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

12.  Indeed, the excavation of the idealized organic structure of the city created a sensitive screen, in which Freud constructed a material image of the lamination of the mind with individual layers of individual memories across different discrete periods of time:  the figure of the potentially simultaneous excavation of the city’s ancient buildings across multiple stratigraphic layers in a sort of personal archive, offered a powerful viewpoint with which to view and describe the temporal formation of the self, and indeed the role of the analyst as an investigator of the psyche whose work followed compelling positivistic models.  When he turned to Rome for a fitting figure to describe human memory, Freud may have turned this mapping of Rome into such a compelling figure to express the layering of memory-formation–and indeed the burying of the unconscious past preserved by the individual–by using the “map” to describe the analyst’s interpretation of individual memories stored as if in a personal archive that the project of psychoanalysis would be oriented toward–maps offered Freud an unlikely ally for a program of training readers in the skills of interpretation and excavation of memory traces.

For as Freud described the excavation of “memory traces” to the ability of the visitor to Rome who arrives “equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge,” maps offered the guides necessary to the interpretation of the physical traces of the past in the city of Rome.  The equipping with such an authoritative historical map seemed suddenly comparable to the course of training to observe memory traces in the mind of the analysand.   For a visitor to Rome, searching “Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient ground-plan . . . will find nothing, or but meagre fragments, for they exist no longer.”  Even though equipped “with the best information about Rome of the republican era, the utmost [such a visitor] could achieve would be to indicate the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood,” the imagined excavation of the individual past must surpass the extent to which ruins occupy places in Rome, and often “the ruins are not those of the early buildings themselves but of restorations of them in later times after fires and demolitions.”  The qualification of needing adequate topographical knowledge (most familiarly condensed in maps) as keys to interpretation of physical traces in the city–maps which were widely produced in the Age of Excavation–offered a suitable figure of speech for the observance of the ancient traces that remained of the organic whole of the ancient city, and unintentional traces of the analogy between maps to the proper course of training would allow the analyst to gain a similarly spectacular prospective on the  memory-formation of an individual.

Freud had often consulted maps of the city’s excavation in his library, which he consulted in preparing for his visit.  Their illustration of images of excavation would have offered a measure of credibility to the interpretation of surviving memory traces in the mind.  Such maps afforded powerful metaphor and figure not only for the organization of memory but for what an objective map of memory by which to detect and view the coherence that existed within traces of one’s personal past sedimented within individual consciousness, whose coherence might be recuperatively reassembled only by detecting buried memories repressed as if under stratigraphic layers.  Their coherence, Freud implied, might be authoritatively assembled in a comprehensive detailed temporal map.  Such a map would provide a narrative, and a dynamic structure, more analogous to the keyed GIS image of a dynamic map, to be sure, but which departed from the GIS precursors that seem embedded in the tagged structures of Rome’s excavated topography–by “squinting,” as it were, to reveal the superimposition of structures of different times.

Forum Romanum Baedecker 1868.png

Baedeker Guide, engraved “Plan of the Forum Romanum” (Darmstadt 1868)

Maps and plans such as those that were diffused in Baedekers were designed to invite readers discern the organic order of the city in its ruins, and indeed to celebrate the organic unity of apparently disembodied ruins:  the laminated layers of the historical city had been regularly celebrated as a sublime moment of internalizing the coherence and dynamic of the city’s history as if conducting a medical autopsy of its ancient ruins.  Disentangling its layers of time was a surrogate for witnessing the tensions between republican and imperial Rome as enacted on the Palatine.  As archeologists revealed the layering of its monuments of travertine atop one another, discerning the relations and tensions of the state from Republican through Augustan Rome in sites of public assemblies, commerce, and public spectacles, offered a space of cognitive mapping, as one actively disentangled the temporal relation of its roads, temples, and urban plant, with reference to maps of Baedeker guides copiously illustrated with elegant lithographs of its built space, or maps Samuel Ball Platner included in his Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome (1903).  The assembly of the excavated city was in other words repeatedly enacted in maps, as much as maps only offered Freud an an elegant figure of speech.

A plan revealed, even in the imposition of structures and basilica of different ages, the concealed but organic whole of the city–and its architectural exemplarity–in impossible ways by disentangling the fragmentation of actual temporal layers with a timeless organic plan, allowing the superimposition of different historical ages within the same frame.


