Moving through Rome’s Pasts: from Piranesi to Freud and Back

Such intensive efforts of recreation provided the background against which the architect Giambattista Nolli mapped the augmented expanse of modern buildings the had come to occupy Rome’s earlier physical plant, as if to place Rome once more on the map in the mid-eighteenth century, and celebrate in comprehensively detailed fashion its expansion under sustained papal attention and commissions to an expanse that indeed could be seen as coming to rival the ancient city once again.  Among those Nolli employed in his project, Piranesi developed a similar intensive focus on the ancient monuments that survived in the city and ensuring their preservation in a single cartographical form. Piranesi’s involvement in the project of preserving the entire cityscape from 1741 would inform his later assembly of what he saw as disjointed fragments of its urban plan.

For Nolli offered a triumphant encomiastic vision of its continuity for the “enlightened” pope Benedict XIV as a celebration of the elegant expansion of the city as a built space.  To do so, Nolli applied new arts of surveying he innovated that combination craft and art to transcribe that new expanse and the monument of Rome from the restored Capitoline to St. Peter’s itself, as if to illustrate the organic coherence that the city had attained that advanced the visual argument of the extent to which the city surpassed its former fragmentation.  Rather than recuperate a past organic whole, in other words, Nolli celebrated the achievement of a new sense of organic presence within the historical Aurelian walls.  Benedict XIV openly ought to elevate the place of Rome within networks of learning that he knew so well, both in Italy and abroad, so as to place it on the intellectual map of Europe once more, and the Nolli plan figuratively as well as literally did so, illustrating technical capacities to map the Holy city in unprecedented detail and do so by the most recent surveying techniques.

The cartographical choices of these plans of antiquities constituted a strikingly different strategy than the plans of earlier cartographers.  The massive multi-sheet map Nolli created for Benedict XIV presented an image of the continued and sustained magnificence of buildings within the papal city, whose crisp contours captured and celebrated the current expansion of the city within its ancient walls, in a Grande Pianta that balanced the habitatand the disabitato within the Aurelian walls, even as it celebrated the architectural triumphs that had remade Rome as a cosmopolitan center which had regained its earlier integrity if not its past expanse.  The stark precision of the mid-eighteenth-century plan of the Roman cartographer and architect Giambattista Nolli (1701-1756), whose multi-sheet plan is particularly striking for its contrast to this entanglement–perhaps because of the extent to which it organized space as a uniform continuity.  It may have met a commission to disentangle the historicity of its monuments from the city over which the papacy presided:  if one in which the church and papacy oversaw the perfection of its spatial order out of the possibility of historical confusion of space, investing an increasing clarity in the city’s layout that would be widely mistaken for objectivity.

Viewers of Nolli’s map could discern the unified spatial order of the city as if stripped down and clarified from its historical past, removed from its clanging bells and overhead arcs of birds, and from the water carried to the city that reappears in its many fountains, as if the urban space is disentangled and unfolded from its past and represented under the aegis of the church:  the surety of his cartographical line seems a clarification of the city under papal auspices, removing the city from the shadow of past futures lying in its ruins and revealing streets’ precise course, orientation and often varying widths, thereby allowing one to disentangle it from overlapping layers of historical time.  The surveying table which Nolli had innovated for transcribing urban space map seems secondary to the surety of line and shading, dark but legible lettering and fonts to render the city’s plan legible–transcribing its clustered public spaces by numbers that can be read without any unwanted crowding of cartographical space.

The cartographer offered a satisfying purification of the disposition of urban space.  The elegant trompe l’oeil masterwork of Nolli reserved Rome’s complex topography in the mid eighteenth century in ways that had rare been able to be previously registered.  Engraved on eighteen folio sheets of paper, surrounded by monuments, that invited viewers to survey the copious detail that is encoded in multiple pleasurable ways.  If the commission from Benedict XIV invited the architect to survey Rome to demarcate its 14 traditional rioni or districts, the striking detail of noting each building and square contained a proliferating abundance of information rather than proposing the city be comprehended by a simple bird’s-eye view, wrestling with the complicated alignment of axial urban streets, most of which lie oddly askew to one another with a crisp clarity and focus of unprecedented detail and accurate measure as they could perceive it in stunning detail.

rome's center?

