The workshop ‘Bodies of water: negotiating urban and rural environment in Early Modern Europe’ was an excellent opportunity for scholars working on water in the early modern period to re-group after the Covid disruption. On 16 January 2023, we welcomed in Cambridge a group of international specialists at all stages of their careers, ready to share ideas and present work in progress on the fluid and ever-evolving system of water-related infrastructures that characterised Europe at urban, peri-urban, and rural levels.

The first session, ‘Water Uses and Users’, addressed interactions between humans, non-humans, and the waterscapes they live in by examining two very different contexts: a seventeenth-century Polish estate and Amsterdam between the seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. Ada Arendt looked at the relational dynamics of fishponds belonging to the Bishop of Cracow at the Polish-Silesian borderlands. Ada is interested in what she calls the ‘microhistory of care’, and she examined the more-than-human assemblage of actors caring for, exploiting, and managing the fishponds, reflecting on the complex temporalities of this assemblage. Bob Pierik reconstructed water access and distribution in Amsterdam, examining the role played by everyday practices, technological infrastructures, and urban governance in shaping the hydrological assemblage of this city in the early modern period.

The second session, entitled ‘Mediterranean Cities’, engaged with two of the largest cities of the Mediterranean basin, Istanbul and Naples. Deniz Karakas explored the social and cultural backgrounds of the various actors involved in constructing and maintaining Istanbul’s water system. She also investigated the mobility of expertise, assessing the exchange of hydraulic knowledge between the East and the West. Significantly, she also looked at the work of Giovanni Antonio Nigrone, an important Neapolitan engineer mentioned by Diego Carnevale and Gaia Bruno in their papers on Naples.

According to Diego, controlling water was just another way to control the city. By examining a series of allocation conflicts, he showed how the social hierarchy was reflected in the distribution of this precious resource and discussed the different actors involved in this process. Gaia looked at a series of intriguing documents from a trial to assess the technical and symbolic meanings of wells in sixteenth-century Naples. In so doing, she revealed a complex entanglement of religion, folklore and technical knowledge that shaped how people engaged with the underworld of tunnels and cisterns underneath their feet.

The speakers of these first two sessions introduced theoretical concepts later discussed during the roundtable, including the idea of ‘assemblage’, a space where human and non-human actors interact with time, memories, and the senses. The roundtable itself was an assemblage of sorts, where specialists from different backgrounds – John Henderson, Marina Inì, Janna Coomans and Neha Krishana – shared ideas about water’s practical, social, political, and ritual aspects.

The third session focused on ‘Florence and Tuscany’ during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Caroline Murphy analysed the ambitious proposals for recasting waterways by scholars like Lorenzo Albizi in the aftermath of the severe alluvial floods that affected Tuscany in the mid-sixteenth century. Felicia Else reviewed artistic representations of water management in Medici Ducal and Granducal Florence. Vast landscaping interventions through river management had no clear iconographic traditions, allowing artists unprecedented freedom to celebrate the engineering accomplishments of Cosimo I and his heirs. Finally, Francesco Barreca offered a vivid portrait of the great hydraulic engineer Vincenzo Viviani, who dedicated most of his career to the accommodation of the Ombrone Pistoiese river. Francesco framed this critical project, started in 1644, within the broader context of environmental management in Granducal Tuscany, revealing the fieldwork-based knowledge underpinning Viviani’s innovative approach.

The fourth session was a special panel dedicated to the presentations of research projects, exhibitions, and publications. David Gentilcore presented his ERC project ‘Water Cultures of Italy, c. 1500–1900’, Deborah Howard introduced her exhibition ‘Acqua, Terra, Fuoco’ (Palladio Museum, Vicenza), and James Campbell talked about his forthcoming book, Water and Civilisation.

The fifth and final session focused on ‘River Management’, with papers by Tatiana Carbonell and Marius Mutz. Tatiana discussed the transformations of the Rhône Valley during the long nineteenth century, a time of experimentation that prompted scientists, engineers, and chroniclers to regulate nature and territory. Marius looked at stream works in Central and Southern Germany during the sixteenth century, focusing on Ingolstadt, an important Bavarian fortress, and Dresden, capital of the Kingdom of Saxony. He reconstructed the complex decision-making process behind these interventions, presenting a remarkable example of early modern hierarchies of knowledge.

The workshop was generously supported by CRASSH, the George Macaulay Trevelyan Fund (University of Cambridge), the Researcher-Led Events Scheme (University of Cambridge), the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the ERC project The Water Cultures of Italy, 1500-1900 (University of Venice Ca’ Foscari).

Written by Giacomo Savani, Lavinia Maddaluno and Davide Martino


  • Posted 22 Mar 2023
  • Contributor Giacomo Savani, Lavinia Maddaluno, Davide Martino
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