Platner’s Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome, 1904

Platner Imperial Fora.png

Both Platner, and Hans Baedeker before him, designed exact city plans to explicate the dynamics of the form and situation of ancient Roman urban space–and to render legible the spectacular view which could be seen from atop the Capitoline Hill.  The commerce between the observer of the scene of public life and the formation of the individual subject were not only cultivated and pronounced.  The tension between intuiting the order of the architectural plant within the actual disorder of appearances was acute–“thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste/More rich than other climes’ fertility/Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced/With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced“–and none of the maps were primarily designed for travel, but rather as mental aids:  the traveller was enjoined to purchase a separate rail map of Edoardo Sonzogno, both for fares and time-tables and planning travel, even as the Baedeker described one’s every move–and provided an opportunity for time-travel as well, as one negotiated the italicized Italian place-names of actuality with the boldface topography of the ancient world that was coexistent with it–and uncover and discern, in an act of individual excavation, exhuming the organic city of Roma Vetus, Constantine’s Basilica of St. Peter in place of the Vatican, Diocletian’s baths on the Quirinal, fora of Trajan, Domitian and Augustus restored to the cityscape and Forum itself in place of the Campo vaccino, all within surviving if long fragmented Aurelian walls.

Forum Baedecker 1868Karl Baedeker, Handbook for Travelers.  Second Part:  Central Italy and Rome (1869)

ROMA VETUS Baedecker.png

The act of imaginative force required particular skill at disentangling overlapping buildings, basilica, and fora that could be anachronically remapped beside one another:

Platner 1903Platner, Topography and Monuments (1904)

13.  The curious interpenetration of the spatial and historical was a particular preoccupation that was attended to for viewers of the interlayered topographies of ancient and modern Rome from the fifteenth century, which tried to disentangle the presence of the ancient in the city as if to excavate its layers:  and the overlay of its sacred space was increasingly foregrounded atop its ancient plan in the Reformation–wrestling with the entanglement of sacred, classical, and imperial spaces, and the ecclesiastical administration of sacred monuments.  When Freud enlisted the image of the overlapping of these spaces as a subject of individual formation he offered a suitably scientific metaphor by which to generalize the objective persistence of the past in an individual memory traces as artifacts–as he evocatively described the Forum and Eternal City as a basis to understand not the formation of the individual subject–and orient him to the subject of memory as they oriented the individual to an almost archetypal public space in particularly powerful positivistic ways, particularly powerful in how it elided spatial and temporal continuity.

The material origins of Freud’s chosen metaphor for individual memory in a map’s surface have rarely been rooted in their image of a structural superimposition of time.  Yet the topos of formation from looking at the tensions or dynamics within the organism of the ancient city provided a recognizable figure from which Freud could compellingly ask relatively educated readers to consider the individual mind.  As well as providing Freud with a powerful figure of speech, maps of the eternal city afforded a something close to a scientifically objective language to situate the temporal coexistence of memories in the mind.  The maps provided  not only an orientation to the past, but an image of the continued organic survival of structures of the past that were particularly appealing, for they suggested the organic survival of earlier physical plants, partly erased with time, as if a sort of mental furniture:  if Freud was an antiquarian, the image of the map of the classical city, borrowed from those included in the Platner or the average Baedeker guide, or from other archaeological works.

There was, for Freud, significant longing for the inaccessible, and indeed an image of the living dead, close if forever elusive and removed from direct contact, in the maps of ancient Rome that he enjoyed reading in Vienna, but which only must have reminded him of the removed nature of Rome, and the temporal remove of the ancient Rome that he could have most directly perceived when visiting its ancient forum.

14.  The historicity of space was similarly evident in the intersecting temporalities in Rome’s layered architecture and architectonic plans.  The city’s classical plans coexist with its sacred space and civic space.  The plausibility of the simultaneity of its archeological layers no doubt encouraged Sigmund Freud to suggest, “by a flight of the imagination,” take the ground plans of Rome’s across different periods as a material metaphor of the psyche, as if, as Gibbon atop the Capitoline Hill, imagining a temporal pastiche of the panorama in which all buildings from every time that might be imagined to coexist side by side:  the potential coexistence of multiple periods in one single physical space provided a metaphor able to embody Freud’s model of human consciousness, where memories would lack historical specificity, but coexist with one another in surprisingly scientific and immediately understandable ways, as if a Procrustean inheritance that persisted in each individual, even as the brain’s physical structure altered from childhood.

What was internalized as an organic form of the ancient city, in other words, was taken by Freud as a model for the successive and active lamination of mental furniture of individual memories in the individual psyche.  Then formal promise of the map that uncovered their persistence, moreover, allowed the possibility of their objective interpretation, from a view as privileged as that which the Capitoline offered of the different layers of Rome’s Republican past, even in a plant from the age of Augustus.  The dramatic architectural and spatial modern transformation of most central European cities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from Vienna, Cracow, Brno and Budapest, as well as Bratislava, Zagreb, and Timisoara–following the expansion of London and Paris, constituted a massive change in the aesthetic and physical presence of the city as a landscape of urban life.  The public reception of built space and new forms of architecture in the International Style after the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire contrast to the organic unity attributed to Rome’s physical plant.  In contrast, the plant of Rome provided a compelling basis to objectify the layering of successive stages of the individual’s past memories as if they were a collective edifice.  If the metamorphoses of these metropolises reflected a triumph of sustained urban planning, rooted in modernist architecture and design, Rome provided an emblem of the persistence of earlier ages.