Nolli’s adept transcription of architectural artifice clarifies the complex historical layering of Rome, and the multiple perspectives that comprehend the construction of a new architectural identity atop the past, may seem the subject of the particularly dense engraving, that pairs regions of the uninhabited Rome–Roma Disabitata, between the inhabited center and the city’s Aurelian walls–with the streets and buildings, pairing the black stretches of the city street plan with the elegant cartouches on the floating scrollwork. Indeed, the putti that hold the legend of the Pianta and lie at its base with the surveyors’ table and viewing device that Nolli had innovated are not purely ornamental:  the table offered the a the almost divine aid for transferring a multiplicity of surveying points to a single surface and bringing one’s attention to bear on multiple sites and focal points in the baroque city in ways impossible for the individual human eye, offering a special form of assistance to Benedict XIV’s demand to measure the city’s regions.

The crispness of clearly rendered streets and buildings preserve a  sharp observational record that, mutatis mutandi, became a standard of the objectively empirical future mapping of urban space.  Indeed, the whitespace of its streets, squares and serpentine rivers appear a crisply defined as an aerial view of a city after freshly fallen snow–as was the case when a blizzard of January 2016 placed the street plan of L’Enfant’s Washington, D.C. under expansive snow cover in this recent RapidEye Satellite view.

Jan 24 2016 DC Snow In.pngRapidEye Satellite View ©PlanetLabs, Inc.

The massive achievement of the Grande Pianta is perhaps most present in its preservation of urban spaces in a now largely rebuilt mid-eighteenth century city, but its framing of urban space with monumental views provided a basis for rendering the physical presence of the city’s physical plant–whose rapid reprinting in the same year, ringed by views of the city’s monuments, inaugurated the tradition of inviting viewers to place monuments in an accurate network that preserves all their actual asymmetry, as measured by a surveyor’s plane-table and a magnetic compass, which he referred to the meridian inlaid in the marble floor of the Roman church of S. Maria degli Angeli from 1702.  As well as offering what Alan Ceen called the “continuum of accessible urban space” in the rebuilt city inherited from the Renaissance and Baroque, the image made good on the etymological promise of ichnography, a term adopted from the ancient builder Vitruvius, as combining writing with pictures to offer a legible record of the urban space.  It is an architect’s map, and was collaborated on in a second edition with Nolli’s fellow-architect Giambattista Piranesi, whose prospective views of Rome elaborated its precision.

Suspended by a pair of poised putti, the topography of the ancient city is revealed to viewers who can delight in views of the Vatican, obelisk in Piazza San Pietro and Gregorian University, as well as the towers of its medieval churches, as if to convert the eight years of labor the architect Nolli devoted to his quite savvy map such an apparent labor of love–as much as demand that they pour over the details encoded in each of the city blocks that Nolli used a drafting table to painstakingly survey with instruments of his own device to allow him to draw its complex street-plan in an “ichnographic view” as if nested in a panorama, suspended by weightless putti who unscrew its map and legend before the viewer’s eye.  For all its baroque visually distracting elements of scrollwork, the inset map of the city employs actual dimensions of each street, based on Nolli’s own personal gauging the shifting width of every street corner, thoroughfare and piazza within its walls as if to decode the curious combination of ancient monuments while preserving a lightness of touch of the numbered legend that unrolls in a weightless fashion beneath a putto‘s left leg, as if delicately pinned by his knee, as he raises the troupe l’oeil map, or the cartouche on which another putto reclines.  Whatever heaviness exists in its darkly lined buildings, they seem temporarily transfigured by the weightlessness that inheres in the map’s stunning achievement.


Nolli Map Engine

The majesty of the map masks any breaks in the individual sheets of the large ichnographic view and pastiche panorama of the ancient city, caput mundi through which the river Tiber sinuously and somewhat timelessly curves:  if the very term “ichnography” evokes the horizontal sections of each of its buildings plans recalls Nolli’s architectural expertise, it also recalls the term used by the ancient Roman Vitruvius’ widely glossed educational treatise on architecture (1.2), it is apposite as a combination of tracing and writing.   For any map of the city of Rome is a testimonial, the engraving reminds us, of the city that has continuously stood at the site of the ancient city, as well as of the city that occupies its site.  The place of diminutive spectators who crowd its lower right, awed by the immensity of detail that the map encompasses, condensed in the images on the 1744 version of the Capitoline hill–the seat of Rome’s civic government–and St. Peter’s and the radical shifts in its built and unbuilt environments.

