Visualizing Venice: Art Students' Re-creation on Display

The results of a 3-year digital dissection and re-creation of historic Venice is now on display at Smith Warehouse

Visualizing Venice is a joint research project between Duke's Wired! Lab and two Italian universities.
Visualizing Venice is a joint research project between Duke's Wired! Lab and two Italian universities.

Wondering what a Venetian hospital looked like in 1819? Take a stroll over to Smith Warehouse this week and have a look.

Visualizing Venice, a three-year project involving faculty and staff from Duke's Wired! Lab and counterparts at two Italian universities is now on display in Bay 11 on the second floor of Smith Warehouse. The exhibit summarizes much of the project's research thus far, a series re-creations of several notable areas of Venice, dissected and re-built layer by layer using all manner of low- and high-tech wizardry.

The exhibit, which has already been displayed in Venice and Zagreb, Croatia, will be shown at Smith Warehouse through April 12 and is expected to be installed in the East Duke Building later this summer.

Researchers have used everything from ancient maps, paintings, photographs, archival documents and news accounts to geographic information systems and 3D modeling to fashion new renderings of five parts of the Italian city, illustrating how it has changed over time.

A rare bustling city with canals rather than roads, Venice is unusual in the amount of archival information available about its history, says Caroline Bruzelius, a Duke professor of art, art history and visual studies and one of the Visualizing Venice founders.

"We can therefore document growth and change over almost 800 years," Bruzelius says. "In Venice we can document the remarkable adaptive systems developed for living in wetlands areas, systems that are relevant to many other cities today, such as New Orleans or Singapore, for example."

The project focuses on five sections of Venice. Several are residential neighborhoods where researchers have tracked the creation and construction of homes, churches and other buildings over time.

The hospital area is notable for changes not made. The Venetian City Council rejected a series of proposed hospital additions in the 1930s and 1940s, and later in the 1960s and 1970s -- including one by famed French architect Le Corbusier -- constrained by finances and debates among architects and planners. Project researchers analyzed those proposals to see how the expansions might have changed the area, said Ludovica Galeazzo, a doctoral student from the University of Venice who works on the project and is a visiting scholar at Duke this semester.

"New construction in Venice is not easy because it's a historical city," she says. "A lot of projects from great architects were rejected."

Galeazzo says she hopes the project will help dispel the popular motion that Venice is a city stuck in the past, all history and no progress. The project's research argues otherwise.

"People have an image of Venice as frozen in the Renaissance period," she says. "That's really not true. It's also a very real and changing city where people live and work, and we're trying to illustrate that."

While the project is ongoing, Bruzelius hopes work completed thus far can be harnessed for use at Venetian museums, on websites and in smartphone apps, perhaps providing tours of the city that show how it changed over time.

"Technology has a unique capacity to connect scholarship with the public," she says.