The Water Cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean, 1500-1900 / Venice, 13-15 September 2023
What would a history of society and culture look like with water placed at its core? This three-day international conference aims to shed light on the forms of human interactions with water over time in Europe and the Mediterranean. The intention is to explore the history of different societies, the construction of their identities and forms of self-representation, based on their 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.
Human-water interactions offer a unique key to understanding society and culture. By ‘water cultures’, we mean both material aspects (such as hydraulic engineering or water capture techniques) and non-material features (symbolic responses, beliefs and practices, changing knowledge and legal structures). Fruitful comparison can be made across a wide range of different times and places. This is possible for two reasons. Firstly, because of water’s vital importance to all societies; on a biological level, we need water to survive. And secondly, on a cultural level, water represents the strongest and most evident point of intersection between the history of nature and the history of humankind. ‘Water is not merely a physical resource: in every cultural context it is densely encoded with social, spiritual, political and environmental meanings’ (Strang 2004). Water is at the foundation of all society; as a result, its use and the meanings given it provide the key lens through which to understand any society. ‘The history of water is a story of how people have drawn meanings, ideas, representations and powers from water’; a story conditioned by forces such as climate, season and geomorphology (Linton 2010).
The conference will be especially attentive to interactions. Thus, water, omnipresent in religion and belief, is also of central importance in the history of science, technology, medicine and commerce. Studied together, the changing science and perception of water sheds light on shifting devotional practices; the circulation of both hydrological knowledge and personnel can help us understand urban water management strategies in particular times and places; changing attitudes to disease transmission can help explain the burgeoning trade in certain waters; human understanding of the hydraulic landscape can shed light on water and socialisation, such as disputes over rights and access.
We have opted for a broad geographical range, Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as an extended chronology, the better to perceive deep social processes and structures and to track changes and continuities, local variations and regional patterns. It makes sense to begin with the 16th century. Physicians and natural philosophers actively debated the relationship between human health and water consumption; architects, engineers and artists assumed roles requiring knowledge of the provision of waters; new vast infrastructure projects were undertaken by rulers and local communities alike, creating, in cities, functional access to water and elaborate displays, and in agricultural areas, land drainage and irrigation; and new bureaucracies and legal systems were put in place to maximise and manage water use. At the other end, a real change in water cultures—in fact a paradigm shift—only happened during the latter 19th century (Hamlin 2000). The arrival of Asiatic cholera in Europe in the 1830s, and successive epidemics, eventually brought about a shift in medical and scientific ideas about water, which for the first time became perceived as a carrier of disease. This culminated in the complete reconstruction of the hydraulic infrastructures of most of Europe’s major cities by the end of the 19th century, the logical end date for the conference.
The Water Cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean conference aims to articulate how the history of human-water interactions, from the late Renaissance to the end of the 19th century, is a story of political authority and conflict, social hierarchy and material and economic realities, changing medical and scientific knowledge and technological expertise, and religious beliefs and practices.