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

9.  In this context, one might reconsider the recent remapping of the spatial networks that Rome created try to embody the coherence of past periods, sacrificing or moving beyond the complicated visual relation to the lived past that seems to have entranced Freud as an image–and which was returned to in earlier maps’ qualitative richness.  The evocation of such mapping this past, so compellingly conjured as an imaginary act of historical reconstruction by Freud, is perhaps a lost exercise in imaginary map-making that reflected the culmination of a tradition of engraved maps–but his reflections offer an interesting point to observe the and reevaluate the attitudes of viewers before the recent GIS-based maps of the city and empire, and Roman world.

Indeed, Freud’s reflections compel us to consider the material relation maps can create, and the animation of the ancient world they create.  There is particular compulsion in animating the Roman Empire’s imprint by network-mapping offered in web maps of Rome.  Rather than only contrast their use of datasets to the rich qualitative forms of local mapping, I can’t help but be struck by their similarity as recreations of the past, and the similar effort of recuperating the past in dynamic maps, albeit in new cartographical formats.

The contemporary spatial turn recently led moovel lab to create Roads to Rome to replot a data distribution of routes through the former empire that led to Rome, rather than that topography.  By routing a million investing an almost organic unity in the network of ancient life, the web map runs against the grain of the intensive historical mapping of Rome’s built and repeatedly rebuilt place–locating a million routes arriving at Rome from a large area approximating the ancient Empire, shaded by traffic intensity or road use that gave it an almost organic coherence as a brachiation from Rome, as if the infrastructure of the ancient world might be transposed to images that recall the server of Google Maps.


moovel lab/FlowingData


Reflecting less the ancient roads of the Romans, than the network of the half a million routes to reach Rome in the continent, the interactive visualization is a sleek piece of data art, less historical in scope than the communication network traced by the ORBIS project which maps ancient routes across three continents, comprehending the Empire as a network, travel between whose cities can be mapped in days of transport and cost, and visualized by the fastest routes of travel.  The data distribution extracted from ancient records in ORBIS recreate the network of military government and administration and economic exchange, orienting users to the constraints and supports of established networks of travel along imperial routes, viewed as a georectified cartogram, coloring place locations by days of travel to better comprehend its multiple overlapping ancient spatiality’s of its own–to which one’s attention is drawn by a somewhat jarring inclusion of ancient toponymy oddly dissonant with a familiar modern interactive mapping format.

Distances from Rome in Geospatial Network.png
from Rome


Although the data distribution is removed from a material mapping of the ancient city, it maps, in keeping with modern networks, cost of communication by time and expense–sacrificing the materiality of the map, perhaps, creating a GIS visualization of the organization of space but digitizing historical detail in a map that can be queried for movement of transportation, commerce, and military travel to analyze the empire as a whole and familiarize oneself with dynamic stories about past space across its expanse, and envision the empire by its networks of travel and transport as webs that exist independently from individual cities, as from Rome to the outer reaches of the Empire, to suggest the main routes of settlement:

Flow from Rome.png

Rather than see the envisioning of networks as quantitative records distinct from the qualitative images conjuring an ancient place, both data maps provide contemporary counterparts to the maps of Rome’s built space, enabling one to capture the empire’s expanse as much as its built capital across the 50,000 miles of crisscrossing highways and routes that spanned the ancient Empire, from the edge of the Danube to Turkey to modern Britain from the imperial capital.  If the folks into urban designing at moved lab used the conceit to create algorithms to visualize routes to Rome from a modern map of the continent, emphasizing the use of roads through the thickness of their lines, they also play off of the manner that local maps of Rome long provided something of a surrogate and metaphor for public space–on a far larger canvas of the visualization of space.  The mapping of pathways and networks of exchange and travel shift attention from the limits of locality, excavating a historical or cartographically sedimented notion of space.

The roads of the physical plant of Rome are able to be imagined, if without much indication of their lived experience, in a satellite mosaic of the city which is so oddly removed from its inhabitants, if stunning in the purity of its cloudless coverage.

Cloud Free Rome close up of.pngPlanet Labs 

Might one imagine a happy medium?

The novelist John Edward Williams, ventriloquized the imagined testimony of the visitor to Rome Strabo of Amasia in his 1972 Augustus, addressing Nicolaus of Damascus in Alexandria to orient him to the city, which seems to have particular resonance for the ORBIS project in how he took the city as a means to describe the journey and the letter as a means to bridge the geographical distance travelled in the ancient world.   Strabo raises questions about attitudes to space in the  ancient world, sending “greetings from Rome, where I arrived only last week, after a long and most wearying journey,–from Alexandria, by way of Corinth; by sail and by oar; by cart, wagon, and horseback; and sometimes even by foot, staggering beneath the weight of my books.”  To orient his correspondent to the city, Strabo admits that when “One looks at maps, and does not truly apprehend the extent and variety of the world.  It is a new sort of education, the gaining  of which does not require a master . .  .”  The future biographer of Augustus from Alexandria invites Nicolaus, his correspondent, in pressing tones, to visualize the city–“Imagine, if you will, a city which occupies perhaps half the area of that Alexandria, where we studied as boys,–and then think of that city containing within its precincts more than twice the number that crowded Alexandria.  That is the Rome I live in now–a city of nearly a million people, I have been told.”

