Tag Archives: Renaissance

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

We now map mega-regions that extend along highways far beyond the former boundaries of cities, along roads and through suburbs increasingly lack clear bounds.  The extent of such cities seem oddly appropriate for forms of mapping that seem to lack respect for physical markers of bounds.  These maps reflect the experience of their environments as networks more than sites, to be sure.  It may be surprising to see the mapping of the ancient world as a similar network, and to try to understand the mobility of the ancient world and Mediterranean in terms of modern tools of mapping travel: tracing the extension of extra-urban areas along distended networks of inhabited paved space, indeed, suggests the morphing of cities from the past, and almost removes them from historical time or erase the familiar palimpsestic relation to known space, or the city as a space for walking.

We may be compelled to apply the same data driven images to ancient Rome, driven due to our own continuing and increased disorientation on the proliferating data maps.  But does their logic maintain the complexity of time, space, and place in the ancient world, or how might it better attract interest, by casting the map as a site of investigating not only space, but time? Despite the limitations of their coverage of space, and the limited benefits of imagining the ability to measure times of travel or distances to monuments as a record of ancient space or Roman life, it is tempting to be satisfied with placing it in a network. For to do so offers a way of envisioning ancient Rome as a mega city and hub of transit.  But the erasure that this brings in humanistic experience of the map is striking.  

mobility fingerprint ROme

The risk of a loss of materiality is steep: for we seem to lose a sense of the presence of the map of the city, visualizing the distances of travel, costs of economic transit, and time of travel in a web of commercial exchange we both project back our own sense of disorientation.  When we use modern notions such as that of the urban mobility fingerprint as Moovel labs did in concretely visualizing the medieval saying that “all roads lead to Rome” in its  project of mapping distances from the ancient city, we run the risk of insisting on the transparency of data, reducing maps and the patttern of mapping to a substrate of spatial relations sufficient in an almost ahistorical sense, and risk asserting the authority of an app over material processes of building and mapping Rome across time.  

In doing so, we may be trying to find mooring in the mapping of the past.  We avoid the problem of mapping the presence of the ancient form of the city so long returned to be mapped, as a key to presence of the ancient city in the city, in ways that Rome was so long understood. The reipscription of the authority of Rome in the map–or from those classic images of the nineteenth century imagination, the Baedecker Guide, may posit mobility as fons et origo. And while we do want to illustrate or understand flows from the city, and the location of Rome in a broader Mediterranean and European space–by privileging flow, we wonder–

Flow from Rome

is there some loss of the materiality of the ancient world? For rather than show the city of Rome, so often refigured in almost encomiastic terms, by asserting its pride of place in a network, and celebrating the construction of its almost vegetal organic network of modernized roads in order to bring it closer to the viewer, there is a visual trick of transferring a dataset to a schematic rendering that flattens the complex human patterns of the past, and does so by obscuring the deeply humanistic layered nature of the map and of the past, so clearly preserved in the famous bifolium image of Rome, that old imperial city, in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, based on a lost chorographic encomiastic of its buildings’ magnificence.

Nuremberg Chronicle, “Roma,” (1493), leaves LVII-LVIII

If we might consider the imperial schema of travel as a more exact map of space, the enhanced topographic rendering that calls attention to its place in a network, alters the intense interest that the mapping of the city’s place has held, so aptly illustrated back when the physician Hartman Schedel returned to his native Nuremberg, with woodcuts by Francesco Roselli and other Italians in hand, to assemble a new genealogy of the place of Germans on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, and to map the cities of Swabia as the heirs of Roman imperial claims. The symbolic authority of the city, long taken as akin ago a vessel of memory, gained broad symbolic authority as it was encoded in maps.  In ways that are in danger of erasure by the generic symbology of a map that sizes vector files to suggest flow in an organic or unobstructed fashion, the material practices of mapping Rome have their own history, neglected in data visualizations’ relatively flat space,–not to mention the sense of a space removed from history that they create.

