How Venice Invented the World

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Italy and invention go hand-in-hand. Perhaps you could call Italy the mother country of invention.

Since the beginning of time (literally — today’s calendar was invented in Italy), artists, musicians, scientists, and engineers up and down the Italian peninsula have been responsible for hundreds of inventions and discoveries that have transformed culture and everyday life in Europe and beyond.

The architecture and public works of Ancient Rome. The machines and gadgets from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Renaissance-era breakthroughs in art and science. All of these come to mind when thinking about the history of Italian innovation.

Now, a new book by anthropologist Meredith F. Small — Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization — shines the spotlight on Venice.

Small tells the story of how Venice came to invent more than 200 ideas, organizations, and objects, ranging from double-entry bookkeeping to the navy to casinos and opera houses. The word “ciao” was first used in Venice. Venetians even invented the concept of quarantine, a necessity for a city built on trade with merchants who sometimes imported the plague along with their goods.

Venetians, I soon realized, invented our world. I found this revelation especially interesting because Venice has none of the characteristics that we usually associate with sophisticated innovation. There had been no royal, wealthy, or powerful class throwing patronage at anyone in Venice, no intellectual body that revered smart people, and no real pressing need for inventing anything. Even more interesting, most of those original Venetian ideas came before or after that grand period of cultural newness, the Renaissance.

Meredith F. Small: Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization

“Inventing the World” is exactly the type of book that I, an avid student of Italian history and Italianità, like to keep on my bookshelf for frequent reference. It recalls Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World, but keeps the focus squarely on Venice, thereby giving readers more comprehensive context into one of Italy’s most fascinating but least understood cities.

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