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Venice Time Machine Project


What is Venice Time Machine?

In 2012, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Ca' Foscari University of Venice unveiled the Venice Time Machine. The aim of this project is to transform the ‘Archivio di Stato’ – 80 kilometres of archive materials chronicling every facet of Venetian history over the last 1000 years (containing maps, monographs, manuscripts, and sheet music)– into an open-access database.

Thanks to European Commission financing, this initiative has now been expanded to dozens of locations around Europe as part of a broader project called Time Machine. Time Machine fosters a one-of-a-kind collaboration of prominent European academic and research institutions, cultural heritage institutions, and commercial businesses. Coordination of efforts in recent years has resulted in the formation of the Time Machine system, which now contains more than 300 organizations from 34 countries. Venice becomes a local time machine project.

Archivio di Stato

(Venice time machine, Wikipedia)

Its purpose

  • The project intends to establish a Big Data of the Past by tracing the transit of news, money, commercial commodities, migration, creative and architectural trends, and so on. Its completion would constitute the greatest database of Venetian documents ever compiled.
  • It promises not only to make reams of buried history available to historians, but also to allow them to examine and cross-reference the data, due to breakthroughs in machine-learning technology.
  • If it is successful, it will open the way for an even more ambitious initiative to link comparable time machines throughout Europe's ancient cultural and commercial centres, exposing in unparalleled detail how social networks, trade, and knowledge have grown across the continent over centuries. According to Kaplan, who runs the Digital Humanities Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, it would act as a Google and Facebook for generations (EPFL).

(Venice time machine, Wikipedia)

Who create it?

  • In 2012, EPFL, Ca' Foscari University of Venice, and The State Archives of Venice established the Venice Time Machine Project.
  • The project is directed by Frederic Kaplan. He presently serves as the Chair of Digital Humanities at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). He is the director of the EPFL Digital Humanities Institute (DHI), which consists of five research laboratories. He is also the Time Machine Organization's president.
  • Major Venetian patrimonial organisations are also involved in this effort, including The Marciana Library, The Instituto Veneto, and The Cini Foundation.
  • The project is currently supported by the READ (Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents)European e-Infrastructure project, the SNF project Linked Books and ANR-SNF Project GAWS.
  • Renowned academics from Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, and Oxford make up the international board. The Lombard Odier Foundation became a financial partner in the Venice Time Machine project in 2014.

(Venice time machine, Wikipedia)


  • 2013:

The Venice Time Machine project officially begins on February 23, 2013, with an agreement signed between Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Ca 'Foscari University. The Italian Minister of Education and Research, Francesco Profumo, and the Swiss Secretary of State for Education, Research, and Innovation, Mauro Dell'Ambrogio, travelled to Venice for the signing, underlining the partnership within the framework of excellent Switzerland-Italy ties. EPFL and Ca'Foscari University have established a combined training programme in the form of regular autumn schools: the partners have arranged joint activity weeks. The goal of these training workshops, which are attended by students from EPFL and Ca'Foscari University as well as young researchers from other European and American institutions, is to establish multidisciplinary training around archive material and new technologies.

  • 2014:

The State Archives, Ca'Foscari University, and EPFL sign a first official partnership document outlining a future plan of action. The project's goal is to convert the documentary history of archives into an online information system that is accessible to the community of academics and professionals, as well as the general public. According to the agreement, “the digitization of ancient documents is an essential step for the conservation and enhancement of cultural heritage, two of the fundamental missions of archives.” And that “digital images .. make research possible worldwide allowing thus the creation of ambitious international projects.”“For these projects to be carried out, it is important to create a freely accessible database of images of documents associated with related instruments and records of archival descriptions.” the statement adds. Finally, in order to prevent ambiguity, the agreement states that: “In addition to viewing the images, it will be possible to download them in accordance with standards of the Code of Cultural Property and Landscape“. The project's goal is to “help the Venice State Archives to make rapid progress in the digitization of the documents it stores and in making these documents available to the international research community.” As a result, the photographs will be “distributed globally with an open license.” The EPFL offers all the essential equipment for the establishment of a first digitization room in the State Archives of Venice such as scanners, servers, computers. From June to September 2014, a pre-study phase is conducted in close collaboration with archivists to assess the performance of the digitization chain, particularly in terms of speed in relation to the categories of documents analysed. Based on the findings of this preliminary inquiry, the series and team configuration would be selected. The digitalization centre is officially inaugurated on June 14, 2014, in the presence of Patrick Aebischer (President of EPFL), Carlo Carraro (Rector of Ca'Foscari), Raffaele Santoro (Director of ASVe), and Thierry Lombard (main sponsor of the project). EPFL employs and educates five Italian professionals for scanner operations and digital document annotation, as well as a competent team leader with a paleography and archival background (educated by the Archive's school of archival and internal paleography): Fabio Bortoluzzi. One of these archivists on this team would go on to work at the State Archives of Venice a few years later, and Fabio Bortoluzzi will become the director of the Vicenza State Archives.

