Summary

Material culture consists of any artifact that tells something about the traditions, beliefs, or values of a
society. Encompassing a wide range of objects, material culture can be further divided into two main categories: monumental culture and vernacular culture. Monumental culture generally consists of large, visually striking items; in Venice, this includes sites such as the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica. Conversely, vernacular culture consists of hand-crafted artifacts made by artisans, craftsmen, and the general populace. Though these works are typically less remarkable to the general public, they remain invariably important to the heritage and culture of the community in which they exist.

Located throughout Venice is a wide and varied collection of vernacular art which includes such  items as coats of arms sculptures, small statues, and decorative wellheads. Another form of vernacular culture in Venice is antique boats, which are dwindling in number despite the rich maritime history of the city. All of these artifacts constitute a major component of the city’s vernacular culture and some date back as far as 1,000 years. As Figure 2 indicates, the collection is so
widespread across the city that, were the outline of Venice to be removed, the shape of the island would still be discernable based on the distribution of public art. Unfortunately, many of these items are in a state of disrepair. Without proper care and maintenance these pieces will continue to degrade until they are lost forever. The preservation of these works would be greatly facilitated with an accurate and complete record of Venetian vernacular artifacts.

A catalog of 6,864 individual pieces of public art has been created thanks to twenty years of project work by Worcester Polytechnic Institute students who have collaborated with such organizations as Earthwatch, Archeoclub Italia, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This collection constitutes the most complete and comprehensive catalog of material culture in Venice. Previously, however, this data was loosely organized and stored in standalone, offline databases making it difficult to access. As a means of making this information public and easy to read and review, our team organized all of the data into a
standard format before importing it to Venipedia.org[1], the online wiki site dedicated to the city of Venice. A total of 3,068 Venipedia pages were created, with the primary focus on the decorative sculpture of the city; each of these pages includes such information as the subject matter, location, and the dimensions of each artifact.

Though this catalog of public art already includes thousands of pieces, it is not complete. Yet to be fully documented are the decorative keystones in the city, ornamental stones that reside at the apex of archways. Previously, the keystones throughout the district of Cannaregio, as well as those on each of the public bridges in the city, had been recorded by a WPI
student project team. We sought to expand on this work by cataloging each keystone in Castello. This study resulted in the addition of 127 keystones to the digital catalog and established a framework to be used by future teams in documenting the rest of the keystones across the city.

Equally important to the city’s culture are antique boats, another component of material culture in Venice. Though these antique boats once constituted the only means of travel throughout the canals, the introduction of motorboats within the last fifty years has caused the use of these boats decrease significantly. The motorboats are detrimental to the physical infrastructure of the city by emitting pollution and creating wakes, and have also driven antique boats to the brink of extinction.

Arzanà is an organization located in Venice that is dedicated to the conservation of these antique
wooden boats. Working with volunteers from that organization, our team documented their fifty-six boats and added all relevant information to Venipedia as part of the overarching catalog of material culture in the city.

In order to raise awareness for the restoration of these collections, our team developed an augmented reality mobile application, which uses the GPS coordinates of each piece of public art to overlay icons on a smartphone’s camera that will direct users to the location of the piece. Once users are facing the object, they can click on a link to the corresponding Venipedia page where they may receive full information about the piece. If a piece is in need of restoration, the user may also be prompted to press the “Donate” button to contribute to the restoration of that piece.

Our wiki catalog of Venetian material culture, together with the mobile application, will be the two main tools of PreserVenice,[2] a non-profit organization conceived in 2007[3] with the aim of raising awareness about the deterioration of material culture and collecting funds for its restoration. To begin the restoration effort, our team developed a prioritization and cost analysis system which can be applied to the entire collection of decorative sculpture in the city. These analyses identified the high priority items and were able to identify their cost of restoration with adequate accuracy. These tools can then be used to prioritize the sequence of restorations to be targeted by future fundraising campaigns.



[1] “Venipedia,” Published at http://www.venipedia.org/.

[2] PreserVenice. “Homepage,” Published at http://www.preservenice.org/.

[3] Amanda Kent et al,. “PreserVenice: Preserving Venetian Public Art” (Worcester: Worcester Polytechnic Institute).