The Water Cultures of Italy, 1500-1900

Washerwomen in Bologna, late 19th century post card.


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.

Giacomo Bonan

Researcher in the History of Science and Technology

Giacomo Bonan 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.

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 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). Following that, she was successively post-doc at the same university for the projects “STAR: Disasters, communication and politics in south-western Europe”, PI Prof. Domenico Cecere, and “DeCiVe: Dealing with the Collective Interest in Early Modern Europe”, PI Prof. Diego Carnevale, on the topic of waters. She is the author of various journal articles and book chapters, among which “Vivere a Napoli nel XVIII secolo: il Tribunale della Fortificazione, Acqua e Mattonata”, in Società e Storia (2018). For the “Water-Cultures” 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 (National Library, Naples).

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.

Franca Pullia

Project Manager

Franca Pullia graduated in Classics with a historical and religious focus, and as well as an interest in the history and culture of food, earned a Master’s in Intercultural Studies, both from the University of Padua. From 2002 she has been engaged in the planning and running of European Union projects on a range of themes, with particular attention to social policy (but not all). She has worked primarily with public bodies the Venice area, including the Metropolitan City (formerly Province) and the City of Venice, as both finance manager and communications manager. She has been project manager for “Water-Cultures” since April 2020.



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
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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)
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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