Ancient architecture’s cosynchronous mapping may have indeed offered a compelling objective correlative for the Freudian concept of the persistence of individual memories across its neurological development as it existed in maps.  While Freud willingly allowed that demolitions and constructions in the development of a city made it appear “a priori unsuited for a comparison with . . . a mental organism,” Freud privileged Rome’s space as a unique figure to imagine the formation and lamination of individual memories in the mind, and the lamination of successive memories that continued to persist and structure in the mind, as much as the formation of the individual, and whose persistence Freud believed continued to structure individual actions:  if his own trip to Rome would for a Viennese–albeit a Viennese Jew–have been associated with personal bildung, Freud saw Rome’s spaces as offering an objective image to articulate how the encrustation of memory persisted in the individual’s character across the neurological changes in the brain’s structures and physical organization, otherwise difficult to map or visualize:  acting on his frequent longing to visit Rome, he visited it frequently since an initial pilgrimage in September 1901–if conscious of deep fears of facing death and mortality that perhaps prevented him from reaching the city laced with fears of the intimations of mortality.  Freud seemed terrified of the complexity of its many layers, both visible and invisible, riddled with absences; he was fascinated by the urban structure of such presences and past traces, consulting not only Baedekers, but Richter’s Topography of the City of Rome, Mommsen’s History and Ludwig Lange’s Antiquities.  Each revealed Rome’s layered topography to Freud and were tools to prepare himself for this visit by the discoverer of the Arch of Augustus.  He first visited the city in the late 1890s to observe these antiquities, and later returned almost obsessively, as if in search for meaning and lucidity, admitting to have a “longing . . . deeply neurotic” for the city, which seemed to him “a cloak and a symbol for several other deeply desired wishes,” that emerged in the course of his deep application of himself to study its topography in the late 1890s, after which his arrival at the city’s Forum must have seemed even more stupendous.

The familiarity that he gained with the cityscape of the Eternal City definitely domesticated any latent fears of its ruins or unmasterability.  He came to call the Forum and Palatine his “most favorite corner of Rome”in 1910, returning often to the region of Rome in the twelve days he spent in the city, and even celebrating his mastery of the local topography during the visit that he had earlier feared as the culmination of his self-analysis.  By 1912, he wrote to his wife on a separate visit to Rome with some surprise about how “natural to be in Rome” it had become that “I have no sense of being a foreigner” and the “delicious, somewhat melancholy solitude” with which he wandered along the Palatine, and returned in 1913 “visiting old haunts” in the city where he wrote the Introduction to Totem and Taboo.  (Revisiting the city again, with Anna, in 1923, prolonged for several weeks, spending time in the Forum and on the Aventine with some fear that he would not revisit them after he had already become ill, coughing blood on the train down.)  Freud’s return to the city seemed more obsessive and in search of its elusive integrity than driven by fear.  Freud returned to the topography of the city, famously, when stuck in his composition of the Interpretation of Dreams, and traveled seven times to Rome in his life, fascinated by Michelangelo’s Moses and by the city’s antiquities.  As much as the idea of a site of past vestiges of earlier eras existed in the material city he visited, these experiences would have been mediated through maps in crucial ways.

The relation of city’s overlapping temporally specific structures and spaces offered a concrete representation of the lamination of memories of the past in the individual psyche:  even if, as he put it, “the thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue” in the human brain, and the bones of the child disappeared, the ruins of Rome provided a figure for how memories were stored by the individual both persisted and shaped the individual’s psychic life, and indeed provide a sort of road-map by which the personal choices one made could be understood.  For Freud imagined the survival of subconscious memories in the mind as if from the outlines of maps of the city’s plans in a trusty Baedeker, or later guides to the organic whole of Rome commonly used by visitors–in so doing, converting the city from a site of the intimations of mortality to a figure of the human mind.  Plans presented a similar palimpsest in which the earlier layers are not fragmentary, but continued to be actually present in the same space:  Freud had perhaps arrived at the realization while interpolating plans of different eras in the actual city and cross-referencing its physical monuments with the guide he might have had in hand when comparing the place of buildings from different periods in its panorama to the marble monuments he saw, switching from map to viewpoint with possible frustration for points of orientation to distinguish the historical layers of construction simultaneously before his eyes–much as the plans promised to distinguish the levels of material building within the ancient Forum, dignifying his perspective of the individual psyche by analogy to the privileged position of space from the Capitoline.