Detail of Nuremberg Chronicle, leaves LVII-LVIII (1493)

The deep history of the material practices of mapping Rome constitute something of a deep source of meaning and a source of fascination; mapping of the city the remained in the city, negotiating the presence of the antique in the city.  Rather than disembody the routes of motion as defining the city, the images that embodied the material presence of the antique city was the dominant presence in a long history of mapping the city, whose ancient traces were preserved and excavated in the many maps of Rome made since before the Renaissance.  Such maps, viewed in their historical context and continuity, preserve a sense of the form of the antique that provided a form as an actor for visitors to Rome, and a lure for the site of the continued presence of traces of the space of a historical Rome that exists among the modern city’s space.  Indeed, maps may themselves offer the best ways to familiarize oneself to the material traces of orienting oneself to the presence of the antique that continue to inhabit its present. And the prestige that the Baedecker guide long held in the German imagination during the nineteenth century to orient educated travelers who were reprising Schedel’s Reise of cultural formation informed the brazen wartime announcement of the Nazi government that its Luftwaffe would target domestic populations in Britain by the landmarks meriting three stars in “Baedeker Guides” bombing historical cities in “Baedeker Raids”–those military operations designed to hit historic cities Exeter, Bath, York, Norwich and Canterbury. The threat led British and Allied attacks to target over a thousand historic cities of Germany that were themselves reduced to rubble by the end of the war, escalating the scale of human destructiveness, in a theater of destructive energy that was rooted not in aerial technologies alone, but the mateirality of the map–and designed to eliminate the very traces of historical treasures that the American Antiquities Commission hoped to avoid by reducing the list of targeted German cities.

The deeply affective ties to place that led to the escalation of the Baedeker Raids began from a sense of If practices of mapping demand to be placed in their distinct media. While these guides demand a post of their own, this post turns attention to how the media of mapping Rome gained particular sensitivity, as preserving access to the past, and of orienting viewers to a presence no longer present in the present, as most all maps of Rome effectively do.  By considering the mapping of Rome in relation to datamaps, and the sense of presence that they encode, one almost seems obligated to begin from what may be the primary image–if not primal image–of the way that all roads lead to Rome, or were described to.    If all roads lead to Rome in a deeply ahistorical sense in the middle ages, when the statement seems to have first appeared, the possibly medieval rendering of the ancient “Peutinger Map” or Tabula Peutingerianawhich presents Rome at the center of an acient road network–across the empire–and was suggested to be  copied from the form of a large frieze on a building, but survives in a paper copy of distinctively distorted elongated form, reduced oceans to strips to foreground its road network.

1. Routes remain perhaps the oldest maps. Rarely are they understood as networks. The trick of topographic rendering of privileging the disposition of roads and their distances–measured in local units, but spanning the Empire–do not radiate, but extend laterally across mapped space.  The form of the antique led to the eager the recovery of the prized Peutinger map of the peninsula, surviving in the copy of the Tabula Peutingeriana, that preserved, showing east-west routes at greater scale than north-south in dimensions of a marble frieze, more than a sheet of paper; its collapsing of a collection of routes inscribed into a peninsula as a seat of empire, placing the enthroned figure of Rome holding a globe at the head of a cursus publicus–as if to demonstrate how all roads lead Rome-ward or, more accurately, from Rome, emphasizing its legibility by replicating the left-to-right reading of space.

Duvuded ubti Grurds.png

–as if in a comprehensive representation the cursus, where continuity is less present than the network, but the network visualized by making present criteria of measurement embedded in the map itself.

Rather than orienting readers by showing Rome as the center of a web of transit, that has its own life and coherence, the map’s oddly compressed format seems to have the imprint of the material place that it held, fittingly, as a record of the cursus publicus, on a frieze, if so probably etched in marble, showing the prominence of Rome and its port of Ostia not at the center of the peninsula, but in the enthroned figure.  Rome occupies a place at the start and head of its cursus publicus, perhaps as a remnant of a global map prepared in Augustan Rome, which in the surviving thirteenth century copy digests data that may derive from the Agrippa map, but embodies it in the form of a marble frieze.

