Professor Gentilcore chooses Ca' Foscari to study the history of water


After 25 years of distinguished career, an esteemed Canadian professor has left the the British Academia to join the faculty of an Italian University. All of this happened on November 1st, 2019. The very first thing that comes to mind is the “Brexit effect”. Yet in David Gentilcore’s story, Brexit is just one of the many good reasons to say goodbye to the British university system and embark on a new adventure at Ca’ Foscari. 

Thanks to a prestigious Advanced Grant awarded by the European Research Council (Erc), Gentilcore, a Professor of Modern History and expert in the History of Italian Medicine, will work at the Department of Humanities with a team of six researchers, to hopefully reconstruct parts of Italian history starting from a vital - yet often overlooked - resource: water.

Professor Gentilcore, could you tell us more about how Brexit influenced your choice?

Brexit breeded uncertainty, a feeling that pervaded many aspects of our daily lives, especially for foreigners like me and my family. The University of Leicester has always supported me, but there were way too many unknown variables for a project aimed at recluting historians from Italy, who would also likely be Italian. I must admit that throughout my whole career I’ve constantly looked for the right opportunity to move to Italy. I briefly resided in Rome and Arezzo, but the competitive exam system of the Italian universities is quite hard to approach for those coming from the Anglo-Saxon world. The opportunity arose thanks to the Erc grant and I started getting in touch with some Italian universities, well aware of the fact that the Italian government has also been encouraging the recruitment of foreign scholars” 

Why Ca’ Foscari?

“Ca’ Foscari is without a doubt the most prepared and best equipped university for European projects. I’ve been the recipient of many grants, but this is my first proper European grant. Here I will find people with extensive experience that can help me manage the project. I’ve already received a very warm welcome at the Department, not to mention the many collaboration proposals. In Leicester I was the only one working on Italian studies, a lonely voice in the desert. Now everything is going to change.” 

Your family came from Molinara, a small town near Benevento. Is this part of the reason why you became an Historian of Italy?

“My interest for the past began at a very young age and the desire to know more about my origins followed soon after. My father, a geographer, could mainly speak in his Italian dialect, as it is often the case with many second-generation immigrants, but he also knew proper Italian. I was 11 when he encouraged me to learn the language. Then at university I explored the history, culture and literature of the country."

You were granted 2.4 million Euros by the European Commission for a project on the role of water in history. You’re also putting forth a new method, connecting water to every symbolic and physical aspect that revolves around it. How did you get this idea? 

“Well the obvious pun would be: after studying food for so long, I got thirsty! Truth be told, I realized how the water we drink, which is essential to life itself, has often been overlooked by most historians. We know that, not so long ago, people preferred drinking wine or beer. And then what? How did we learn how to tell apart potentially poisonous water from safe drinking water? I asked myself how different the history of a society would be if we started looking at it from this point of view. After this first epiphany, I had the opportunity to further my studies, thanks to a two-year fellowship in Marseille, which I took advantage of to analyze the incredible water supply network in Naples, based on huge tuff caves where public water was decanted."

The study will focus on the time period between 1500 and 1900. The establishment of the Magistrato alle Acque (Magistrate for the Waters, a collective magistracy of the responsible for water management in the Venetian Lagoon -ed.) in 1501 is one of the very first events in this lapse of time. The connection to current topics is hard to ignore - in a few generations, your colleagues of the future will likely use your method to analyze past issues, such as the Mose…

Benedetto Croce used to say that answers come from the past, but questions are a product of the present. As a historian, using present day questions to analyze past issues is quite normal. Viceversa, our research work won’t yield any sort of suggestion - I don’t think it’s my place to dish out advice - but instead we will hopefully discover new techniques of sustainable water management." 

One of the research streams in the Water-Cultures project is dedicated to cities. Will you also deal with Venice? 

“Taking this project to Venice has a special meaning. In a team made up of 3 PhD students and 3 postdocs, one researcher will map and compare the evolution of the water supply networks in Naples and Venice, characterized, respectively, by caverns and wells. Sanudo said that Venice was built on water but has no water, and that’s exactly because people could only drink rainwater.”

When did the concept of “drinking water” first appear?

“During the second half of the 18th century, water science changed and chemistry took over in the study of thermal and mineral water. The term “drinking water” was first used in the 19th century. In mid-18th century, famous physician John Snow discovered the connection between water and the spreading of diseases, specifically in the case of the cholera outbreak in London.” 

In today’s Italy the consumption of bottled water has reached a record high. How did this very Italian habit originate? 

The Italian paradox is calling a referendum to keep water a public resource to then go ahead and drink bottled water anyway. Thermal water was the first to get bottled. Its characteristics and its value justified the costly conservation process in glass containers, plus the shipping and actual selling costs. We will analyze the bottling phenomenon by also studying various business archives.” 

What will the other sources be? 

“We are spoilt for choice! It’ll be up to the researchers in the team. The good thing about these projects is that you have the freedom to choose different paths along the way, without feeling the obligation to plan out every single detail beforehand. Just to give you an example, we will surely deal with hot springs and thermal baths, but we still haven’t settled on an exact location. Naturally, I have some ideas, but I really want to discuss them with the team of researchers that I will soon put together."