  • 2015

The methodology for digitization, metadation, and annotation is developed by the team leader and archivists from the Venice State Archives based on the findings of the pre-study phase in 2014. For the digitization and description of various document series, an estimate of the number of hours is provided. Based on these predictions, it is determined to conduct a basic description of the registers and to focus efforts on searches that provide automatic information extraction. The initial version of annotation software is implemented throughout the State Archives in July 2015. 2015 is also a year of increased cooperation between EPFL researchers and other Venetian organizations. A number of parallel projects are being started. The "Garzoni" project, a collaboration between EPFL, the University of Lille (Valentina Sapienza), and the University of Rouen (Anna Bellavitis), and sponsored by the Swiss National Fund and the French National Agency for Research, seeks to develop a data system to perform historical research on the question of learning from the perspectives of the economy, family, gender, art, and architecture. It is supervised by Maud Ehrmann for EPFL and involves a dozen other academics. It concentrates on the "Gustizia Vecchia" archives, which have already been digitised by the University of Lille in collaboration with the State Archives. On September 1, 2015, the Swiss National Science Foundation launched Linked Books, a second initiative financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The project investigates Venice's "history of history" using novel algorithmic methodologies based on citation networks and full-text publication analyses. Giovanni Colavizza and Matteo Romanello are in charge of the project, which involves a corpus of �nearly 2,000 monographs and 5,000 newspaper pieces written over the last 200 years and covering all facet of Venetian history. Several particular contracts are made for this project to manage the digitization of the secondary source collections required for the project, most especially with the Marciana Library, the Istituto Veneto, and the Ca' Foscari University Library. Finally, EPFL and the Giorgio Cini Foundation entered into an agreement to initiate the Replica project, which will be coordinated by Isabella di Lenardo and will aim to digitize the foundation's media library (one million photos) and build a research engine that will enable the researcher to search for morphological patterns. The agreement states that the digital photo library and search engine would be available to the public. Adam Lowe's team at Factum Arte is working on a new sort of scanner. It is built as a rotating table that travels constantly throughout a scanning session, shooting both sides of a paper at the same time and instantly downloading the photographs to a computer. The study will also result in a PhD thesis by Benoit Seguin, who will offer a novel technique to train neural networks using deep learning to recognise recurrences of patterns on a variety of media, including drawings, paintings, engravings, and pictures.

  • 2016

EPFL will join the READ project in January 2016 to help speed development in handwriting recognition. Venice Time Machine is one of the project's large-scale demonstrations. Artlab, a new building built by Kengo Kuma on the EPFL campus in Lausanne, will be opened in November. The "Datasquare" pavilion has a permanent exhibition on the Venice Time Machine.

  • 2017

EPFL solves the problem of picture sharing via the network in 2017 with the release of the first edition of the Time Machine Box. It is a server situated at the scanning site, i.e. immediately at the archives, on which all scanned documents and information are housed and easily accessible via the IIIF protocol, which sets international image exchange standards. The Time Machine Box is more than just a storage facility. It allows any research organisation to analyse the images supplied using document segmentation techniques or handwriting recognition, as long as it complies to the IIIF standard. In October that year, EPFL, Ca' Foscari University, the State Archives of Venice, and the Giorgio Cini Foundation issue a joint press release announcing the first results of the project and the digitization campaign, containing 190,000 archival documents, 720,000 photographic documents, and 3,000 books covering 200 years of Venetian history. Archivists completed 160,000 hand transcriptions of name, place, and keywords on this basis. On the basis of these annotations, a search engine based on a handwriting recognition technology is announced. To honour the anniversary, Michele Bugliesi, Rector of Ca' Foscari University, declares: "The digitalization of archive assets opens up new pathways for the study and comprehension of the history of the cultural evolution of past and present civilizations". This project places Venice at the forefront of Europe, demonstrating the extremely large potential of digital technologies for the improvement of cultural heritage as well as their capacity to create research methodology in the fields of history, art history, and more broadly for humanities and socio-economic sciences research.

