New Article on Po Valley Published

The journal Environment & History has just published my first peer-reviewed article about the history of the Po watershed. Titled “Charting the Flow: Water Science and State Hydrography in the Po Watershed, 1872-1917”, it follows the complex establishment of a hydrographic service for the largest watershed of the country from the disastrous 1872 floods to the First World War. It touches upon issues such as quantification and measurement of water resources, the role of natural systems in environmental knowledge production, the nexuses between water knowledge and engineering, and the role of environmental knowledge in State-building.

Here is  a link to the published version of the article:

Do not hesitate to email me for a copy!

New Project Website (and Digital Maps)

I have finally published a pilote version of my hGIS online on a dedicated website, which I presented at the last ASEH meeting in Seattle earlier this month. This website presents some of the data I have produced during the research in the form of interactive maps. The maps are grouped in sections: agriculture, energy, and urbanization. An additional section provides information on sources and credits for this project. Here is the link to the website, and below one of the digital maps you can explore via this website:




Updates on the Po Watershed Project

A few good things happened in the last few weeks concerning my project “Entangled Flows.”

I was invited to gave a talk on “Charting the Flow: Water Science and State Hydrography in the Po Watershed” at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, on February 11 and 12. The talk was part of the Speakers’ Series ” The Art of Judgement” organized by Wilko von Hardenberg at the Department III of the Institute. It was a fantastic opportunity to discuss my work with great scholars in the history of science and I will incorporate their excellent insights into my project.

I published a short piece on the project as a whole in Italian for the online journal Altronovecento. I lettori italiani potranno farsi un’idea più precisa del progetto attraverso queste brevi note di ricerca. Il testo può essere visionato online sul sito della rivista oppure scaricato qui

Hopefully more good news will follow in the coming months…


Talk in Vienna about “Fault Lines”

On January 21 at 18:00, I will give a talk at the Minisymposia organized by the ZUG – Centre for Environmental History in Vienna, Austria. The talk is titled “Fault Lines: Thinking (and Writing) about Earthquakes and Historical Change” and will present my recently published book Fault Lines.  This is the abstract of the talk:

Can earthquakes speak? The idea that “nature” actively participates in historical change is probably the most fundamental tenet of environmental history. Earthquakes seem a clear example of that agency, and especially so in the history of urbanism and the built environment. Yet, several problems confront us when trying to define the way this agency operates.  We can hardly blame exclusively the geophysical trigger for the destruction of built environments, ignoring human responsibilities. The transformation that may or may not follow the seismic event, moreover, cannot be easily connected to the earthquake itself, as it may depend on different agendas and processes.

Therefore, to understand if and how earthquakes play a role in urban historical change, one needs to devise specific analytical and narrative strategies. It is indeed necessary to follow the multiple threads that converge into the seismic disaster only to diverge right after it, and to articulate the historical analysis across multiple temporal scales. In particular, it is crucial to fully incorporate into the analysis not only the disaster and the reconstruction, but also the transformations that were going on before, to distinguish long-term continuities from ruptures that can therefore more convincingly be attributed to the effects of the geophysical trigger.

In my book Fault Lines (Berghahn 2015) I have applied these questions and methods to the empirical investigation of two of the most tragic and destructive seismic disasters in the history of modern Italy: the 1908 Messina and the 1968 Belice Valley (Sicily) earthquakes. In both cases, two brand new environments rose from the ruins of the earthquakes. By looking at the history of these two places on the longer term, we can recognize how much of their transformation was prepared before the earthquakes, and was part of larger urbanization processes in modern Italy. From this perspective, however, we can also see how much of it was the result of the multiple and sometimes counterintuitive interaction of geophysical forces with material structures and human expectations and actions, thus giving voice to the earthquake in more-than-human histories of urban change.,10967,Kopie+72.+Minisymposium+am+21.1.2016.html

New Article on the Po River Valley

As part of the Po Valley project, I have been working for a while on the hybrid process of knowledge production about water. A forthcoming paper of mine on water science and state hydrography in the Po River basin is now available online through the advance access option of the journal Environment and History and via my page. I am particularly happy about this article, because it is the first peer-reviewed output of this project. It is also my first incursion in the history of science (and technology) and I will have the chance to present it at the Max-Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin this coming winter. One more reason to be excited about it!