Transferred and kept on a sheet of paper since when the humanist Conrad Celtis discovered in in France, and presented humanist Konrad Peutinger with the treasured cartographic image in a surviving copy, the map was thought to be a fragment of a global map organized by Roman roads.  It has been attempted to be returned to its material context in many alternative historical settings–hypotheses including Carolingian origins or, a marble frieze, to historicize the audiences it addressed–but in ways that preserve the centrality of its physical medium.  

The problem of seeing the along map of the world, and the curiously elongated image of Italy, have only recently been revised, as ways that re-examine the humanist status of the map as an argument about space.  But if the material form of the map has provoked repeated reflection, as much as the transparent reflection of spatial data by which our own data-driven world is increasingly obsessed, it reminds us of the material basis of the maxim of all roads leading to Rome, which the depiction of the cursus publicus so clearly embodied.


But the image of all roads leading to–or from–Rome is not, perhaps, the map that best expresses the place that the city has held in the humanist imagination.  If the Tabula Peutingeriana offers an interrupted record of all roads leading to Rome continues to captivate, the presence of the ancient in Rome suggested a deeper problem of temporal mapping that data cannot capture, in part because it so relentlessly adopts and employs a present-day form of mapping to chart an elusive past.  

The history with which the presence of maps that continued to process the antique in Rome certainly led to the fascination of uncovering the road network of the city.  The presence of the elusive but ever-present antique in the city laid a basis for curiosity of times of travel in mapping the Empire, the maps of travel times on its system of roads is only one level of the building of Rome.  Although the city’s status at the center of the empire provided a source of fascination, and a promise of classical recovery, to the humanist collector, the presence of ancient roadworks in the Tabula mirror the continued fascination with mapping presence of the antique in Rome, that have been a longstanding subject of fascination.  While Rome remained the center of the Tabula, on the far left of the three strip maps of the peninsula compressed to a single sheet, the rendering of the peninsula’s network of roads omits the deep presence of the city’s ruins–the “city within the city”–in Rome, and the extent to which the mapping of that presence contributed to how Rome was seen.

Is deeper excavation of the spatial perception of those roads, and indeed of the inhabitation of the twelve via that radiate from Rome’s walls in such a symmetrical manner–the via Salaria, via Nomentana, via Tyburtina, via Latina, via Appia–even an adequate record of one’s attachment to its pasts?


Rather than viewing Rome as a center of transit, a humanist mapping of the city might entail map the sense of presence of the antique by which the city has long been appreciated and understood.  The mapping of the presence of the past in Rome runs against the grain of data-driven visualizations, but might bring us to define the compelling presence of the antique in the city, challenging the notion of its primacy in a network of communication, to trace the place of the antique in the imagination of the city, as much as treating its sense of its place being impermanent.  

Indeed, the presence of the city on any map must begin from the presence of the antique in the city, and the manner that maps of Rome shape our experience of the city–and serve to shape our sense of the distinction of Rome as a site within our imagination, and our sense of space. If the conceit that all roads lead to Rome has long and continues to occupy a significant space in our mental imaginary, as well as the European highway system–


Roads to Rome

–traveling or journeying to Rome offers a limited orientation to the rich humanist history of the mapping of its space, or even of the space of the Roman Empire, if the mapping of Rome omits any traces of its historical inhabitation, or the palpable presence of its ruins.  These ruins, and their surviving remnants, drew many to Rome since the Renaissance, and has provided one of the most basic–if primal–forms of mapping the historical past, and of seeing evidence of the living presence of the concrete.  Attracted by the multiple presences that seem to coexist within Rome’s space, in ways an archeological map cannot do complete justice, as knows any visitor challenged to grasp and orient themselves to the abundance of its underlying pasts present in its ruins.  