The following meditation reflects attempts to materialize its lost world in a striking first-person narrative of spatial acclimatization to its uniquely busy space that seems almost akin to offering the viewer an actual microcosm of the ancient world:  “And how they crowd themselves together, these Romans.  Beyond the walls of the city lie some of the most beautiful countryside that you can imagine; yet these people huddle together here like fish trapped in a net and struggle through narrow, winding little streets that run senselessly, mile after mile, through the endless city.”  “And yet at the center of this chaos, this city, there is, as if it were another world, the great Forum.  It is like the fora that we have seen in the provincial cities, but much grander–great columns of marble support the official buildings; there are dozens of temples to the borrowed Roman gods; and many smaller buildings that house the various offices of urban government.”  Williams barely describes the monumental space that is familiar to one’s mind’s eye, but portrays the human geography of the ancient monumental space of the forum from the perspective of its visitor, recalling the prominent place the Forum has long held in its spatial imaginary.

10.  The above web maps do serious cognitive work in offering a new sense of the spatial network of Rome’s past, expanding far beyond the search for organic unity that Freud might have found within the learned maps of Richter, Platner, Mommsen, and Tuebner, or in his own Baedeker.  The worlds that these city maps of Rome created for viewers, and served as forms of address built into any mapping of Rome as a place is this post’s subject.

Cartographers who mapped Rome long adopted particularly innovative ways of re-embodying of the ancient city’s past for multiple scholarly and popular audiences who looked to see the ancient city, making it more material than its ruins offered, that the recent remapping of the networks of the ancient world and its routes of travel and senses of space build upon.   Rather than map the achievement and stresses of the Empire, such urban maps provided a unique focal points, if not symbolic touchstones,  only orient one to space, but provide and embody records of the habitation of lived space, embodying Rome’s made space, using maps to create the reality of Rome’s space that appeared so tantalizingly close in how they overlap.  Is there a way to unpack the materiality of the map-and specifically its engraved materiality–as a way to capture the sensation of entering the layered levels of past chronology within the city of Rome?

Mappings of modern mega-regions express patterns of work and movement, as much as physical constructions.  Yet as urban space rapidly changed during the late nineteenth century, expanding to accommodate new populations, the growth of the city organized by familiar rhythms increased the attraction of the built unity ascribed to ancient Rome–the city acquired status as a touchstone of the historical past, as well as recognizable forms of an architectural canon–in ways unlike viewing of its ancient ruins in the Grand Tour, as its construction and architecture took on a second life in maps this post takes as it subject.


If painters embodied Rome’s ancient ruins as a visual pastiche of recognizable forms gained popularity in pictorially virtuosic capricci as imagined spaces whose idealized forms are set within the fantastic space of a mythical architectural museum–


Pannini,  “Architectural Capriccio with Figure among Roman Ruins,” circa 1630

–whereas most nineteenth-century archeological maps expressed the uncovering of the  coherence of its stratigraphic layers to embody a spatially coherent relation to the ancient past, endowing it with a new coherence.  The image of the forma urbis of the ancient city of Rome within its Aurelian walls–which survived in an engraved marble map carved in antiquity, and known in its multiple fragments as the early Severan plan–provided a sense of the organic unity of the older city.  The space of the forum became evident in the monumentality of the ruins of arches and temples recovered in the Roman forum, whose monuments became a point of historical reflection and of the Grand Tour.  Its spatial organization provided a topos of the remembrance of the past occupation of space, as well rendering the material recovery of its remote past.  Rome has gained many incarnations in the various maps of the ancient and modern city, often at a remove from its lived space.

For if architectural accomplishments in Rome are regularly foregrounded from several periods in maps, any mapping of the city involves some degree of excavation of ancient, imperial and baroque constructions that viewers are challenged to unify:  maps provided a compilation of the discovered traces of antiquity, and a distillation of the superfluity of signs of the disappeared people of an ancient space  that invited if also frustrated acts of remembering by reinforcing temporal remove.  The remapping of the ancient forma urbis Romae revisited in engraved maps of rebuilt Rome not only across the Renaissance and Reformation, or the periods of the baroque and Enlightenment, but indeed to twentieth century fascist Rome, and can result in compelling spatial fantasies.

For any encounter with the built city, even if not on paper, invites concerned attempts of remapping that attest to the continued habitation of the city as well as to uncover the form of the city able to be exhumed city whose life continues, if submerged, beneath its built structures–and to process its entirety through traces of past ages.   As much as providing a recuperation of the lost ancient plan the frustrating proximity and remove of ancient Rome invites cognitive mapping and remapping–as in this late eighteenth century plan of Rome by the elegant architect and engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi,who almost gave the current mapping of Rome new monumental status as if it were a marble tablet, irregularly shaped, mutatis mutandi, in its Aurelian walls–with the region encompassed by the older, fourth century BC Severan walls largely shaded a darker grey, as if reflected in a stone tablet of ancient derivation.