Giacomo Parrinello, “Charting the Flow: Water Science and State Hydrography in the Po Watershed, 1872-1917”. Fortcoming in Environment and History.

My book Fault Lines is out!

My book Fault Lines is finally out! The book has been published by Berghahn Books (Oxford and New York) at the end of May. It is part of the ESEH/RCC series “The Environment in History: International Perspectives” and has been generously supported by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. On July 2, during the last ESEH meeting in Versailles, we organized a book launch at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelynes, with the presence of three of the four series editors (David Moon, Christof Mauch and Helmut Trischler) and of course myself. It has been a nice moment, especially because many of the people who, in a way or another, have helped make this book possible were present. Here you can find more information about the book contents and here you can download a copy of the introduction. If you are interested in buying a copy, the publisher offers a special 50%   discount rate valid only until August 15, 2015 through this link.IMG_20150702_193631IMG_20150702_193653IMG_20150702_193834

Knowledge Gains and Geeky Pleasures: Adding Digital to Environmental History

This post was originally published on Ant Spider Bee – Exploring the Digital Environmental Humanities

Like virtually everyone who has grown up after the PC revolution, I have used digital tools for work or entertainment as early as I can recall. However, work on my second book-length project entitled Entangled Flows: The Remaking of the Po River Valley, has encouraged me to consciously and programmatically explore digital methods more fully.

Colleagues and friends who are not involved in the digital humanities have often asked me why I have chosen to go digital. This is a legitimate question, and a very important one. Before showing how I integrate digital methods in my project, I should thus explain why. There are at least three major reasons. First and foremost, my environmental history project would simply be unfeasible without utilizing digital methods—in particular, without historical geographic information systems (HGIS). Second, digital tools open up a field of new possibilities for research dissemination and outreach, which in turn increase public accessibility of scientific knowledge. Finally… because it’s fun! Although personal pleasure has seldom a place in compelling scientific arguments, humanities scholars should know better than anyone how important emotions are in stimulating or constraining creativity. We will get back to that. But let me first say something more about the project.

My current project, funded by the European Union with a Marie Curie Fellowship, aims to understand the genealogy of today’s problematic interdependencies in water resource use in the Po River Valley. The Po River Valley is one of the most densely urbanized, industrialized, and agriculturally developed regions of the planet. Cities, industries, and agriculture in the valley depend on particular arrangements of water circulation, and water flows interconnect them all. In this project, I study how the current configuration of water circulation in the Po Valley has been produced through history. More specifically, I analyze the transition from a predominantly agricultural society to the modern urban-industrial society, and the ways that water circulation structured this transition. This endeavor has two major implications: 1) the analytical focus of my research are water flows and their modification across the entire watershed of the Po River; 2) I take into account a multiplicity of water uses (agricultural, urban, industrial) over more than 150 years.

When I first designed this project in the form of a proposal for a Marie Curie Fellowship, I realized that I needed to find a way to systematize sources and information, or else their sheer abundance would have overwhelmed me. Besides working on more traditional text-based research and outputs, I thus decided to build a geographical database of water uses. I planned to utilize it in order to spatially organize the sources and information I would collect on irrigation and drainage canals, hydroelectric reservoirs, urban waterworks, floods and so on. Although by then I had only a superficial knowledge of GIS, what I knew was enough to guess that it could serve well to that purpose.

