Venetian archives could turn into the oldest social network

Researchers at EPFL have launched an initiative, to transform the information contained in Venice's extensive archives into a virtual time machine.

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Venice was home to the Google of the Middle Ages. The city was run by information hoarders, who for the sake of accountability compiled one of the most extensive archives of the pre-digital age.

Wills, work contracts, taxation documents, maps, charts and stocks – the lives and activities of the Venetians and their trading partners throughout their Mediterranean empire were meticulously recorded over centuries.

Today, the Venetian state’s historical archives, only one of the many archives of the city, stretch over more than 80 kilometres.

This year, researchers at EPFL launched an ambitious initiative, the Venice Time Machine, to transform the information in these archives into a virtual time machine – a historical and geographical simulation at the crossroads between a Facebook and a Google Map of the past.

Once up and running, researchers and the public will be able to browse and search historical data, trace individuals through time and follow the city’s evolution over the centuries.

The density of the information in the Venetian archives is impressive. Every urban transformation, from the building of a palazzo to the cleaning of a canal, is documented.

Tax documents tell of the city’s population. Information on shipping lanes, linking the Republic of Venice with the oriental and the occidental Mediterranean basins, the Black Sea and even England and Flanders, put the city into its economic context.

Trade with the Mediterranean coastal cities, controlled first by the Mamluks and then by the Ottomans, tied the Republic to the Muslim world.

The Venetian State, which ran this massive commercial maritime network, tracked ship names, departure dates, ports of call and many of the commercial contracts and transactions. It is a huge data set, from which much information can be derived.

With the advent of the printing press, Venice became one of the most active centres for the diffusion of printed material in the world. This also constitutes an extraordinary set of documents to explore.

Among the books printed in Venice is the very first printed Quran, published on a printing press in Arabic script.

But the full potential of all these records only comes to light when they are all connected. Put together, they make up a vast social and economic network of the past. The archives become a giant information system.

Assembling such an information system involves digitising and transcribing volumes of books, maps and other documents, each adding new layers of knowledge about the complex chain of events of the city’s past.

We have a way to go. We have to decipher handwriting and make it readable by computers. We must translate the many Mediterranean languages and dialects, and convert images, maps, and works of art into a format that allows them to be processed.

We then need to store and combine the information from all of these varied sources. It is the “big data” of the past.

No research group can single-handedly accomplish these tasks. It is up to us to assure that other researchers, historians and laboratories from around the world, including students, can easily latch on to the project. This year, all of my master’s students worked on projects related to the Venice Time Machine.

But why limit our scope to Venice? The city’s rich archives and its role as an economic hub make it an ideal starting point. But in the long run, the approach could be expanded well beyond the Venetian Empire.

What began as a dream of adapting today’s computational tools to study the past has evolved into so much more. With these new platforms, the general public could gain access to a wealth of disparate historical data that today is locked away in archives, and historians could unearth a greater breadth of cultural heritage. And new, more interactive ways to bring history to life could benefit museum visitors in Venice and around the world.

Frederic Kaplan is professor of digital humanities at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.