It doesn’t seem possible that a single book could create a complete cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic profile of a city, but Migropolis: Venice/Atlas of a Global Situation does just that, in a comprehensive, complex, and beautiful way. And that is only the beginning of its accomplishment. The two volumes, the result of a massive research project launched in 2006 and concluded in 2009 by the German philosopher Wolfgang Scheppe and the students of his class in the politics of representation at the Università Iuav di Venezia (IUAV), manages to present a historic city that is singular in so many respects as emblematic of larger and, we may as well say it, horrifying global trends.

Migropolis goes far beyond what one normally considers achievable in print format, particularly in our Internet-dependent, information- saturated, attention-deficient age. A treasure trove of well-organized and artfully presented data, images, and analyses, the book begs to be handled, studied, and thumbed through, transporting the reader beyond, Venice’s surface and into its unknown spaces. (Migropolis has a quite involved Web site, but despite being thorough and easy to navigate, the site cannot provide the closeness to the subject delivered by the photo-rich book.) Scheppe describes the project as a “visual investigation,” explaining: “Venice is an iconically marked space, and images of it are merely expected to confirm the recollection of other, previous images… Here pictures serve the purpose of posing questions and defining problems. They strive to betray their apparent immediacy and to confront their predisposition to functioning as an image act. They do not want to be viewed but read.” The authors lay out the categorical framework they propose as necessary to understanding the social, relational, and environmental changes taking place in Venice in a Monopoly-board structure. This provides a visually accessible way to map and move through the city without losing sight of the values at the center of the game: money and land. Thus, in the Migropolis board game, the territory is defined by a range of street types that also function as chapter headings, such as global Street, Borderline Street, Displacement Street. And these “streets” are lined with spaces identifying a variety of conditions, such as Person, Legitimacy, and Mobility; Infrastructure of Globalization; World Tourism Market and Venice; Global Migration and Venice; and Measures of Repression. Scattered throughout are moving profiles of immigrants, consisting of lengthy interviews accompanied by intimate photographs, that ground the authors’ intelligent analyses in the lives of real people.

Migration is indeed the book’s focus (hence its title). Venice is the apotheosis of a city transformed by demographic movement, out and in. By profiling a diverse cross section of immigrants, the authors manage to carry the reader into every part of the world. We learn of journeys (that are not always desperate ones) and of adapted lives that help us understand a phenomenon that is leaving its trace on the physical and social fabric of cities all over the globe.

The analyses tend to be couched in heavy philosophy/rebel speak, but they are compact and sharply written, consistently backed up by solid historical references, statistics, and insightful cultural readings. The book is necessarily an amalgam of various materials, with photographs — satellite and stock shots, commissioned artistic documentation, and private snaps — well-designed maps, and charts, all jump-cut to form a psychogeographical portrait of the city. The result is a holistic image of Venice and its surroundings, including industrial Venice, segregated Venice, optimistic Venice, sprawling Venice, and suburban Venice.

Although the city nearly lost its strong identity because of a demographic crisis - it suffers among the world’s largest residential depopulations - and the fact that it has become almost entirely subsumed by its postcard image, Migropolis demonstrates that it still has a complex soul. And despite its diminutiveness, Venice has always had open boundaries. It is a place of continual evolution, hewn from encounters and conflicts, where everything hails the beginning of something new and different.