Engineering the Eternal City: Infrastructure, Topography, and the Culture of Knowledge in Late Sixteenth-Century Rome

Engineering the Eternal City: Infrastructure, Topography, and the Culture of Knowledge in Late Sixteenth-Century Rome

by Pamela O. Long

NOOK Book(eBook)

$38.49 $45.00 Save 14% Current price is $38.49, Original price is $45. You Save 14%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


Between the catastrophic flood of the Tiber River in 1557 and the death of the “engineering pope” Sixtus V in 1590, the city of Rome was transformed by intense activity involving building construction and engineering projects of all kinds. Using hundreds of archival documents and primary sources, Engineering the Eternal City explores the processes and people involved in these infrastructure projects—sewers, bridge repair, flood prevention, aqueduct construction, the building of new, straight streets, and even the relocation of immensely heavy ancient Egyptian obelisks that Roman emperors had carried to the city centuries before.
This portrait of an early modern Rome examines the many conflicts, failures, and successes that shaped the city, as decision-makers tried to control not only Rome’s structures and infrastructures but also the people who lived there. Taking up visual images of the city created during the same period—most importantly in maps and urban representations, this book shows how in a time before the development of modern professionalism and modern bureaucracies, there was far more wide-ranging conversation among people of various backgrounds on issues of engineering and infrastructure than there is in our own times. Physicians, civic leaders, jurists, cardinals, popes, and clerics engaged with painters, sculptors, architects, printers, and other practitioners as they discussed, argued, and completed the projects that remade Rome.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226591315
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/20/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 21 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Pamela O. Long is an independent historian of late medieval and early modern Europe and of the history of science and technology. Her books include Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance and Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400–1600.

Read an Excerpt


Troubled Waters

The Tiber River

On September 15, 1557, after days of torrential rain, the raging waters of the Tiber River broke its banks and created a devastating flood that inflicted catastrophic damage and death throughout Rome. An avviso, one of the anonymous news bulletins sent out from Rome to various rulers and diplomats, reported that peace had just been concluded (in a war between Spain and the harsh ruling pope, Paul IV Carafa) when the river, "wishing to celebrate at night having grown proud, amused itself through the whole city." It rose "continuously all day and into the following night, running through the piazze and streets," coming within a palm (about 81/2 in.) of the marker indicating the water level of the great flood of 1530. Gradually "it restrained its fury" and returned to its riverbed, leaving Rome "full of mud and filthy."

More than a thousand people drowned. So did many animals. The Roman-born poet and playwright Angelo Oldradi (b. 1525) reported these grim facts and noted that the people of Rome had no chance to rejoice over the end of the war because the flood "put everything into confusion and fear." Half the bridge of Santa Maria (now Ponte Rotto) was destroyed "together with that beautiful little chapel of Julius III that was there in the middle constructed with such great art and cost." Farther up river, large blocks of marble had embanked on another Tiber River bridge, the Ponte Sant'Angelo. On Tiber Island — the small island in the Tiber River at the center of Rome connected to the shores by two bridges — half the church and the entire monastery of St. Bartholomew had been swept away. The flood scattered grain, legumes, vines, and olives, and it ruined houses. Walking through Rome, Oldradi lamented, one could see houses propped up, palaces and shops flooded and deserted, the paving on the streets removed, and indeed, "a miserable spectacle with everything confused, poorly organized, and evocative of pity."

The flood of 1557 came to 18.90 meters above sea level, an estimate that can be made based on flood markers (fig. 1.1) that the Romans embedded in walls around the city. Oldradi reported that around ten Tiber river mills had been damaged or destroyed. Rome depended on river mills powered by the river's fast-flowing current for grinding its grain. Their destruction caused extraordinary hardship. Three weeks after the flood, an avviso related that because of the loss of mills (fig. 1.2) and grain supplies, the situation of the population had become desperate and that scarcity of bread had been aggravated by the bakers engaging in price gouging.

