Water in the making of a socio-natural landscape: Rome and its surroundings, 1870-1922 (Valenti, 2023)

Creighton Connolly


Valenti, S. (2023) Water in the making of a socio-natural landscape: Rome and its surroundings, 1870-1922. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group ISBN 9781032184180 (Hardback, £130)/ ISBN 9781003254423 (ebook, £35)

(URL:  https://www.routledge.com/Water-in-the-Making-of-a-Socio-Natural-Landscape-Rome-and-Its-Surroundings/Valenti/p/book/9781032184180 )

Creighton Connolly

The University of Hong Kong, connolly@hku.hk

To cite this Review: Connolly, C. (2023). Review of “Water in the making of a socio-natural landscape: Rome and its surroundings, 1870-1922”, Routledge 2023, by Salvatore Valenti, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/343-Rome

Water has been of critical importance to any city or settlement that has been able to thrive over centuries, or even millennia. This is indeed the case of Rome: ‘the eternal city’, as the use and control of water flowing into and around the city has had a profound impact on the making of the city and its surrounding territory. In Water in the Making of a Socio-Natural Landscape, Salvatore Valenti explores the transition from early modern to modern water management from the late 19th century until the early 20th century in Rome. This period is chosen, as it is the time during which the uses of water - for hydroelectricity, economic activities and public health - was developed in Roman and Italian legislation and politics. The book takes a multi-scalar approach, merging local water management with national water policies aimed at promoting irrigation, agriculture, industrial processes, and public health. It investigates discourses (perceptions and conceptualisations) of water among Italian elites, changes in the water legislation, engineering projects, medical knowledge and practices, the value of water in different productions, and the needs and uses of local stakeholders.

Conceptually, the book builds upon foundational work in urban political ecology, which has sought to illustrate how water has been central to urbanisation and to the making of socio-natural landscapes. One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me personally is the discourse analysis method, which is rarely combined with an urban political ecology approach. This allows us to understand how political and social elites in Italy conceived of water and its uses for urbanisation health during the historical period examined. It is also somewhat rare (excluding the notable research of Matthew Gandy) to find historical geographies of water that focus on both the public health aspects of water and its role in urbanisation. The book thus makes a useful contribution to the growing collection of historical monographs illustrating the central role of water in nation-building, modernisation and urbanisation in cities. However, one drawback in this regard is that political ecology remains a rather implicit topic throughout the empirical chapters, rather than being engaged with at a deeper theoretical level.

After a brief introduction that sets out the book’s main research questions, methodological and conceptual approaches, the research gap, and various literature reviews; the book is organised in a chronological manner, zooming in from the national scale, down to the neighbourhood scale over the course of the first five chapters. As a non-specialist on Italian area studies, or the political ecologies of water, I would have appreciated a more general introduction that discusses the broader thematic or conceptual contributions of the book and its contents. Rather, we are introduced to fairly advanced studies of Roman and Italian water history and politics, as well as related studies in the field of urban political ecology. The review of this literature is also not written in a way that would be engaging for those well versed in those bodies of work. This structure of the book could be a result of its origins as Valenti’s PhD thesis, which of course would be targeted to a more specialist audience. As such, the book would be best suited for those focusing on the historical geographies of Rome or those working on the urban political ecologies of water. It would be most accessible and interesting to PhD students and academics working in these areas.

Subsequent chapters, however, are more engaging, and will be of interest to those readers concerned with the controversies that emerge over water’s various (and sometimes competing) uses - from irrigation, to drinking water, hydroelectricity and economic development. Chapter 1, for example, undertakes a discourse analysis to understand how water was conceived as being able to develop paths towards modernisation through infrastructure development; while Chapter 3 examines the currently topical discussion over the importance of water for public health, and specifically for combatting epidemics like cholera and malaria. Chapter 4, titled ‘the value of water’ discusses the economic interests in water in the late 19th/early 20th century, and the difficult balance between public needs and private profit. Chapters 5 and 6 will be most interesting to urban political ecologists, as Valenti discusses the role of water in shaping the Roman territory, and how this differs from other European cities like Athens and Madrid (discussed at length in Erik Swyngedouw’s and Maria Kaika’s books on the two cities).

In sum, the book is extremely well researched and written, and provides a useful contribution to the literature on water in urban political ecology. It will be most interesting to those with an empirical interest in Rome or Italian cities, and the historical significance of water in shaping modern urban society..



Additional Info

  • Authors: Salvatore Valenti
  • Year of publication: 2023
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Creighton Connolly
  • Subject: Political ecology, Urban water supply, Environmental History, Water and community, Water history
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English