2. Was the psychic proximity that Sigmund Freud described to Rome–a site whose attraction he was tempted to see as a site of attraction to death–indeed informed not by his visits to the city, but rather his own close attraction to the maps of the ancient city’s archeological ruins?  Such maps would have provided the very horizon of expectations through which he oriented himself to the modern city, even before he had visited it for the first time.  Freud repeatedly deferred a personal visit to Rome in his life,–when he was left explaining its disappointment “as all such fulfillments are when one has waited for them too long,” even though, in his previous writings on dreams and on the dream-life, he recorded five dreams of visiting Rome.  If he held the city as a seat of Christendom, however, he must have experience its historical wealth primarily in maps.

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Mapping Ancient Ruins

Few precedents of mapping historic ruins are as striking as the curious radial map for which Leon Battista Alberti provided instructions in the middle of the 1430s:  by plotting ancient ruins in Rome, the paradigmatic city of ruins, the Renaissance humanist recast the city of perpetual incarnation and of survival in the midst of recurrent abandonment, seeking to provide a guide to retain an image of the classical city’s monuments and topography in the mind’s eye of humanists, and his creation around 1450 of his extremely popular and innovative Descriptio urbis, a humanistic version of the city’s marvels–Mirabilia–a genre narrating the miraculous sights of the city which had circulated, as an early tourist brochure and keepsake from the 1100’s.  If the Mirabilia was a guide to the wonders, augmented by numerous early urban myths, listing its gates, hills, columns, statues, baths, arches, bridges, amphitheaters and temples, often including fanciful etymologies of their names, the Descriptio urbis provided an exact location of each, or as an exact a description as possible, setting out the minutes and degrees from which each could be observed from the Janiculum Hill in Rome, providing what many have argued constituted a model for drafting one’s own schematic map of monuments for ready consultation.  The popular manuscript survives in multiple copies.

A practiced architect and impassioned enquirer about the physical construction of ancient Rome, Alberti set forth directions for preserving their arrangement in an elegant radial map which plotted ancient ruins by a meridian and a circular calibrated arc, in order to better excavate and make present–or recreate–the ancient remains lying in the city in its reader’s mind, which circulated widely in manuscript form before the age of print.

Alberti's Meridian

Alberti significantly described the advantages of plotting such monuments according to a radial grid by using “mathematical tools” to survey monuments by taking sightings from atop the elevated Capitoline hill.  The finding of significant monuments on coordinates served to purify earlier travel books by selecting its authentic classical buildings, stripping away accreted legends like so many obscuring cobwebs, and creating a pristine media to understand the ancient world and the city’s physical plant.  Although the rubric by which Alberti mapped the ancient city on top of the new one–the half-inhabited Rome of the recently returned popes–his intent was not only to replace the handbooks orienting pilgrims and visitors to Rome’s marvels but refine his admiration to a veneration of antiquity and the city’s ancient design, which he preserved in traces in its contemporary layout; his booklet may have provided a model for contemporary views of the ancient ruins in the city’s walls such as this Florentine fifteenth-century illumination from the workshop of the Renaissance mapmaker Pietro del Massaio, who made several maps of the region of Tuscany and of Italy that were destined for inclusion in a codex of Ptolemy’s treatise on world geography–an ancestor of recently undertaken efforts of digital archeology of the city.  (The maps of Pietro were also known in several independent sheets, some of which are stored in the Vatican libraries.)  But the city views that he included in the most precious codices were the most similar to the transcription of archeological highlights that Alberti, who sought to share his own passion for the antique with a generation of humanists with whom he corresponded in other Italian courts, had noted:  they gave the monuments of the ancient world a new plastic form, and complemented the image of Rome–its coliseum a bit above its center, as seem below, but the Janiculum and Senatorial palace closer to the center–with images of other ancient Mediterranean cities, including Cairo, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Venice.