The flood added a further dismal episode to the history of Tiber River flooding that extended back to antiquity. The severity of the flooding resulted from the fact that most of the population of Rome lived in the Tiber's flood plain. The river originates far north of Rome at Monte Funaiolo, east of Florence, in the Apennines, and it meanders south for 406 kilometers (about 252 mi.) until it empties into the Tyrrhenian Sea at Ostia, about 20 kilometers (121/2 mi.) west of Rome. Its drainage basin is the largest in Italy. Other rivers drain into it, including the Aniene (in the sixteenth century called the Teverone), just north of Rome.

The damaged Ponte Santa Maria, which lost two of its arches, had connected the urban quarter of Trastevere and the Ripa Grande (the main river port of the city) to the urban center on the left bank. The river could still be traversed by rafts and boats and by the traghetti, small ferryboats drawn back and forth from one bank to the other by ropes. But without the crucial Ponte Santa Maria, the Tiber Island bridges immediately up river (the Ponte Cestio and Ponte Fabricio, sometimes called Quattro Capi) became clogged and overburdened with carters hauling grain and other goods from the Ripa Grande (fig. 1.3).

The Waters of Rome

The main source of Rome's water through the 1560s was the Tiber River. Water was also available from wells, cisterns, and springs within the city; two barely functioning aqueducts (the Acqua Vergine that ended at the Trevi Fountain, and another, the Acqua Damasena, which served the Vatican and two public fountains in front of St. Peter's); the Acqua Marrana Mariana, an aqueduct introduced by Pope Calixtus II in 1122 to supply the area of the Lateran; and a natural stream, the Acqua Crabra (often confused with the Marrana).

Individuals fetched water themselves or purchased it from water carriers called acquaroli (fig. 1.4). Acquaroli drew water from sources such as the Trevi Fountain and at specific locations on the river — such as the Tor di Nona at the left bank by Ponte Sant'Angelo and outside Piazza del Popolo to the north of the city. The acquaroli might also sell spring water, such as that from the medicinal spring newly discovered in May 1567 two miles outside of the city near the church of San Sebastiano. An avviso of May 30, 1567, reported that many sick and infirm people gathered at the spring and that "the acquaroli who take it sell it very well." After drawing the water — especially if from the Tiber River — the acquaroli stored it in decanting barrels, letting sediment settle to the bottom, then placed the barrels on the backs of their donkeys and walked the streets to sell it.

Sewage and refuse of all kinds drained into the river or was dumped there. We would be aghast at the thought of drinking Tiber River water precisely because of its pollution and undoubted pathogens, but sixteenth-century Romans had different understandings of disease and were often more concerned about the effects of bad air than bad water, especially if the water was free from visible filth.

Nevertheless, physicians in Rome carried on a heated debate on the potability of Tiber River water that continued for decades. Some, such as Alessandro Traiano Petroni (d. 1585), physician to Paul IV Carafa and later to Gregory XIII, extolled the good qualities of Tiber water provided it was properly cleaned. Others, such as the physician Giovanni Battista Modio, denounced Tiber River water as unhealthy and undrinkable and assailed any physician who defended it. Modio was a follower of Filippo Neri and the Oratorians, a community of lay brothers and priests bound together by the mission of charity. He lived in the house of Cardinal Montepulciano Giovanni Ricci (1498–1574) in Via Giulia, that is, the Palazzo Ricci (now Sachetti) for at least five years until his death in 1560.

Cardinal Montepulciano may well have agreed with Modio — he would be instrumental in getting one of Rome's ancient aqueducts, the Acqua Vergine, repaired, providing abundant spring water to central Rome. (The availability of fresh spring water would have seemed urgent to anyone who deemed Tiber River water undrinkable.) The debate about whether Tiber River water was healthy to drink permeated other discussions and debates about water in general and the problem of Tiber River flooding in particular. These issues were of vital importance in the Roman context, but interest in water as a topic could extend geographically well beyond the city itself and chronologically to the waters of the ancient world.