St. Peters:City

Nolli Map Engine

“La Nuova Topographa di Roma” illustrates Nolli’s artifice of mapping a seamless whole of a city spanning epochs, architectural styles, and street plans.  The iconography of the map is now viewable in detail online in interactive form that is the culmination of the many years of study Ceen devoted to this map’s unique construction and two professors from the University of Oregon who have worked with a large team to allow us to explore the endeavor that the architect Nolli pursued for eight years from 1736 to 1745:  the zoomable virtual version, if a bit slow to load, reveals the attention to the innovative instruments of surveying by which Nolli sought to measure the complexly shifting outlines of the space of Rome’s streets against its hilly topography, empty fields, and turning Tiber–as if the surveyed city floated over the multiple periods of time encompassed in its actuality.

16.  But the transcription of a plan of accurately preserved dimensions of streets of varied width in individual microcosms of its neighborhoods and seem oddly angled to one another are somewhat secondary to the sense that the seventeenth-century ground plan marks the expansion of the city’s actual re-habitation on a scale that seemed to rival antiquity in the actual elegance of its built environment.  Whereas many of the maps of the city had mapped its ancient ruins from Leon Battista Alberti in the mid-fifteenth century to Pirro Ligorio in the mid-sixteenth–as the trade in engravings that sold most briskly in Rome showed the majesty of the city’s antiquities and marbled monuments from St. Peter’s obelisk to the Campidoglio’s civic government–the map celebrated the scale of the current city’s construction, and its own comprehension of its so distinctively layered urban topography of a city which had still not filled the Aurelian walls, but had reached a new level of architectural splendor and grandiosity–in a massive act of historical reconstruction whose monumentality might have inspired Freud for the tactile contact that it offered to an earlier time.

La topografia di Roma detail

Nolli’s Nuova Topografia (detail of lower border)

The mapmaker’s inventive iconography seems as impressive as the city as a whole, and the putti who push open the top of its imagined scroll to reveal a legend and dedication that almost detach from the map’s surface mask the huge labor of surveying each of its streets.


Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo/Giovan Battista Nolli, Ignazio Benedetti (incisore)

14.  The relatively recent collaboratively developed interactive website helps allow viewers to better grasp the scale of Nolli’s historical reconstruction of the ancient city.  For it allows viewers to explore the material construction of the map in detail offers an attempt to examine the footprints of each of the buildings that it includes, and appreciate the imposition of a vision of apparent harmony that the map in its Renaissance and Baroque topography, and the pleasure that the map now has in making this lost Rome present at an unprecedented scale.  Nolli’s map has long been seen as a monumental cartographical achievement, but the detailed scrutiny of each of its alley ways, piazza, and even church interiors provide a way of navigating the structure of the lost city in a way that few visitors could have access, but which is also wonderfully evocative of any experience of a visitor to contemporary Rome, who can vicariously extend their own experiences of the city to what Nolli so exactingly measured, recorded and engraved with benefit of his sighting table.

As much as preserve the accuracy of the width and shifting course of each of the streets of Rome, which were surveyed in ways to preserve their measurements in the Nolli plan, that reflected both the rebuilt and human format of the cityscape that was stamped by papal authority, but also by multiple piazza, individual streets, and built environment, creating a record of the achievements of recent constructions sensitive to the layers of historical negotiation of its public space in Rome:

Trevi and Palazzo Pontificio

Nolli Map Engine

The result was a sensitive record that promised to clarify the legibility of the complexly crafted urban space, often using the sharp contrast of dark grey that signify buildings or built space to call attention to the civic spaces that provided a counterpart and counterpoint to the density of its darkened blocks of built space:


Nolli Map Engine

The images allow one to trace dotted itineraries of pilgrimage to its ancient sanctuaries, long the subject of so many earlier maps of Rome, and the purported subject of Sixtus V’s late sixteenth-century expansion of its roadways, and still the source of much of the spiritual capital of this seat of the Christian church.  But the itineraries of devotion are in a sense secondary to the build space of the city and the churches and monuments whose floorpans Nolli seems to include in the street plan–which remarkably remained the base-map of the city that public authorities employed until the 1970s, and viewed as authoritative through the late nineteenth century.

The underlying network of the 14 rioni that divide the city can be read, if with difficulty, on the crowded urban landscape keyed with over 300 items, and the close relation of built and unbuilt areas that was so long a characteristic of the city, lovingly rendered against the flowing course of the River Tiber, whose waters are delineated in shades of grey–


Nolli Map Engine

–as grays allowed Nolli to foreground the substantial the built environment of modern Rome’s monuments with a crisp clarity that truly seemed modern.

rome's center?

