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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.