  • 2018

In June 2018, the Cini Foundation, Factum Arte, and EPFL's DHLAB opened a collaborative research facility. The Helen Hamlyn Trust is funding the facility, which is called ARCHiVe - Analysis and Recording of Cultural Heritage in Venice. Within the European READ project, an automatic handwriting recognition system is being constructed from the annotated Venetian manuscripts, as intended. The findings of EPFL researcher Sofia Ares Oliveira are quite encouraging: this system's recognition ability outperforms that of an Italian person with no archival background. The technology will be shown for the first time at the Digital Humanities 2018 conference in Mexico City. The same summer, a general document segmentation system (dhSegment), which was originally designed to answer the Replica project's segmentation challenge, was declared open-source. In only a few months, dozens of institutions throughout the world, including the National Archives in Paris, will be using this free and open technology. In the Time Machine 2018 conference, the public is introduced to the search engine, which was revealed in 2017 and combines text search, visual search, and geo-historical navigation to give fast access to the sources of the Venice State Archive and the Cini Foundation. Accordingly, EPFL and Ca' Foscari University, together with 31 other European institutions, became founding members of a project filed to the European Commission for the development of a "European Time Machine." The Venetian model may now be exported as a generic format to comprehend the histories of European cities due to the extraction approaches and open technologies established. The project in the Padiglione Venezia is included in a huge show at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.

  • 2019

The European Commission is funding the pan-European Horizon 2020 Time Machine Coordination and Support Action. The number of supporting institutions continues to rise, now totaling over 400, as Europe faces the task of creating an open database of information that has previously been segregated into silos. The Venice Time Machine has officially joined a group of 20 other Local Time Machines. EPFL has been awarded the Parcels of Venice project, which will allow them to continue their study into computing methodologies for extracting information from cadastral sources.

  • 2020

EPFL's findings are published in the open-access Nature Research journal Scientific Reports, based on freshly gathered and digitised daily death records, or necrologies, from the city's Patriarchal Archives. The article examines the spread of the bubonic plague, which is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, in Venice between 1630 and 1631 using data science approaches. The deaths appeared to follow a unique pattern, with a first peak in 1630 reaching over 400 deaths per day at its apex, followed by a less severe but longer-lasting high in 1631. They claim that this is the first time a "long tail of high mortality" has been described in the literature on the issue.

(EPFL website)


The State Archives of Venice have a large amount of hand-written paperwork in languages ranging from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Over a thousand years of administrative papers, ranging from birth registrations, death certificates, and tax statements to maps and urban planning drawings, are housed on an estimated 80 kilometres of shelves. These papers are frequently brittle and in a precarious condition of conservation. The variety, quantity, and precision of Venetian administrative documentation are unparalleled in Western history. By merging this wealth of data, significant swaths of the city's history may be reconstructed, including detailed biographies, political dynamics, and even the look of buildings and entire neighbourhoods.

The Venice Time Machine process


Paper documents are turned into high-resolution digital pictures using scanning devices. The scanning technology that may be used and the speed at which a document can be scanned vary depending on the kind of document. In conjunction with industry, EPFL is developing semi-automatic, robotic scanning technology able of digitizing roughly 1000 pages/hour. Several of these machines will be built in order to provide an effective digitization pipeline dedicated to ancient manuscripts. Another technique being researched at EPFL involves scanning books without turning the pages. This method makes use of X-ray synchrotron radiation.