It turned out it was not a bad idea. I have been implementing a historical GIS of water uses for almost one year now, and I have already derived several benefits from it. First, it has effectively helped me to never lose sight—quite literally!—of the big picture. This is very important, since it is incredibly easy to get entangled into local stories when using archival or other narrative sources. By constantly getting back to the GIS, I am forced to always relate every specific case I encounter—be it a canal, a drainage initiative, or a dam, to the larger regional context. This helps me to avoid the risk of overemphasizing the single episode, and to gain a clearer perspective of its relative importance and historical interconnections. Moreover, building the database has driven me toward sources that otherwise I would have overlooked. Searching for comprehensive information on large-scale processes, I have turned to inventories of irrigation canals, surveys of aqueducts and hydroelectric power plants, and maps. These sources are probably not as “fleshy” or “spicy” as reports or letters, and can be of little or no use if taken alone. However, once digitized and put into a GIS, they can be extremely valuable to keep track of extent, patterns, and features of environmental change on a large scale. Furthermore, GIS is proving extremely helpful as an analytical tool. Let us take hydropower as an example. I have digitized five inventories of hydroelectric power production compiled between 1927 and 1970, and I am now completing the digitization of an 1880s survey of watermills. Visualizing and analyzing these data via GIS offer new insights about the difference between the two modes of waterpower production, the localization, diffusion, and functions of the hydropower plants, and their impact on watercourses. By cross-matching waterpower sites and irrigation canals, then, it becomes possible to identify locations where the overlap between the two types of uses was intense and precocious, and where it is thus worthwhile to pursue more fine-grained investigations.

GIS is also a great resource for creative outputs. As geographers and cartographers know well, geo-visualizations can communicate spatially situated information in an extremely effective manner. Visual information comes across very differently than written words, and sometimes can be more easily accessible than scholarly articles or books, especially for a non-specialist audience. Nowadays, most of the free pieces of GIS software such as QGIS or Google Earth allow users to produce very powerful and attractive geo-visualizations of various kinds. QGIS, for example, has a map-drawing tool that produces high-resolution image files out of GIS data. I have used it to produce a sequence of maps concerning the diffusion of aqueducts in the Po Valley from 1800 to 1940. I have then composed the resulting image files into an animated sequence by means of a free video editing software.

I have published the animation on my Youtube channel, on my blog, and on twitter. This is by no means a replacement of a scholarly article, but it can be a nice complement to it, and one that has more chances to reach a wider audience. Map animations can also be easily created with Google Earth Pro (now free). Google Earth Pro indeed allows for the creation of short HD videos out of virtual tours. I have used this feature to create a visual narrative of the 1951 Polesine flood, the worst flood disaster in twentieth-century Italy. The video shows the points where the river overflowed the embankments, the flooded area, and the locations that were abandoned as floodwater advanced.

These are just examples of the many possibilities that free GIS software offers to create digital historical narratives of environmental change capable to reach a broader audience. Even more potential lies in integrating GIS with other multimedia formats. I have used Google Maps Engine to map a field trip in the drained wetlands of the Po River delta I did in the summer of 2014. The map shows each stop in the trip, and includes brief field notes, pictures, video recordings, and links to relevant web pages. Users can navigate the map and get a better sense of the geography of the field trip, while learning more on some features of the landscape I explored.

Part of my project consists of replicating this model on a larger scale, by creating an interactive map that would allow users to select and visualize the data on water uses and water infrastructure I have digitized, including dams, hydropower plants, irrigation canals, and so forth. I envision this instrument as a way to help people understand the interconnectedness of apparently unrelated processes of social and environmental change, and thereby enhance the public debate on water uses and interdependency in the Po Valley.

While digital methods and tools are now playing a decisive function for both primary source analysis and project outreach, they have also been a refreshing complement to my scholarly practice. GIS, videos, and websites can expand storytelling into new and fascinating directions, and liberate creativity from some of the constraints of textual narratives. Moreover, playing with maps, learning how to use pieces of software, shooting and mounting videos, are all activities that I have always enjoyed. In these moments, I become oblivious of time, a sensation that I also experience when reading a good book or sifting through archival records. My academic training in history, however, has led me far from digital media production. The digital humanities represent a way to finally integrate this longstanding passion with my professional practice. I find this extremely rewarding, and increases the pleasure that I attach to the work I do. Is that not already enough?