contributor.author: Paolo Squatriti

title.none: Bruun and Saastamoinen, eds., Technology, Ideology, Water (Paolo Squatriti)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.022 05.01.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Paolo Squatriti, Univesity of Michigan, pasqua@umich.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Bruun, Christer and Ari Saastamoinen, eds. Technology, Ideology, Water: From Frontinus to the Renaissance and Beyond: Papers from a conference at the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, May 19-20, 2000. Series: Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae vol. 31. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2003. Pp. viii, 288. ISBN: 952-5323-08-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.22

Bruun, Christer and Ari Saastamoinen, eds. Technology, Ideology, Water: From Frontinus to the Renaissance and Beyond: Papers from a conference at the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, May 19-20, 2000. Series: Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae vol. 31. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2003. Pp. viii, 288. ISBN: 952-5323-08-0.

Reviewed by:

Paolo Squatriti
Univesity of Michigan
pasqua@umich.edu

In May 2000, with the Jubilee in full swing, thirteen lucky scholars gathered to enjoy some "squisita ospitalità" (193) at a conference in the Finnish academy in Rome. The Institutum Romanum Finlandiae is perched on the edge of the Janiculum hill, in an early cinquecento villa built by Giulio Romano on the ruins of a residence of the poet Martial. Its windows and gardens offer unrivalled westward views over a city once "queen of waters." Contemplation of this view and of Rome's visible endurance through time may have inspired the academy's director to invite scholarly treatments of the techniques, ideologies, and administration of (mostly urban) water supply in Europe between first and seventeenth centuries. Faced with such "long" Middle Ages and an entire continent to cover, Christer Bruun, then director of the IRF and coeditor of the volume that emerged from the conference, sought narrower limits. The central theme he imagined was the writings of the Roman hydraulic specialist Frontinus, and their "Nachleben" (1).

Technology, Ideology, Water contains ten papers in four languages presented at the Roman conference. The first two deal head on with Frontinus and antiquity: Ari Saastamoinen attempts to define Frontinus's literary genre, while Bruun traces literary knowledge of Frontinus up to baroque times, finding a gaping hole between Frontinus and the 1400s. Robert Coates-Stephens moves the chronological focus to the postclassical period, deploying long-forgotten nineteenth-century and just-finished twentieth-century archaeology to propose a functioning aqueduct system in Rome through the tenth century. A classicist, Andrew Wilson, challenges Watson's Islamic "green revolution" thesis by proving most cultigens and all irrigation technologies ascribed to early Caliphal innovativeness actually existed in the ancient Mediterranean, particularly its southern and eastern shores. André Bazzana's contribution also deals with Islamic territories, but with al-Andalus and the dissemination there between c. 1000-1350 of simple irrigation systems by peasant communities. Klaus Grewe, instead, surveys late antique Gaulish and especially high medieval German evidence for hydraulic engineering, wondering how postclassical people came to know so many ancient techniques so well. Technology, Ideology, Water's last four chapters deal with late medieval and early modern urban Italy. Lucio Riccetti discusses Orvieto's communal aqueduct 1270-1350 as a political statement and response to a growing community's needs. Giuliana Fantoni stresses legal sources and legal change in 1400s Milan, to pinpoint a trend toward local signori's control over water. Meri Vuohu's close reading of Alberti's famous architectural treatise suggests curial circles, and Nicholas V's building plans, as the context for the germination of Alberti's ideas about the Tiber and aqueducts. Finally, Leonardo Lombardi argues that Roman hydraulic theory and practice resurfaced in the Renaissance to permit several marvelous and useful constructions, like pumps, sonorous fountains, and siphons. Overall, the volume is dispersive, its joints loose. But three themes seem to underlie several of its chapters. A first one is "technology transfer," engaged by several authors, explicitly included in Grewe's title, and referred to in the editor's Introduction. Naturally, the search for pre-modern evidence on the transfer of technological knowledge, or of machines, from one place to another, or one time to another produces few satisfying, clear, concrete conclusions. One can do little more than imagine connections between a particular water-lifting device in Islamic Iberia and one Roman Egyptians used. Any agency and causality behind the adoption of techniques left few traces in written cultures that did not value either originality or engineering as much as we do. It seems the worlds of writing and of technology aligned somewhat more in early modern Europe, but this interesting fact is distinct from facts of technological adaptation and dissemination. Left to speculate, students of technology transfer adopt either optimistic or pessimistic visions of postclassical "technological horizons," depending on their evaluation of the period's overall grimness. In this regard, it is a pity the contributors to Technology, Ideology, Waterdid not apply the theoretical approaches to the "social construction" of technology, and its dissemination, deployed in Roberta Magnusson's Water Technology in the Middle Ages, perhaps because this book appeared after their conference (but two years before the resulting volume).

