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

The project that did not exactly begin from Alberti, but was continued in the projects of making space into knowledge, emerged around the ancient and modern buildings of Rome as a particularly fraught process of untangling of a relation between space and time, and of matter and memory, that becomes a project in the remapping of Rome informed the city’s subsequent excavation in the nineteenth century, when the use of maps to diffuse a new image of the recovery of the city’s past gained far more readers than it ever had:  the depiction of the “eternal city” attempts to paper over the temporal divides between eras, alternately subsuming or elucidating the historical character of different periods.  Indeed, the Roads to Rome project may, in some hidden way, refer to the promise of literacy and knowledge that maps of Rome offered as a way to convert not only knowledge but culture to a map, and which became an epitome for the mapping of a “western” cultural heritage and ideal of cultural formation, long before Jane Jacobs, of the city’s public space:  Jacobs’ insistence on the lived environment of the city, and the vibrant ballet that she located in the exchanges between neighbors, markets, delivery persons and street traffic, or the neighborhoods of old buildings from the habitation of its sidewalks to the crossing of its streets, is a far cry from the static images of ancient Rome, but Rome provided a basis for making good on the promise to make Rome’s lost structure present and accessible in particularly and especially tactile ways, as if to return the city’s plan so that it was once more ready for inhabitation.

5.   For the mapping of the cognitive relation to the city proposed and repurposed a new sense of urban character and identity:  the built landscape long presented a palimpsest of different eras, so much as to be taken as symbolic tokens of a cognitive relation to the past by the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud famously adopted an imagined map tracing its built structure as a model for his project of excavating the simultaneous lamination of events in human memory, but that also echo the increased use of maps not only for celebrating, commemorating, and remembering the built order of the city that challenged techniques of surveying and engraving alike, but also the function of tools of mapping to orient views to the city’s individual character:  indeed, the mapping of the city over time provided a model for personifying the city by making its past present, and remapping its eternal structure, whose power is underestimated and under appreciated when treated as akin to a new sort of picture plane, and not an act of re-commemorating the city’s space.

Commemorating the identity of Rome was on the table front and center in the triumphant untangling of the past, evident in the elegantly unfurled scroll at the base of the 1748 iconographic Pianta Grande of the Nolli Map of Rome, created over a decade by surveyor and architect by means of a surveying table of his own device, celebrating not only the spatial structure of the city but the new character of the city reborn by sustained projects of papal construction:  the city’s plant is bounded by a qualitative view of the architectural projects of the pontiffs in its lower right, paired with the ancient ruins in the lower left, as if to embed its complex urban fabric building projects of recent popes–elevating what James Tice called the “dialectical relationship between buildings and their context[s]“to allow individual buildings to be read in a coherent urban plan, portray Rome’s “genius loci” as resting in  the presence of papal building projects among the city’s monuments.  For the deciphering of place that the map invites us to engage in by paying such close detail to its physical structures and topography–now facilitated by the web-based version  of the historical eighteenth-century Nolli Map–commands attention as an unpacking of these physical layers and relations even from afar.

Nollis map

As much as struggling to synthesize an abundance of local information of its Rome’s built structure, the map seems a gambit to create spatial continuity and uniformity in a region whose multiple temporal levels and layers the architect has synthesized in one vision for Benedict XIV, celebrating architectural projects that gave urban identity to the city from the square of the Capitoline or Campidoglio, long a seat of civic government but famously designed by Michelangelo at by the Renaissance Pope Paul III, to the buildings far more recently commissioned by Clement XII to Benedict XIV.

As much as survey the Nolli map’s contents, the online  Nolli Map allows us to unpack the extent of the new urban structure that the map celebrates, integrating its ancient and modern structure in a new coherent way:  the surveyor Nolli’s iconographic map, based on surveys of the city streets over more than a decade, used an innovative portable tool of surveying, as David Freidman has argued, provided a map that offered viewers to experience walking pathways of its individual streets, past churches, classical monuments as the Pantheon [Pantheon], palazzi, piazze, ancient ruins, alley ways and expanded thoroughfares that preserved the exact sizes of each of its streets, ancient buildings, and churches, each enumerated to allow a legibility that affirmed a united fabric of a city across historical ages in an urban form through which views could walk.  The united organic whole whose architecture synoptically described in detailed fashion did considerable cognitive work in how it afforded a clear relation to the built fabric of the city and embodied the Rome of Benedict XIV–the Second Rome, or Catholic Rome, which it situated as a new historical identity of the city.

