Roma 11 – Cartography & Urban Plan

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012

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Route: bus to Piazza Navona, then to Allan Ceen’s house/Piranesi museum near Campo dei Fiore. Walk up Via di Ripetta up through Villa Borghese. A search for the pond, to no avail. End up at Galleria Borghese. Lunch in Ludovisi, then over to Macro Contemporary Art Gallery. Metro from Barberini to Ottaviano to spend one last sunset beneath Bernini’s collonades in St. Peter’s Square, then south down Via della Lungara to Santa Maria in Trastevere for dinner and drinks. Walk home.

Today we took the most expanseful walk through the neighbourhoods of Rome and visited one of Daniel’s friends Allan Ceen to see a large collection of original Piranesi prints and to learn about the history of mapping in Rome. The successive urban plans of the city can be summarized as three eras that shape the current plan of Rome:

  • The main axis we travelled on the first day from Piazza del Popolo (1st Rome, Imperial, Constantine),
  • Roads winding down the seven hills and connecting also seven main churches: St. Peters, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Croce, San Sebastiano, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Paolo, and San Lorenzo (2nd Rome, Papal, Sixtus V),
  • The axis created by Mussolini leading up to St. Peter’s Square (3rd Rome, Imperial, Mussolini).

It was interesting to look back on these from an urban planning perspective when so far my whole experience of the city had been in serendipitous drifts. Now comes the realization that they cannot happen isolated from somebody else’s intent. I began to wonder what it would look like if each of these Popes and Emperors left a trace paper map of what they saw the city at and to lay them on top of each other. The result would likely be something experiential, because cartography technique and conception of space improved over time, and also look something really close to what Rome actually looks like today, a strata of streets laid one on top of another, gradually turning and twisting into present form.

It would so happen that we were about to visit a professor whose lifetime of work involves looking at one of the most accurate maps of the City of Rome to date. If Sir John Soane had a map room, if would probably look like Professor Ceen’s first floor gallery to his home. Littered with prints and maps, most of which were unobstructed by plastic sheets or glass cases as in museums. According to Ceen, a 1748 map called La Pianta Grande di Roma (the Grand Plan of Rome) created by Nolli rivals Google Maps for accuracy in city plan. You can take a look at it put together interactively in high res here on the UOregon website, where you can turn on and off features like fountains, city walls, and the river. No easy task, as the map originally was etched into six copper plates that put together, span 6×8 feet. We got to see the fully scanned and printed version of this map in extreme detail, along with other mapping projects by Piranesi.

La Pianta Grande di Roma, Nolli.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a Venetian architect who was extremely skilled at etching the real and imagined histories of Rome during the same lifetime as Nolli. The most interesting part of his work, to me and my memory project, were his imagined maps of the city based off of Nolli’s La Pianta Grande, but also on another map called Forma Urbis. 

Forma Urbis is a lost wall that used to stand in the Vespusian Forum that held a huge etching of Rome. As with most things in the city, it fell into ruin, it’s 157 slabs of marble crumbling into 1186 fragments. Once reunited in a small percentage in the 16th century, they are now likely sitting in boxes in an unknown collection, known only to a few of their real worth. Ceen had a great idea that was rejected by the City to compile and project the Forma Urbis onto a wall in the original Forum in digital form, which reminded me of an art competition we entered at work for at my intern position with Operative Agency.

Piranesi even had the imagination to use these fragments to imagine buildings where no archaeological evidence exists to tell us what they looked like. He would take foundation poches and turn them into full fledged building, city neighbourhood and villa plans. What if we were to take these projections and throw them into modern day Rome as well? What if they were to be constructed digitally and contextually?

Piranesi’s Grand Plan, based off of Nolli’s. Note the etchings of ancient buildings that adorn the sides.

Pieces of the Forma Urbis, as drawn by Piranesi at 1:1 scale

More fragments of the Forma Urbis.

Ceen’s proposal for an overlap in modern and ancient technologies in the practice of topography to create a meaningful diagloue is not unheard of. New GPS and satellite imagery are giving us the vision of a world we have never before seen, but also of one that is constantly outdated. With all this new open source technology, we have the ability to contribute to maps as community members; to use them to greater advantage not just on apps, but also to solve problems and in case of emergencies.

Without modern GPS, my memory and live experience of any kind of travel would seem much more fuzzy, out of reach. I have been using http://www.mapmyrun.com to map all our walks through Rome, and through the process, learned that not all the places we visit exist on every version of every map, even Google. And even then, Google Maps cannot create accidents. Some of these places remain locked in our memories, like fragments of a wall once shattered and lost, something to hold onto.