A second theme in some papers is the effort to measure the ideological commitment behind waterworks. The literary and epigraphic evidence here is richer, allowing scholars to evaluate the degree to which sponsors of hydraulic technology act out of economically rational, enlightened self-interest, or out of desire for social approval, legitimation, or a culturally conditioned need to manifest their power. From medieval times onward, as Grewe, Riccetti, Fantoni, Vuohu, and Lombardi show, frivolous displays, or redundant constructions, could meet human physical and metaphysical needs. Also in Saastamoinen's chapter, Frontinus' self-presentation as competent, honest, scrupulous overseer of Rome's waterworks is part of a rhetorical effort where technological knowledge had more-than-technological purposes.

A third theme must certainly be the influence of Roman hydraulics on postclassical societies' theoretical and actual treatment of water. Most authors in Technology, Ideology, Water seem awed by Roman hydraulic prowess, presume it unequalled before the nineteenth century, and tend to apply Roman hierarchies of value to water procurement methods (water from an aqueduct is not inherently better than water from a cistern, though the complexity of the technologies involved differs). Among the several contributions to this collection that ponder the influence of Roman hydraulic engineering on later water management, Bazzana's stands out. Without forgetting the remarkable dissemination throughout Rome's empire of knowledge and equipment earlier unrecorded, he judiciously ascribes to peasants' ingenuity, inflected by the social, economic, and cultural forms characteristic of Iberia's Muslim communities, the widespread and effective irrigation schemes he chronicles. Bazzana avoids pursuing technological transfer, but acknowledges that postclassical people, like their ancestors and progeny, adopted and adapted machines according to opportunities and needs generated within cultural and economic systems, unrelated to abstract ideas of technological superiority or progress or, indeed, Romanness.

These themes do not get concerted attention throughout Technology, Ideology, Water, but surface here and there. In fact, beyond their excellent illustrations, just about the only thing all ten studies have in common is a concern with water. Even the capacious analytical category of "urban hydraulics" cannot quite contain the disparate studies constituting the volume. The range from manuscript transmission to baptismal customs to hydraulic amusements in country abodes, in studies that use heterogeneous methods and evidence, address wildly dissimilar places (Rome, Westphalia, Libya?), and do all this over seventeen centuries, is too great. It appears that the obviously interdisciplinary meeting engendered little crosspollination among participants, though some authors dutifully refer to other studies in Technology, Ideology, Water in their notes. Disciplinary and perhaps linguistic boundaries inhibited such fertile exchanges. Indeed, in a collection including a meticulous reconstruction of aqueduct maintenance in postclassical Rome, several chapters mention the total collapse of Roman know-how and infrastructure in Late Antiquity, or the need for a rebirth of such in early modern times: ancient, medieval, modern are categories of analysis, and academic fields, that do not intersect much in the book. Likewise, different scholarly techniques stay apart: archaeological, literary, and historical approaches keep to separate chapters. There is little comparison between case-studies. Participants at the conference seem not to have amended their contributions in light of findings and approaches their colleagues proposed.

The parts, in sum, are greater than the whole. Taken singly, the studies in Technology, Ideology, Water have much to offer. They elucidate the "commentary" genre in Latin's silver age, or what Renaissance writers thought about Roman engineering handbooks (they alone could call Frontinus "elegans" [58]), or obscure nineteenth-century excavations in Rome, or early Christian attitudes to flowing and still water. Technology, Ideology, Water also includes chapters that are agile summaries of their authors' complex monographs. Thus readers who worry about hydraulic history in all its variety are sure to make very satisfying discoveries in this book.