Digitizing Venice’s 1,000-year-old archives


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Link here. The article describes an ambitious effort to make this archive, much of which has never been read, easily accessible and searchable using modern digital technology.

As Venice’s empire grew, it developed administrative systems that recorded vast amounts of information: who lived where, the details of every boat that entered or left the harbour, every alteration made to buildings or canals. Modern banking was invented in the Rialto, one of Venice’s oldest quarters, and notaries there recorded all trading exchanges and financial transactions.

Crucially, those records survived through turbulent centuries. While the rest of Europe was roiled by its perpetually warring monarchs, from the eighth century onwards Venice began to develop into a stable republic that provided the peace and order required for trade to flourish. In many ways it was a model democracy. The people elected a leader — the doge — supported by various councils, whose members were also usually elected. Governance was secular, but for the most part co-existed tolerantly with religion.

French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the Serene Republic in 1797. En route to Vienna during his attempt to conquer the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he declared Venice’s secular and democratic governance to be a form of autocracy, and the city to be an enemy of the revolution. He forced the republic to dissolve itself. In 1815, the old Frari was turned into the State Archives of Venice. Over the next decades, all state administrative documents, including death registers, were transferred there, along with medical records, notary records, maps and architectural plans, patent registers and a miscellany of other documentation, some from elsewhere in Italy. Particularly significant are ambassadors’ reports from wider Europe and the Ottoman Empire, providing a unique source of detailed information about daily life. “Venetian ambassadors were the most observant travellers, trained to find out things like what was being unloaded at the docks, or what a prince or other high-up was like as a person,” says Daston. “Their reports were full of gossip and intrigue.”

Most of the archive, predominantly written in Latin or the Venetian dialect, has never been read by modern historians. Now it will all be systematically fed into the Venice Time Machine, along with more unconventional sources of data, such as paintings and travellers’ logs.

Venice is a particularly important component of European history, as in many ways it was the last remnant of the Roman Empire, founded by Romans even as their empire was collapsing around them. It then lasted almost a thousand years, and became throughout the Middle Ages a powerful and important center of European trade. Moreover, the growth of this strange city in a bog is in many ways a mystery. This archive will actually allow researchers and historians to finally begin to understand how these events unfolded.

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5 comments

  • LocalFluff

    Venetian, please, not “Venice’s”.
    I identify spam and stop reading when I hit abominations like that in the first sentence. I just assume it’s some UFO-abductionist sitting on a keyboard and I don’t have time for that. They literally don’t know what they are writing about. I mean literally illiterate. I expect that experts on researching the archives of Venice know how to spell the very city’s name.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Having made a day-trip to Venice from Milan, where I was working at the time (1978) this fascinates me. I will be especially interested in whatever these archives reveal in the way of new information about the formation of the Holy League and the subsequent Battle of Lepanto (1571) in which the Ottoman Turks were frustrated in one of their numerous and ongoing attempts to conquer Europe for Islam. Venice supplied over half the ships in the Holy League’s victorious fleet. Lepanto was the worst reverse the Ottoman Turks would suffer until the Polish knights under King John Sobieski crushed the Ottoman armies outside the gates of Vienna over a century later.

  • Ted

    I wonder if they have done this with the 220,000 volumes in the Long Room at Trinity College in Ireland?

  • wodun

    until the Polish knights under King John Sobieski crushed the Ottoman armies outside the gates of Vienna over a century later.

    They recently made a movie about this, not a documentary. It had a lot of potential but ended up not being all that great. The costumes were cool though.

    It might still be on Netflix.

  • wayne

    This is an interesting development.

    I would pivot slightly and again highly recommend:
    The Internet Archive
    http://archive.org/about/

    (They are a massive outgrowth of the “Prelinger Archive,” which began by preserving “ephemeral films,” and making them available free on-line.)

    -“The Internet Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-profit library. Founded in 1996, our mission is to provide –Universal Access to All Knowledge.”
    -“We began in 1996 by archiving the Internet itself, a medium that was just beginning to grow in use. Like newspapers, the content published on the web was ephemeral – but unlike newspapers, no one was saving it. Today we have 20+ years of web history accessible through the “Wayback Machine,” comprising 279 billion web-pages.”
    -“Not everyone has access to a public or academic library with a good collection, so to provide universal access we need to provide digital versions of books. We began a program to digitize books in 2005 and today we scan 1,000 books per day in 28 locations around the world. Books published prior to 1923 are available for download, with hundred’s of thousands of newer books available through our Open Library Project.”
    “A single copy of the Internet Archive library collection occupies 30+ Petabytes of server space (and we store at least 2 copies of everything).”

    –they have 11 million books currently scanned, in multiple formats. Special attention is paid to non-destructive scanning techniques, and they developed all their equipment from modified off-the-shelf products.

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