legibility Rome

The achievement of Englightement cartography provides a striking celebration of the architectural creation of ancient and modern Rome, as well as of its own artifice.  This post takes the manner that Nolli’s Pianta Grande or Nuova Pianta di Romawhich continued to be reprinted through the nineteenth century given its beauty and unsurpassed accuracy–celebrated the achievement of architectural order eclipsing ancient Rome in its splendor and elegance, as an attempt to wrestle with the ancient past that so often seen as a standard against which to measure its present space, and which returned, in the nineteenth century, as a model of how the accumulated past haunted the present.  How the commemoration of individual buildings of the past and their integration in a material landscape haunted mappings of Rome is the subject that this post attempts to survey–as the pleasures with which maps produced the visual integration of separate time-frames.

The nagging sense of the past’s haunting of the present allowed maps of Rome, this post argues, to provide an important materialization of the continuity of the past by which Sigmund Freud would find confirmation that affirmed his sense of the role of cultural production as a basis to deny death–crucial in his formulation of the pleasure principle–as the charting of its construction was a figure for that denial as it was the paradigmatic illustration of ancient culture; the revelation of layers of Rome’s historical monuments in the subsequent maps of Rome that illustrate its archeological reconstruction–in a manner quite different from how Nolli effectively celebrated the construction of contemporary Rome within the Aurelian walls as confirmation of papal Rome’s reclaiming of Rome’s ancient grandeur in the Pianta Grande of 1748.  Unlike Nolli, Freud had a privileged relation to the ancient sites of Rome, which he “contemplated” in 1901 as a communion with the fragments of the ancient city in which he lost himself, not possible for the “Second Rome” of the Papacy or entirely for the modern Third Rome–perhaps because it jointly embodied in their condensation of a violent destruction of the ancient city even while providing testimony of its survival, albeit in ruined form, as an aesthetic unity as an embodiment, albeit fragmented, of western culture.

6.  Despite serious attention to the ambivalent dynamic that Freud famously felt to Rome–a site of desire, but also of anxiety, if one where he felt in contact with genius loci even from afar and during his approach–the role of maps has been underestimated vastly in constructing a deeply personal relation to place.  The cartographical invasions to scrutinize the different layers of the city and to engage in an imaginary excavation of the relations between the structures of its past provided not only an elegant aesthetic metaphor of a relation to personal human memory for Freud in Civilization and its Discontents (1900), but provided a basis to develop so intense a personal relation to the city’s urban space.  To look at the 1748 Pianta Grande of Nolli is in a sense to participate in a tradition of invitations to excavate the relation between its material layers, and to try to conceive of the coherent of Rome’s interlocking layers and Rioni as a spatial unity.  Five years after H.G. Wells penned The Time Machine (1895), Rome offered the paradigmatic physical archive of the past, whose ruins were in the process of being catalogued, as they always are.  The city, even more than Vienna, provided a unique site that allowed cultured visitors to experience the coexistence of multiple pasts.

The densely detailed urban topography that Giambattista Nolli created from sustained multiyear surveys preserved the clearest evidence of the buildings in the city’s historical center that provided, until the late nineteenth century.  Organized on magnetic north, the Grande Pianta offered the most accurate rendering of its dense habitation and architectural wealth, blending the detail of ancient monuments, giving prominence to its modern buildings to reconcile the presence of remains of the ancient ruins and pagan past.  The map that Nolli crafted for the enlightened pontiff Benedict XIV showed the city presided over by the triumphant church, resolving tensions between layers of times embodied in the city by suggesting the pontiff’s leadership of the city, illustrated by the crowing of the personified Rome by airborne angles with the papal tiara, at the base of a map depicting architectural projects of Clement XII to Benedict XIV that redesigned its ancient urban form.  The urban coherence Nolli’s sustained surveying of the city allowed provided a benchmark in mapping the continued coherence of the city’s long-inhabited space.