Nolli Map Engine

In 1748, when the monumental map first appeared–conspicuously dedicated to the Enlightenment Pope Benedict XIV–it constituted a “new topography” of an ancient city. The Pianta Grande di Roma Nolli  created by new tools as the surveying table, pictured beside the Capitoline hill–the  site from which the humanist Leon Battista Alberti earlier famously surveyed Rome’s monuments and ruins for his circle of humanist friends for them to envision accurate measurements of the ancient built city within its ruins.

dedication of nuova topografia
Capitoline and drafting tool

Nolli Map Engine

The sighting tool that Nolli seems to have developed proved an accurate way to gauge the shifting breadth of Rome’s streets, quite approximately perpendicular and all too often sinuous products of the accretion of multiple architectural choices to be traced previously in comparably exact detail.

Ben XIV endhanced
surveyor's tablet and putto

Nolli Map Engine

The 2005 interactive virtual map crafted with such exquisite detail at the University of Oregon, run by Jim Tice of Oregon’s Department of Architecture and Erik Steiner of its Department of Geography with InfoGraphics Lab, the result is Nolli Map Engine 1.0, offering a way to examine Nolli’s choices in detail, and illuminates the multiple historical frames of reference that the Nolli map comprehends.  The interactive map allows one to focus in on specific neighborhoods in a sometimes frustrating but usable way, and toggle between the map and satellite images of the city that suggest its homogeneity in ways that are abstracted form the lived experience of daily life, and increase its legibility by highlighting the river, fountains, or monuments of Rome.

17.  Freud famously saw the Third Rome as a site of promise–and potential enjoyment–somehow more immediate in its pleasures than the Christian city of popes.  Nolli’s dream of a comprehensive vision makes a nice point of contrast and counterpoint to the famous sectorization of the city in the pioneering cinematic director Roberto Rossellini’s wartime Rome:  Open City, or Roma, Città Aperta, when the Gestapo officer Bergmann has divided and conquered the human canvas of the city into fourteen zones in order better to capture and defeat the members of the continued urban Resistance through his network of spies, hoping to infiltrate the pockets of resistance that have continued in the occupied city–and which form the focus of the film’s plot.  The air of supreme remove with which the Nazi officer dispassionately analyses the overlays set atop the lived city’s  enumerated sectors erases its multi-centered space, replacing the city with a simulacrum that Bergmann believes he can survey through his police spies and pierce the secrets of its inhabitants and resistance groups or Romoletto.  

In policing the city that they have occupied–now rendered an “open” city, and a site for transporting munitions, opened by its invaders, the map is a todos for the relation that the Nazi invaders hope to achieve by controlling its population and eliminating the members of the resistance that continue to haunt its streets.  The map presents so powerful an image in Roberto Rossellini’s film as an image of fascist intelligence that it occupies the entire screen every so often as a haunting image of the specter of total control–even as its monuments are being contemporaneously destroyed or threatened with destruction from possible allied bombing raids that would unintentionally have targeted its ancient structures.

BB68T0 movie,
“Rome – Open City”, (Roma, citty aperta), ITA, 1945, director: Roberto Rossellini
city bombed

The imposition of alternative fonts that overlay one another in the film’s title frame echoes the imposition of a new sort of order on an organic city after its invasion and occupation by German troops–the breaking of its walls and transformation to an “open city”–as if to concretize the alternate visions of the city that occupiers and resistance hold, a contrast made more dramatic given that it was filmed in the black period of occupation it documents:

Open City

The black capital font letters that blanket the panoramic view of the city’s crowded buildings is almost an echo of the black font used to describe the neighborhoods and rioni in Nolli’s map, as if they were somehow embedded and interwoven with the lived texture of its human geography.  The Nolli map casts the city as a site, perhaps of redemption and imagined integrity, but never indicates or includes the lived city that inhabits its space, and is eerily absent from the sharply drawn grey of its street plan or somehow lies underneath its idealized image of the city’s streets.

Was the imagined integrity of the map only as illusory, and as constructed, as the wartime  sectorization of the city into clear divisions of policing by the invading German soldiers?  Or was it just another attempt to extricate the city from history, endowing it with a legibility that removes it from the historicity that is the most palpable and immediate way to encounter its human geography?  Freud offered an answer, in taking the complexity of its anachronic geography as an analogue or emblem of the successive lamination of memories within the organic whole of the individual human mind.  But the map is only as good as its message.  Considering the potential role that the maps he consulted continued to have as models for thinking about the mind, one might do well to ask not only about the cultural work that such maps continue to do, but the very nature of the cognitive work that maps continue to perform across different media.


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Filed under ancient Rome, cultural memory, data visualizations, historical landscape, memory

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