An epic cultural journey that reveals how Venetian ingenuity and inventions—from sunglasses and forks to bonds and currency—shaped modernity.
How did a small, isolated city—with a population that never exceeded 100,000, even in its heyday—come to transform western civilization? Acclaimed anthropologist Meredith Small, the author of the groundbreaking Our Babies, Ourselves examines the the unique Venetian social structure that was key to their explosion of creativity and invention that ranged from the material to social.
Whether it was boats or money, medicine or face cream, opera, semicolons, tiramisu or child-labor laws, these all originated in Venice and have shaped contemporary notions of institutions and conventions ever since. The foundation of how we now think about community, health care, money, consumerism, and globalization all sprung forth from the Laguna Veneta.
But Venice is far from a historic relic or a life-sized museum. It is a living city that still embraces its innovative roots. As climate change effects sea-level rises, Venice is on the front lines of preserving its legacy and cultural history to inspire a new generation of innovators.
Small (Our Babies, Ourselves), an anthropology professor at Cornell University, catalogs a dizzying array of Venetian innovations in this illuminating account of how "one small place had an outsized influence on the development of Western culture." She discusses scientific research into how and why humans invent things, and examines how the origin myths of Venice, among them that God directed St. Mark to the island that became the Rialto, fostered innovation by verifying the Venetian identity as "unique, capable, strong, fearless, and independent." Small organizes her study by category, beginning with Venetian contributions to maritime exploration (the first map to show a route around the Cape of Good Hope, the wind gauge, Marco Polo), and ending with "entertainment firsts," including the first casino (the Ridotto, 1638). She also credits Venetians with inventing government bonds, the book copyright, and child labor laws, and discusses more troubling developments, including the creation of the first Jewish ghetto. The book's final chapter looks at the impact of climate change and tourism on the city. Small enlivens her research with personal anecdotes about her love for Venice, and moves fluidly from one topic to the next. The result is a delightful and informative cabinet of wonders.