Today, Venice is regarded as one of the prettiest cities in the world. If you've ever wondered what it looked like in the past, however, an ambitious project may soon be able to show you. The Venice Time Machine wants to digitize the city's vast archive and create a 1,000-year evolving model of it.

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is running the project in partnership with the University Ca’Foscari, State Archive of Venice and support from the Lombard Odier Foundation. According to EPFL, "The diversity, amount and accuracy of the Venetian administrative documents are unique in Western history."

It is estimated that Venice has over 80 km (50 miles) of shelving that contains more than 1,000 years of administrative documents. Many of the documents are very delicate and are thought to be hand-written in a variety of languages evolving from medieval times to the 20th century.

Documents include birth and death registries, wills, tax statements, architectural designs, urban planning, maps, travel guides to foreign lands and peace treaties. The document thought to be the oldest in the collection is a will dating back to the 9th century in which a woman leaves 30 baskets of olives to her successors.

Other notable documents include correspondence from Venetian ambassadors abroad, a hand-written request from Galileo requesting financial support from the Venetian senate for a telescope and Napoleon’s treaty that put an end to the Venetian Republic.

The Venice Time Machine aims to digitize these documents and create an online repository through which individuals can search and browse. This would mean that historians would no longer need to visit Venice and its State Archive in order to view certain documents, as they must currently do.

In order to produce the online archive, a workflow for mass digitization using automated text recognition is required. Documents are first scanned into image format using a variety of different scanning machines as necessitated by factors such as their size and condition.

Transcribing the documentation once it has been scanned is a particularly challenging process, due to the complexity and variety of documents, scripts and languages involved. Special algorithms are being developed that will translate image content into probable words. Words are then compared against each other in order to improve the accuracy of the process. Probable sentences can then be formed.

Once it has been digitized, the data will then be taxonomically indexed. Documents, people and words (among other things) will all be cross-referenced and interconnected. A reader will be able to see, for example, people and other documents related to the document they are already reading.

In addition to a searchable archive, it is suggested that the documents could be used to reconstruct a 3D model of the city going back as much as 1,000 years. To do so, architecture plans in the digitized archive would be combined to reconstruct the city's streets and canals as they stood at different times across the centuries.

The video below provides an introduction to the Venice Time Machine project.

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