Massaio's Rome

More than a hint of Alberti’s Renaissance resuscitation and incarnation of the ancient city in erudite terms was present in the view that Michel de Montaigne in later took in 1581 pf “studying Rome,” whose plant was at that point still two-thirds uninhabited, by climbing the Janiculum to “contemplate the configuration of all the parts of Rome, which may not be seen so clearly from any other place,” lamented “that one saw nothing of Rome but the sky under which it had stood and the plan of its site” with knowledge of the city only “as an abstract and contemplative knowledge of which there was nothing perceptible to the senses” since the world, “hostile to its long domination, . . . [had] broken and shattered all the parts of this wonderful body and, since even quite dead overthrown and disfigured, the world was still terrified by it, had buried its very ruins”–and lamented the lesser nature of “the buildings of this bastard Rome which they were now attaching to these ancient ruins.”  These sort of maps preserved a city from its own decay, and created a powerful structure and physical design for mediating the past, as much as mark the situation of the city as a nexus of itineraries–such as the “Peutinger” chart (named for the Renaissance humanist who discovered it) depicted the city at the node of ancient Roman roads.


It’s interesting to think of Alberti’s booklet as an attempt to halt the burial of the past, or to excavate the lost history of a city whose buildings he had excavated and measured, but whose underlying plan was difficult to grasp:  the techniques he offered provided not only a basis to draw one’s own version of the “map” of the city, but to internalize the ratios among its monuments, even for those who would not visit the site itself, at a time when the preservation of the ancient past gained new premiums as a model of urban planning.  Alberti accorded the ruins a new language of wonder, and accorded a new wonder with the city that was associated with an unprecedented level of literacy with the map, using a graduated or calibrated circle reflecting his precision as an architect and classicist.  It provided interested readers with practical instructions to create a reproducible map on the eve of the age of widespread circulation of printed images–images that no doubt encouraged subsequent humanist men of letters like Pirro Ligorio to create his own detailed mappings of the ancient city by the 1550s, as Flavio Biondo had earlier offered antiquarians a more detailed written geography of the ancient city.  And it is the basis for projects of constructing an urban map of Rome’s monuments today by the same instruments.  The role of these maps as validating the emerging antiquarians by setting standards of proficiency and expertise for interpreting and deciphering its ruins as they encouraged admiration of Rome as a unity in ways that undoubtedly served to lend far greater concreteness to its dismembered past.  The distance of antiquity that one realizes in Rome today, accentuated by the proximity of its actual ruins, would provide Dr. Sigmund Freud in 1899 with a concrete metaphor for the simultaneous storage of multiple dispersed memories in the mind.

The medium is not always the message, but the personalized maps created by GPS (or, for that matter, Google Earth) dispenses with the intermediary of the cartography as a guide to orient viewers to a region.  Rather than viewing or privileging the map as the vehicle for accessing the coherence of the past–or assembling a desire for such coherence–the map becomes a mode to access meaning and location, isolating the part from the whole, or the object from the context.  And it may well be that the lack of coherence that we now have of our maps of ancient prehistoric sites in the United States is somehow informed by the media with we use not only to geo-locate but to pillage them.  It is odd that GPS provides us with a new method for exposing and accessing the ancient world of the Americas in quite a different manner:  if Alberti and Ligorio sought to provide readers a valued guide to antiquity, geo-location of Flickr images offer owners of GPS devices ready access to the coordinates of the cities of Ancestral Pueblos or Anasazi across the boundaries of Arizona, Colorado, or Utah–often to better pillage sites such as the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado, as well as to get access to the archeological heritage.

For the form of mapping that is used fail, unlike Alberti’s map, to preserve the sense of coherence that Alberti so prized, and that Montaigne sought to regain contact with, and, as such, preserved little sense of its fragility and cultural integrity as a patrimony.  Those visitors who arrive with GPS devices in hand to navigate these prehistoric sites, David Roberts reports in the New York Times, not only observe their structures but often to take a piece of its ancient artifacts home with them–or might well carve their initials beside rock art panels, and indeed validate their locations by the coordinates they’ve downloaded, if not disturb their contents unknowingly in a region where pueblos of Anasazi are often beside evidence of later Hispanic settlers.  One doesn’t need to be a Luddite to compare the relative poverty of meaning in most downloaded maps available online that promise ready geo-location of regions of Anasazi pueblos  to the pilgrims to such sites.