Nollis map.png
Nolli's Roma.png

The difficulty of preserving coherence among the layers of Rome’s past across its pagan and Christian pasts perforce wrestled with the abundance of the city’s pasts as well as its physical settlement.  Maps of all older cities suggest a resource of preserving memories that have been something of a topos of the excavation and persistence of the past.  But the repeated mapping of Rome suggest a struggle of embodying its pasts and making them present through a selective record, unique in the semantics of most maps of urban space.  The excavation of the map as a space–and how maps not only orient to spatial disposition but how their material production offer a basis for investigating built space, the emphasis on engaging the architectural construction of Rome’s ancient, medieval and modern space is compelling as a subject that has been repeatedly raised in maps, if only to sort out their relation for their readers.  For the city map serves as such a compelling way to embody the “dead” space of ancient Rome, and serve as compelling forms to visually return to the ancient world by embodying it anew.

Any map of Rome wrestle with the problem of the preservation and accommodation of the presence of historical past and wrestles with its attention to ancient precedents to make its mapping a particularly compelling exercise:  and it seems likely for this reason that Sigmund Freud was quick to imagine, in a famous passage of Civilization and its Discontents, which took the city as a model of human memory as well as civilization.  In the short book, Freud imagined the imagined hologram that allowed the contemporary existence of  layers of the ancient republican, imperial, medieval, and Renaissance Rome with the modern nineteenth-century city as a model for the individual’s mental landscape, which revealed its own aspect at different ages and times as if they were contemporaneous.  Freud’s conceit is in a sense a model of the vision of the psychoanalyst as master-archeologist, to be sure.  Freud was an avid antiquarian, who owned Otto Richter’s Topographie der Stadt Rom, an archeological treatise, based on Lanciani’s pioneering work of antiquities, and would have taken Rome as epitomizing the project of exhuming the coherent whole of the past, much as the images orienting one to Rome’s archeological ruins promised.  Freud was not only an avid antiquarian, but widely consulted such works before he even visited the city, as if in preparation for the long-planned trip he seemed to have sought to make to Rome, for which he prepared with considerable anticipation–they would have provided him with important symbolic tools to orient him to the city as a repository of the past, indeed, as well as to orient them to its physical space.

But maps of Rome provide a repertory for the embodiment of the city as it was lived across historical ages, embodying different layers to be admired of its levels of built ancient, imperial, Christian, or Renaissance architecture, and the subterranean worlds of catacombs and crypts that lie beneath, all of which are selectively embodied in maps:  indeed, if individual engravings often embodied isolated ancient monuments of the city, the map provided a dream to embody its coherent structure before viewers’ eyes, in ways that made the mapping of Rome, in particular, so compelling as a material figuration of human memory and mental life, despite its destruction by fires, invasions, and time.   Indeed, anyone who is perusing the maps of Rome wrestles with a problem of qualitative chronological and cartographical abundance, in the sense of deciding what aspects of Rome to incorporate and embody in a map–and wrestles with the problem of embodying a city that existed across several periods, and as it exists in each one.  At one extreme, Antonio Bosio’s monumental Roma sotterranea [“Underground Rome”], engraved after his 1632 death, mapped the discovery of a wealth of evidence of early Christianity in its catacombs.  While selective in its attention, Boise’s work prominently included a synthetic map of ancient monuments in the city, locating isolated monuments among the city’s hills by situating recognizable naturalistic views of the isolated images of the Colosseum, Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo, pyramid, Circuses in its timeless, pastoral landscape as if to wrestle with a similar question of selectivity and local abundance once again.

bosio sotteraneo in libro.png

The map “works” by gathering ancient monuments for viewers to admire, based on the 1561 multi-plate engraved map designed by the antiquarian Pirro Ligorio as the first naturalistic visual excavations of ancient Rome–but shows the monuments removed from its actual urban plan.  One might go much further:  for the map removes Rome’s monuments from the actual floods that the city had endured in 1557 and throughout the sixteenth century, and reveals the continued survival of its eternal elements as enduring in the city’s space, as if perpetually in this first mapping of the city’s palimpsestic order.  The mapping of these multiple orders in maps encouraged the delicious metaphorical treatment of the city’s built space as enduring mental furniture.

effigies antiquae roma.pngAntonio Bosio, Roma Sotterranea (1650)

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

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