Video about scanning technique:

Transcription - Information extraction

The automated reading of antique handwritten texts is a significant problem. Common character-recognition software enables printed books to be read letter by letter despite font variances, making them searchable. This, however, does not work for handwritten texts, since the forms of letters might vary greatly across scribes and alter with time. A European Union collaboration called Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents (READ) is developing several techniques to solve the challenge, including employing machine learning to detect the forms of complete words. The computers can convert photos into likely words. The photos are automatically divided into sub-images that might represent words. Every sub-image is compared to the others and categorized based on the form of the word and its properties. Every time a new word is transcribed, a ton of other word transcripts in the database are identified.

Connecting data

The true value of the Venetian archives is found in the interconnectedness of its documents. The data taken from these many sources is structured in a semantic network of connected data and unfurled in time and space as part of a historical-geographical data system based on high-resolution scanning of the city itself. These algorithms look for recurring patterns in hand-written paperwork, maps, paintings, and musical scores, collecting data about individuals, locations, and artworks to create a massive network of connected data. The information gathered from the texts is carefully intertwined and connected together into massive graphs. By merging this level of data, it is feasible to reconstruct huge chunks of the city's past while simultaneously allowing for the emergence of new knowledge.

Video about connecting data:

4D modelling

Reconstruction of probable pasts compatible with digital sources using a 4D multiscale geohistorical simulator and procedural approaches.

A sample of 4D modelling:


The efforts are divided into 2 phases:

  • Phase I (2012-2019): The State Archive in Venice, The Marciana Library, The Instituto Veneto, and the Giorgio Cini Foundation were among the key Venetian patrimonial organisations involved in Phase I of the project (2012-2019). The READ European eInfrastructure project, the SNF project Linked Books, and the ANR-SNF Initiative GAWS all provided funding for the project. Scholars from Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, and London Universities serve on the project's worldwide advisory board. Three hundred researchers and students from many disciplines (Basic Sciences, Engineering, Computer Science, Architecture, History, and Arts History) have already contributed to the initiative. Every year, a doctoral school is held in Venice, and various bachelor and master courses already make use of the project's data.
  • Phase II (2020-2028): emphasis on creating the Venice Mirror World, a 4D representation of Venice that overlaps the city itself, directly linking the knowledge of its history for those who must determine its destiny.

Venice is only the beginning point. The Venice Time Machine has applied, together with collaborators around the Europe, to be one of the European Union's next billion-euro key initiatives. If it succeeds, it will build time machines in other places with significant archives and connect them.

(EPFL website)


The project was halted in September 2019 owing to an overlook in the initial agreement signed in 2014.

Penzo Doria, the current head of the State Archive of Venice, believes that "these data are unusable" from an archive standpoint since the digitization work did not adhere to the InterPARES (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records) project's preservation requirements. These rules necessitate the meticulous capture of information that proves the origin of each document, as well as the storage of such information in the metadata that comes with each file. This acts as an electronic signature, ensuring the long-term preservation and validity of a digital content. According to Penzo Doria, the EPFL researchers who performed the scans did not record how they obtained such information – or, if they did, they did not share this evidence with archive employees.

According to Kaplan, the researchers have gathered metadata. Their technique, however, was based on a distinct set of regulations - the International Council on Archives' ISAD (International Standard Archival Description) principles. He claims that the EPFL researchers followed the protocols provided by the State Archives staff. Kaplan further stated in an e-mail in February 2019 that he gave metadata material to Penzo Doria's predecessor, Giovanna Giubbini. Nature claimed that Penzo Doria and Giubbini had never received these materials.

Meanwhile, the destiny of 8 gigabytes of digital material collected from around 190,000 papers over the previous 5 years is unknown. Nothing has been updated after that suspension.

(Davide, 2019)


Abbott, A. The ‘time machine’ reconstructing ancient Venice’s social networks. Nature 546, 341–344 (2017).

Albertin, F., Astolfo, A., Stampanoni, M., Peccenini, E., Hwu, Y., Kaplan, F., & Margaritondo, G. (2015). X-ray spectrometry and imaging for ancient administrative handwritten documents. X-Ray Spectrometry.

Davide Castelvecchi. (2019, October 25). Venice ‘time machine’ project suspended amid data row.

Kaplan, F. (2015). The Venice Time Machine (p. 73).

Venice time machine. (n.d.). Name. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from

Contributors to Wikimedia projects. (2021, August 20). Venice time machine. Wikipedia.

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