The individual who perhaps best exemplified this wide-ranging interest was Pirro Ligorio (ca. 1513–1583). Ligorio was an intensely argumentative and combative architect and investigator of antiquities (see fig. 3.2). Despite his irascible personality and voluminous writings, little is known about his early background. Born into a noble family in Naples, he arrived in Rome in 1534 at around age twenty. His first known employment in Rome (or indeed anywhere) was painting decorative house facades with historical or mythical scenes, suggesting that his training had been primarily of a practical nature. Over the years, he became known for his numerous investigations of Roman antiquities and ruins, and eventually (in 1549) he was appointed court archaeologist for Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este (1509–1572). Ligorio's famous garden at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli demonstrates both his obsession with water and his ability to manipulate it.

Ligorio's manuscript writings comprise hundreds of pages on Roman antiquities and related topics, including rivers, springs, lakes, and aqueducts. They include an alphabetically arranged encyclopedia on waters written in the 1550s, which listed more than a thousand entries on rivers, springs, and lakes in the ancient and modern worlds. The work is filled with references to ancient sources. Water had particular symbolic significance for Ligorio, as his elaborate hydraulic water systems and fountains at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli demonstrate. Ligorio defended Tiber water as good for drinking, but he did not complete his alphabetical tract on water. He never reached the letter T, thereby failing to provide an extensive discussion of the Tiber under "Tevere" or, for that matter, anywhere else.

Floods and Flood Prevention

Romans of varying occupations and backgrounds took it on themselves to write on the topic of water, including ways to prevent the flooding of the Tiber River. By far the most prolific was the physician Andrea Bacci (1524–1600). Other contributors to riverine discussions included a military engineer (Antonio Trevisi, d. 1566), a physician (Paolo Clarante, fl. 1560s–1570s) who worked as a supervisor to an engineering project under Pius V, the Roman magistrate and legal expert Luca Peto (1512–1581), and a priest (Lorenzo Parigioli, fl. in Rome 1560s–1580s).

The varied solutions of these men to flooding are foreshadowed in the anonymous Ms. 153 in the Biblioteca Angelica (BA) in Rome, probably by the previously mentioned Oldradi. It consists of handwritten notes and compiled materials, including a copy of the 1531 tract on the great Roman flood of 1530 by Ludovico Gómez (i.e., Luis Gómez, ca. 1484–ca. 1542, auditor of the Vatican Palace under Clement VII). Manuscript 153 contains a catalog of Roman flood markers and their inscriptions. It recorded various opinions on how to remedy Tiber River flooding: dredge the river, restore the office of curator of the Tiber and the sewers (who would clean the water of sand and other impediments), enlarge the bed of the river, make more drains like the Cloaca Maxima that ran from the Roman Forum (as we understand its location today) to the Tiber, remove unnecessary bridges and superfluous arches of bridges, and create new channels to provide runoff for river water during floods.

In the arena of actual practice, more than a year after the 1557 disaster, Pope Paul IV called on the Capitoline Council to study the issue of Tiber River flooding. On March 8, 1559, at a public meeting of the council, we learn that the pope had asked the Popolo to elect "some gentlemen" who, together with the papacy, would consider methods of flood prevention. The council duly chose four councilors; their names are not mentioned, and we do not know what their deliberations or conclusions were. But it is notable that the pope's response to an urban problem involving physical topography and infrastructure was to call a broadly based council meeting where a wide-ranging discussion could take place.

The city was still in great disrepair when the hated Paul IV Carafa died a few months later in August 1559. His death sparked an urban riot. The people of Rome pulled down his statue that stood on the Capitoline Hill. An executioner cut off the statue's nose, ears, and right arm, cut off its tiara, and put the yellow hat of the Jews on its head. Then the executioner threw the head out of the window of the Palace of the Conservators. Children dragged it through the city for several days until one of the conservators paid them to throw it into the river. (The statue turned up again in the twentieth century; the nose and beard were repaired with plaster, and it resides in the collection of the Museum of Castel Sant'Angelo.) Crowds also smashed Carafa coats of arms wherever they appeared in the city and burned down the palace of the inquisition, releasing its prisoners.

Despite the threat of continuing disorder, it took almost four months for the conclave to elect Pius IV. The new pope's many projects of urban reconstruction included his attempts to ameliorate the problem of flooding. The problem attracted ambitious men, some seeking patronage and urban contracts. They advocated plans, proffered advice, and wrote tracts and proposals.