To be sure, the detailed topographic maps of the Anasazi lands provide accurate records of picturesque panorama for local hikers or explorers–if the routes of exploration are quite oddly rendered on websites as unfolded topographic map of the region, in which specific itineraries are highlighted on which one can track one’s elevation and descent, viewable as if an old USGS survey were extended before the viewer–but one that contains a far lesser level of density of meaning than that survey itself, whose legibility preserves but a fraction of the detail of the paper topographic map.

Picturesque Panorama

But most maps and handbooks they use to explore the sites offer few signs of warning–or cautions–that frame them as a site of similar historical or cultural significance, and the remains or objects that fill the site seem there for the touching, tagging, or taking.  Even the above visualization conveys a sense of unfolding a privileged map of the region for foreground specific sites of interest and views, as much as to track their relative distance.  Yet the users of this site, as Gary Gemberling, include imprecations enjoining readers to respect its integrity by advising them to refrain from vandalism and lack of respect for its original inhabitants, given the increasing use of trails as a form of prehistoric tourism and in situ observation of long-abandoned dwellings, formerly abundant pottery shards, in a tone that is all but absent from any earlier maps.

Here’s Gemberling, writing on the actually quite informative site of Jay David Archer, addressing visitors to the Anesazi ruins in Grand Gulch Park in Utah:  “I’ve done this loop 3 times and every time is like the first, this loop i feel has the best rock art and cliff dwellings of the whole stretch, GET A MAP! its easy to walk right by some of the dwellings, i missed perfect kiva the fist time in, walked right passed it, and now my fav[orite] site, RESPECT!!! there is some vandalism sadly, its easy to disturb ruins, they are fragile, but you will learn this in the ranger station, you must check in,this place is like a outdoor museum, and its my church, i love it there more than any where in the world and i have been to 36 countries and 47 states, i have changed my life style to be able to go back here for many years to come, cedar mesa, monument valley, goosenecks park,bridges nat park and grand gulch is the jewel area of south east utah . . .”   Yet the dense location of abundant wall-paintings or panels seem located on twisting path, with limited or little sense of their cultural uniqueness, even in the most detailed of maps of Jay Archer David, with limited signs of how best to negotiate its extremely fragile landscape:


fragile landscape

The sense of entering a privileged space seems diminished, partly as a result of the media, but also of the very accessibility of the ancient sites.  With GPS device and iPhone in hand, one compares where one is to the destinations others have already photographed, and which are readily downloaded from the internet and available as a sort of vicarious tourism that one can use to plans one’s own trips.  There is almost a popular confusion here with the rise of GPS geolocation of seeking to commune with the past–or realize concrete contact with its ruins–by leaving a sense of one’s presence their, or view the site as a treasure hunt, which lacks its own integrity as a privileged place where ruins continue to be in situ and, as much as they will ever be, alive.  If Alberti wrote a guide treasured by antiquarians, the accessibility GPS offers on exact coordinates allows a form of tourism without a sense of antiquity without any entrance fee save a GPS devices.  The accessibility of the map, and, indeed, of multiple posted photographs of the actual site itself, does not mediate the past, but seems to create a sense of entitlement that apparently justifies removal of loot found at the end of the treasure hunt, or the prize of the pilgrimage.  There is less of a sense of the marvel of the ruins as mirabilia with the transference to the Google Earth sense of wonder in the mappability of everything–and the problems of the accessibility of everything via photographs downloaded off smartphones and the GPS tracking of precise coordinates.  Perhaps access to wi-fi could be limited or circumscribed in these areas of reservations,  or national parks, in the hopes to preserve a sense of their wonders.


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Filed under Anasazi sites, GPS, Leon Battista Alberti, mapping ruins, Sigmund Freud