Ca' Foscari University of Venice
2 MB
file pdf 13-15/09/2023 - International Conference "The Water Cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean, 1500-1900" - programme
Ca' Foscari University of Venice
3 MB
file pdf 13-15/09/2023 - International Conference "The Water Cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean, 1500-1900" - poster
Ca' Foscari University of Venice
3 MB
file pdf 24 August 2023 - "Water conflict, negotiation, and mediation in Alpine and Pyrenean areas between the 15th and the 20th century"
Chair: Salvatore Valenti. Presenters: Salvatore Valenti, Rachele Scuro, Matteo Di Tullio, Anna Maria Stagno. 12th Biennial European Society for Environmental History conference, Bern, Switzerland.
267 KB
file pdf 30 May 2023, one-day workshop on "Riso. Colture e culture in Europa e nel Mediterraneo" [ITA]
Organised by Lavinia Maddaluno and Rachele Scuro, Ca' Foscari
2 MB
file pdf 11 May 2023, "‘Malignità che s’infonde’: Rice, Medicine and Liminality in Counter-Reformation Milan"
Lavinia Maddaluno, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
520 KB
file pdf 18 January, 20 February, 16 March, 19 April, 26 June: "The Water Cultures of Italy third research seminar series", winter-spring 2023 [ITA]
Ca' Foscari University and online
3 MB
file pdf 29 March 2023: David Gentilcore "The Science and Health of Water: Water as Materia Medica", conference on "Materia medica and books, health and beauty in the early modern period"
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice
4 MB
file pdf 24 March 2023, David Gentilcore, "Bringing water to a thirsty lagoon: the watermen (acquaroli) of Venice"
BrIAS - Brussels Institute for Advanced Studies, conference on Food Production, Redistribution and Consumption in the Venetian Lagoon between Antiquity and the Contemporary Era
2 MB
file pdf 22 March 2023, D. Gentilcore, G. Bruno, L. Maddaluno, R. Scuro, Dott. S. Valenti, S. Alarcón-Tobón: "Acqua per la vita. Storia, letteratura, cinema", in occasione della Giornata Mondiale dell’Acqua (World Water Day) - brochure [ITA]
NICHE - The New Institute Centre for Environmental Humanities , Ca' Foscari
729 KB
file pdf 22 March 2023, D. Gentilcore, G. Bruno, L. Maddaluno, R. Scuro, Dott. S. Valenti, S. Alarcón-Tobón: "Acqua per la vita. Storia, letteratura, cinema", in occasione della Giornata Mondiale dell’Acqua (World Water Day) - abstract [ITA]
NICHE - The New Institute Centre for Environmental Humanities , Ca' Foscari
189 KB
file pdf 9-11 March 2023: Andrea Toffolon, "Humans and Non-Humans at Spas. Senses, Environment, and Everyday Life in Early Modern Italy"
Renaissance Society of America, San Juan Puerto Rico
41 KB
file pdf 16 January 2023: Lavinia Maddaluno, Giacomo Savani, Davide Martino), workshop "Bodies of Water: Negotiating Urban and Rural Environment in Early Modern Europe" - poster
CRASSH - Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge
2 MB
file pdf 16 January 2023: Lavinia Maddaluno, Giacomo Savani, Davide Martino), workshop "Bodies of Water: Negotiating Urban and Rural Environment in Early Modern Europe" - programme
CRASSH - Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge
15 MB
file pdf 7-9 December 2022: Salvatore Valenti, "Engineering the Tiber: water cultures, uses and political conflicts in late nineteenth-century Rome"
Urban Water conference, Kiel
109 KB
file pdf 4 November 2022: Gaia Bruno (with Domenico Cecere), "Cultura della prevenzione e pratiche istituzionali di fronte alle alluvioni: Napoli e altre città del Mediterraneo tra XVII e XVIII sec." - abstract [ITA]
University of Pavia, conference on "L'energia liquida. Idraulica, elettricità e ambiente nella storia italian"
72 KB
file pdf 4 November 2022: Gaia Bruno (with Domenico Cecere), "Cultura della prevenzione e pratiche istituzionali di fronte alle alluvioni: Napoli e altre città del Mediterraneo tra XVII e XVIII sec." - programme [ITA]
University of Pavia, conference on "L'energia liquida. Idraulica, elettricità e ambiente nella storia italian"
875 KB
file pdf 27 October, 25 November, 15 December 2022 - The Water Cultures second seminar series, autumn 2022 [ITA]
Ca' Foscari University and online
1 MB
file pdf 27 September 2022, keynote lecture by David Gentilcore at the final AQUA conference - abstract
Centro Interuniversitário de História das Ciências e da Tecnologia (CIUHCT), University of Lisbon
132 KB
file pdf 27 September 2022, keynote lecture by David Gentilcore at the final AQUA conference - programme
Centro Interuniversitário de História das Ciências e da Tecnologia (CIUHCT), University of Lisbon
2 MB
file pdf 23 September 2022, Water-Cultures panel at the first annual conference of the Società Italiana di Storia Ambientale (SISAm): "Sapere e (è) potere. Governare le acque in Italia, 1550-1900" [ITA] 109 KB
file pdf 22 September 2022, Samuel Barney Blanco, "Institutionalization and politicization of water management in the local spheres of the Veneto and the Kingdom of Valencia – 15th century" [ITA]
First annual conference of the Società italiana di storia ambientale (SISAm), Catania
217 KB
file pdf 7 September 2022, Andrea Toffolon, "Apparizioni mariane, usi delle acque termali e cantieri architettonici come risposta alla peste. Tra umano e non-umano" [ITA]
Associazione Italiana di Storia Urbana, 10th congress, Politecnico di Torino
50 KB
file pdf 6-7 September 2022 - Giovanni Antonio Nigrone: «Fountaineer and Water Engineer»: Natural Philosophy, Technology and Hydrology at the Turn of the XVI Century
Conference, Biblioteca Nazionale, Naples
1,015 KB
file pdf 31 August 2022, Salvatore Valenti: "The challenges of seasonality in the operation of the Roman sewers: 1870-1900"
European Association for Urban History, Antwerp
97 KB
file pdf 24 May 2022 - Lavinia Maddaluno: "Of air, water, rice and waste: the management of public health in early modern Milan (XVII-XVIII) centuries"
Early Modern Italian Seminar, University of Oxford
130 KB
file pdf The Water-Cultures Seminar Series, semester II, 2022 [ITA] 3 MB
file pdf David Gentilcore, "Decadent Infrastructure? Representations of Water Provision and Management in the Kingdom of Naples in the Early Nineteenth Century"
Environment and Infrastructures from the Early Modern Period to the Present, Trento, 24 September 2021
362 KB
file pdf David Gentilcore, "'For the universal benefit of the health of this city': Water, waste disposal and the urban environment in Europe, 1500-1750"
5th International Conference on Ecotechnologies for Wastewater Treatment/International Water Association, Milan, 23 June 2021 (Plenary)
110 KB
file pdf Gaia Bruno, "The Art and Science of Waters: Knowledge, Identity and Practice in the Work of Giovanni Antonio Nigrone (c. 1585-1608)"
Scientiae conerence, Amsterdam, 9 June 2021
1 MB