Mapping the Presence of Rome’s Pasts: from Piranesi to Freud and Back

But it is in ways quite a contemporary translation of the measure of roads by a milestone located in Rome erected in ancient times by the Roman Emperor Augustus, whose measure of the milestone of the Milliarium Aureum provided a a reference point to travel through the Empire, to which it was believed all roads led:  and so when moovel Labs undertook to link the streets of Europe to confirm all roads truly lead to Rome today, the image of the  50,000 miles of highways that were constructed in the Roman empire by slave labor gain new form in the Google Maps template that seems curiously removed from work, and from the material presence of the ancient monuments that have lead cartographic imaginations to return to the ancient city to reconstruct from its ruins a palpable record of its past.  Such a record makes fewer demands of study on viewers, since we are not assembling an image so that we can possess or own it, but as they present something like a resource that we can consult.

For the material presence of the past in Rome was celebrated and foregrounded in maps by a different iconography that situate viewers not only in relation to a place, but present a space able to be internalized.  For maps of Rome not only situated its mythic monuments, and the built space of the ancient city, effectively immersing viewers in multiple layers of its past.  Such maps enticingly invite viewers to grasp an elusive physical present of the past, rendered tangible, and carry the promise ability to investigate its space, and navigate the ancient organization of the city’s space and monumental public fora or squares as if they existed.

The tools of surveying provided tools to access ancient Rome in maps, manufacturing a pleasure in presence as maps.  The city also existed in one’s head, and could be poured over in a map, as if to order the temporal layers and perspectives on architecture which Isaac Babel, visiting Rome with Gorky in May of 1933, confessed himself both “dizzy with al these Coliseums, Forums, Sistine Chapels, Raphaels, Pantheons” from which at the same time “I can’t tear myself away” without knowing “when I’ll get to come back here” to “see all the things about which I’ve read hundreds of books since my childhood”:  if Babel was ecstatic in Rome’s pasts’ survival in its present, it is hardly a surprise. For Rome existed in the minds of visitors who suddenly became able to access its buildings–and did so more concretely than other cities–maps were turned to to order these impressions in a coherent form.  Much as the Latinate translation of many of the operative conceptual terms in Sigmund Freud’s work was argued in the 1980’s to diminished by their sense, Freud’s cartographic metaphor of archeological recovery of the past might be better grasped by situating them in how he approached his experience of Rome’s multiple pasts as a way of orienting himself not only to space but time.

Despite the value of creating an immersive relation to that presence–which so famously makes cognitive demands on most of its visitors–we depend on maps not only to do orient us to space, but to do unique cognitive work of discriminating its different pasts and the material encrustation of its different layers.  Only in the process of discriminating relations between these layers, and the different levels of places of worship, inhabitation, and monumentality within the city can we crate a personal relation to place.  Rome’s construction has been long commemorated its civic order–first as a capital of the ancient world, later rebuilt and designed repeatedly as a new site of triumphalism and power–whose mapping posed unique problems of mapping both its spatial organization, and proposing new ways of commemorating, celebrating, and orienting viewers to its built space, in ways that created a unique pleasure in post-Renaissance maps of celebrating its order–of “re-membering” the city–and placing past patterns of habitation on view.

The sense of the monumentality of that past was communicated in maps.  For maps of Rome recreated the scope and compass of maps and their pleasure as images that excavated the elegance of its ancient architecture–and iconic images of the past–to capture as well as pose the challenge of comprehending that relation to an only partly lost monumental past.  The maps did double or triple duty:  for the traces that they preserved of the ancient past became a guide to its present structure, and the place of the ancient city retained within the present city of Rome or Roman cities, and in the pasts of its multiple visitors..  And it in such a sense that Sigmund Freud, remembering his travels to Rome, returned to the figure of an imaginary map of the physical stratigraphy of Rome to describe the formation of memory in the human mind.

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Filed under ancient Rome, antiquity, data visualizations, digital humanities, humanities

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