Pianta di Roma-alone!Pianta di Roma of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, circa 1774 (courtesy of the Getty Institute)

Heavily annotated, and keyed by numerical references, as well as differently shaded regions, the conversion of the city to a text stands at the culmination of a tradition of its mapping and remapping.  And Sigmund Freud famously found the ruins of Rome a powerful figure to unpack the coalescence of preserved memories, simultaneously held in one space–but are rarely tied to the scrutiny of structures exposed to diachronic analysis.  Such maps attentively parse the overlapping of ancient and modern built space.

The Piranesi map suggests a new monumentality of space, and maps, both reconstructing signs of the ancient city, keyed in the legend, and creating a new marmoreal map designed to endure.  Indeed, unlike the fragmented monumental map of the marble Severan plan, known only by fragments from the late sixteenth century–now known by 1,186 surviving fragments available online, any map of Rome was an imaginative effort and historical act designed to recast its coherence for the spectator in new monumental form.

11.  The disentangling of such structures were especially evident in the contemplation of a map.  And it seems no coincidence that that great consumer of city maps from Vienna, Sigmund Freud, found the ruins of Rome a powerful figure to unpack the coalescence of preserved memories, simultaneously held in an individual mind.  Freud’s metaphor for the structuring of memory as the coexistence of multiple strata of archeological time seems less a poetic fancy than a metaphor rooted in studying maps that revealed multiple strata of archeological time and lived experience, or structures exposed to diachronic analysis in maps.

Maps showing the overlapping between ancient Rome’s built space across different periods–plans that occasionally made symbolic reference to Rome’s contemporary design, but emphasized the coherence of the ancient city’s architecture across time.  Such maps of Rome’s ancient physical plant inspired the skillful negotiation both of historical ages and offered comparison between lived space and mapped space; Rome, which seems the model of the civilization of space and the lost center to which not only all roads once seemed to lead–but where built space in a sense began–seemed a model whose built form held compelling visual interest, and indeed whose discrimination required a practiced or trained eye to unpack its qualitatively complex spatial organization.

Freud appreciated archeology as a figure of the human sciences of the overlapping of ancient and modern built space.  Yet the negotiation both of historical ages and between lived space and mapped space, was particularly poignant in the case of Rome, which seems the model of the civilization of space and the lost center to which not only all roads once seemed to lead–but where built space in a sense began–but whose physical form could be mapped in qualitatively complex terms as a site of compelling visual interest.  As if prefiguring how the built space of Rome would provide Freud with a metaphorical topos for the excavation of the past, Piranesi had earlier attempted to map ancient monuments comprehended by Rome’s Aurelian walls in the eighteenth century, by rendering ancient buildings in different shade to ensure the legibility of the antique in the urban fabric, and allow the spatial situation of antique.  Piranesi allowed the interpretation of the spatial situation of antique structures within the modern city for those who seek to better understand their significance and the spatial layering of time, darkening tint to reveal the presence in Rome of ancient structures, as well as numbering monuments for readers–as in an early form of keying place similar to GIS–but, unlike GIS, used the stronger shades of grey to depict the organic unity of buildings in the ancient city–“marking antiquities in a stronger shading [si sono marcato le antichità con tinta più forte, perche si comprendano piu agevolmente]“–to embody the ancient city’s presence against Rome’s current streetplan.

Piranesi: una tinta piu' forte

Piranesi-Numbered zbuildings in Central RomePiranesi, Antichità Romane (1762)

Roman ruins suggest narratives of loss that obscure the outlines of a genealogy of former greatness, and the death of earlier periods.  Meanwhile, their lacunae raised questions about a lost space, embodied only in maps, that gave the city something like a second life–particularly marketed to visitors, eager to grasp the entirety of the city from its fragments.  The Roman forum seems a pre-eminent “thing of the past” which it invited observers to admire–less by the flâneur who saunters among its ruins than as a surviving structure of ancient art in the age of the End of Art, an abstract spatial idealization of concrete beauty.  As an image of educational cultivation and cultural formation, the status assumed by the ruins of the ancient Forum became a destination of pilgrimage within the Grand Tour analogous to a religious pilgrimage:  The Forum was represented as embodying and incarnating a spirit or Geist in maps, a concrete if idealized manifestation of the structure of Rome across overlapping periods of universal significance as “a thing of the past” that was kept alive in cartographical form.  It was a site from which one sought cultural and historical orientation, as well as of architectural magnificence–even in the mid-sixteenth century, when the city barely filled its ancient Aurelian walls, but when its ancient monuments were clearly visible and foregrounded  and magnified as focal points of its urban fabric, visible beside the churches of the Renaissance city in the popular print.

Pinnard Rome

Ugo Pinard, Urbis Romae Descriptio (1555) from Speculum Romae magnificentiae

If the problem of which Rome was most important to look at was posed in early printed maps of the city as a sort of cognitive test, it became instituted as such in early archeological maps of the city by the later nineteenth century.

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

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