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A Historical Model for Clean Renewable Energy? The Proto-Industrial Revolution of the 16th Century in the Veneto.

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It is not often recognised that a proto-Industrial Revolution swept across the Veneto in the sixteenth century.   Architectural historians have long realised that the patrons of the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio profited from agricultural improvements, but economic historians have only recently begun to highlight the even more abundant revenues derived from manufacturing enterprises such as the production of silk and paper.  Indeed, in Palladio’s adopted home-town of Vicenza, almost all his patrons were involved in the silk trade, and one could argue that their eagerness to embrace innovation in manufacturing also fuelled their adventurous choice of a new kind of architecture.

What provoked this dramatic expansion in industrial activity in the pre-Galilean period?  It is notable that the number of requests to the Venetian government for patents for technological and mechanical inventions increased dramatically in the period 1550-1600.  (Remarkably, the number of applications during this half century would not be reached again until the Industrial Revolution itself after 1750.)  The parallel expansion of paper production and printing in the Veneto further encouraged the emergence of technical knowledge from the confines of artisans’ workshops.  Not only were collections of mechanical drawings in manuscript copied and re-coped many times, but printed books also attempted to explain - in woodcuts or engravings - the rapidly-evolving complex technologies.

To boost economic growth the Republic hoped to encourage inventors from all over Europe to establish their innovations on Venetian territory.  The patent applications included a kaleidoscopic range of devices, some of them highly improbable, but even when their viability was doubtful, the inventors were encouraged to go ahead.  Some of the new technologies were merely refinements of mechanical processes dating back to antiquity, such as flour milling and methods of raising water, but others were highly revolutionary.  Indeed, the rapid developments in textile production foreshadowed the more famous innovations of eighteenth-century Europe.

During the Middle Ages, the production of textiles (especially wool and silk) had been mainly confined to the towns, where the various processes were carried out in small-scale workshops or in domestic homes.  Machinery was operated by manpower or by animals, but both needed food and sleep, leading to increased costs.  From the mid-fifteenth century onwards, however, new smaller centres of industrial production proliferated in the upper-level plains, using highly efficient water-powered machines so large that they were known as ‘edifici’. 

Spring water was the key to the success of the burgeoning use of water-power, because natural springs remain at a constant temperature and volume all year round, avoiding the problems of frost, drought and flood on the main rivers flowing south across the Veneto.  As a consequence of the local geology, a line of springs lies along the foothills of the Alps from Brescia to Friuli. To take advantage of this reliable, inexpensive, renewable source of energy, the revolution in technology thus resulted in a steady shift of manufacturing from the cities to these more rural locations.  From the springs themselves, networks of channels in delta formation distributed the water in small canals across the landscape to power the ever-expanding number of water-wheels.  The Venetian Republic controlled the use of water to ensure that it was fairly distributed for a wide range of uses.  It was the expansion of water-hungry rice cultivation that had first provoked the establishment of a special magistracy to regulate water use on the terraferma (the extensive inland territorial possessions of Venice), but unlike irrigation, water used to drive an industrial mill could be returned to the public waterway unless it was polluted.  This careful monitoring of waterways by the Republic established a model that is still relevant today.

Thanks to this huge investment in hydraulic energy, flour-mills, rice-mills, smithies, paper-mills, silk-spinning mills, fulling mills, sawmills, leather tanneries and pebble-crushing mills for the ceramics industry, took advantage of improved mechanical technology powered by water-wheels.  Even smelters, blast furnaces and mines benefited from the invention of hydraulic bellows and pumping devices.   The most impressive contraptions were those for twisting and spinning silk, a technology that spread across the Veneto from Bologna from the mid-fifteenth century onwards.  The height of a four-storey building, these complex cylindrical machines could spin silk on hundreds of bobbins at one time using hydraulic energy.  A half-size working model in Bologna’s Museo del Patrimonio Industriale shows how the machinery functioned, while a smaller, man-powered version survives in the Museo della Moda e delle Arti Applicate in Gorizia (Friuli).  Meanwhile many of the tall buildings that formerly contained the enormous machines ‘alla bolognese’ have survived in smaller towns such as Bassano, Nove and Marostica, where they now look like domestic palaces.    

Until recently, these developments were mainly studied in economic terms, without much attention to the physical infrastructure, but a recent research programme funded by the Leverhulme Trust has explored the remaining material traces of these industrial initiatives in the landscape.  The condition of the buildings that housed the machinery is highly variable.  Some have been lovingly restored by local enthusiasts, and a few industrial mills are even still in working order thanks to the enthusiasm of the heirs of the last occupants.  Others have been abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin, often overgrown by vegetation.  Some attract eco-tourism as picturesque nature trails with historical interest.  But the situation is alarming because the surviving structures have no legal protection, unlike ‘high’ architecture such as villas, palaces or churches.

It is hoped that this research will not only encourage the authorities to give greater protection to this valuable architectural heritage. The findings demonstrate that not all  technological solutions to the problems of climate change lie in ‘blue skies’ prospective scientific discovery and its futuristic applications. Historians can uncover new knowledge about technologies in our own not so distant past, which may also stimulate energy-saving or pollution-reducing solutions for our future. In this example the Venetian Republic’s early modern technologies underline the great potential of water-power as a clean renewable source of energy for manufacturing. In the course of the last two centuries hydraulic energy fell out of use in the industries of Northern Italy with the rise of fossil-fuelled steam engines and electricity. But is water-power overdue for a revival – to help replace, in its turn, the fossil fuels that we no longer want to burn?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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