The map became no more a metaphor for bildung, but a metaphor for mapping one’s own memories and their progressive encrustation atop one another in one’s mind, an accretion of memories constituting for Freud the formation of an image of how the lamination of specific memories maintain a continued presence in the individual psyche.


Karl Baedeker, engraved by Wagner & Debes, 1900 (1:1,600)

The conceit perfectly expressed the ability to view the psyche in its totality–as ell as an image of mortality that Freud felt compelled to confront.

Freud’s memorable conceit of miraculous spatial simultaneity from multiple periods and historical times in one and the same space was served well by Rome–“an entity in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all earlier phases of development will coexist beside the latest one” would exist, he realized, by an analogy he felt even lay readers would grasp to reach a new state of sublime for the privileged observer of a Rome whose historical periods would somehow coexist:  by a wave of the wand of cartographical fantasy, so that without the Palazzo Cafarelli having to be removed, one might see within it the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in each of the era it survived, including the Etruscan, and one could, in a spectacular feat of historical recreation, actually admire Nero’s long-destroyed Golden House in its original splendor.


Ever the good scholar, Freud became somewhat rapturous as he described the memorable image of the superimposition of historical periods and buildings from different historical eras in the same physical space and panorama to capture the difficulty of processing such a unified mental space:  while the descriptions have been argued to be based on the Cambridge Ancient History‘s chapters dedicated to the founding of Rome, it recalls the didactic rendering Karl Baedeker used to show  the historical formation of Rome’s urban space in the 1900 edition of his city guide, in ways that remind us how maps are important forms to think about and encounter its built space:

Baedecker Superimposition of Space

The overlapping if not tangled layered spatial entanglement of historical periods–here rendered in the sedimentation of layers of place names in Latin and, in printer’s red, in Italian,  is quite readily perceived and recurrently realized by current visitors to the Eternal City.  Maps must have provided a model for Freud’s understanding of the persistence of an organic whole across multiple periods of one’s personal history, and tools to decipher a built past whose organic forms were readily accessible by the skilled reader–or interpreter.  If his apparent anxiety about making an actual voyage to Rome may have partly lay in his fears of his abilities to be able to interpret the entangled chronological spaces of Rome’s ancient architecture, his return to the city suggests the particular pleasure he took in encountering its multiple pasts.

The architectural palimpsest of the city proves cognitively challenging for those who navigate its streets, where one constantly processes, either with or without the maps of a Baedeker guide, the city’s physical plant through space–assembling the panorama from viewpoints as the Capitoline suddenly demand the reassembly of its elements in distinct ways.  The Baedeker engraving presents an analytic disassembly of place–top0s–that allows the visitor and reader to interfoliate archeological plans with their own experience, they constitute a unique spatial practice quite akin to Freud’s cartographical fantasia of excavating the continued materiality of past memories in the individual mind.  The practice of excavating the lost but organic whole of Rome’s physical past echoes a longstanding antiquarian practices from the earliest humanist master-builder, Leon Battista Alberti, who famously remeasured Rome’s excavated monuments for his friends, to sixteenth-century antiquarians as Pirro Ligorio, to papal librarians and erudite as Luc Holste, to the numerous engravings of the ancient buildings that were sold in Rome but appeared as orphans outside their original urban plan and built structures of the ancient city.  The making present of Rome’s physical past was a concentrated effort of erudites as much as a mental recreation of a lived space that never stopped haunting the city itself.

For these engraved maps, Freud was no doubt aware, echoed in their exactitude and precision the lost if partly rediscovered marble Forma urbis of Imperial Rome, a massive incised plan of monuments in the city carved and erected between 203 and 211 CE, of which only 10% of the original one hundred and fifty marble slabs survive.  Collectively mounted in the center of Rome in the Capitoline Museum in 1903, including the 490 fragments found since 1600, they provided a new record of the city’s lost plant.  

The ancient map provided a celebratory image of the peacefulness of the city appropriate to the setting in the Temple of Peace [Templum pacis]–or may have provided a permanent record of buildings against which cadastral maps were drawn.  Known only by its fragments since 1561, the newly discovered pieces of the Severan map of the city of Rome’s buildings offered lost knowledge of the ancient city that provided a partial record of Rome’s lost past–and indeed the structure from which the modern city emerged. If the original map of eighteen meters by thirteen meters (sixty by forty-five feet) offered a ground plan of urban architecture delineating all buildings in the city for functions not clearly or adequately understood by a scale of 1:240, perhaps based on exact cadastral surveys, distinguished the city’s public buildings by the unique double-outlining.

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

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