Andrea Bacci and the Tiber River

One of the most prolific of such proposers was Andrea Bacci (fig. 1.5). Bacci, born in the town of Sant'Elpidio a Mare in the Marches, arrived in Rome as a young man. His father, Antonio Bacci (dates unknown) was an architect, which was perhaps significant given the son's interests in hydraulic engineering. Bacci studied medicine in Siena and arrived in Rome in 1551. In 1567 he was made chair of medicinal simples (herbal and botanical medicine) at the Roman university, La Sapienza. He served as the personal physician to Felice Peretti (who was also from the Marches), both before and after Peretti became Sixtus V. Bacci investigated numerous topics in medicine and natural philosophy, and his primary focus was water in the form of springs, baths, and rivers. In the debate over the potability of the Tiber River, he was firmly on the side of those who advocated drinking it.

In 1558, a year after the devastating flood, Bacci wrote a tract in which he defended the river and suggested remedies for flooding. His 1558 Del Tevere, the first of three successive (and very different) versions, was divided into two parts: the first treated water in general, including that of the Tiber; the second focused on flooding. Bacci insisted that "the water of the Tiber with regard to goodness has few equals in the world." He provided explanations for flooding, reported the remedies of the ancients for Tiber flooding, and suggested solutions for the present day.

In his discussion of the nature of water and the causes of flooding, Bacci combined philosophical interests with practical proposals. In the second part of his treatise, he began by outlining differing opinions about the causes of flooding in general. They included the sea, winds, sand at the mouth of the river, the burgeoning of water "through rain or through nature," all of the above intermittently, and the influence of the stars. Different floods could have different causes, the most important being excessive rainfall. Bacci's approach took him to fundamental issues of natural philosophy, including the origins of water itself. He disagreed with Aristotle's view that water was made inside the earth, arguing that all water on the earth was from the sea, its natural place.

Turning to the terrible flood of 1557, Bacci provided a detailed account of the weather in Italy and Europe in the months before the catastrophe. The spring season had been serene with north winds. The summer was very dry. Then came heavy air and a dark and foggy autumn, infecting all of Italy from Sicily to the Alps. It was almost like a plague. It irritated the head, obscured the senses, and dried the mouth and chest. It gave fevers that never left and a violent cough, "not so much deadly as dreadful." In mid-September the skies darkened, and great rains began. Rivers all around Italy became extraordinarily full and overflowed. In Rome the flood came gradually. Because of the low level of the riverbed and the resistance of bridges and other buildings, water first began to fill the drains and sewers and then the streets. Most of the city became navigable. Because the Rome of his day lacked the diligent care that had been provided by the ancients, Bacci feared that the city might remain "sunken in a marsh."

Bacci's recommendations amounted to the reestablishment of ancient practices. The banks of the river needed to be fortified and augmented. The riverbed should be lowered to its ancient level — by removing debris and dredging, one presumes. Perhaps those put in charge of the massive dredging task could then serve as permanent caretakers of the river. The drains and sewers should be kept clean, as they had been in antiquity. An officer in charge of these operations, a curator of the Tiber and of the urban sewers and drains, should be appointed once again. Another consideration was the narrowness and low level of the arches of the bridges as an impediment. All these measures would eliminate floods; would make the river more navigable, cleaner, and less dreadful to drink; and would improve the pestilent air of Rome. When floods did come, the water would flow out through the clean drains and freely into the city; Rome would remain washed and clean from all filth. If in addition the foundations of the buildings were well constructed as well as the walls, they would not be harmed by floods.

At least some of Bacci's recommendations may well have been taken seriously. On June 10, 1564, the Capitoline Council appointed a committee of three — Luca Peto, Paolo del Bufalo, and Gentile Albertoni — to consider one of his recommendations. They were charged with studying writings and the law pertaining to the office of custodian of the Tiber and afterward to report back to the council. Their report does not appear to be extant.


Excerpted from "Engineering the Eternal City"
by .
Copyright © 2018 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Money, Weights, and Measures
Author’s Note

Introduction: Rome: Portrait of the Late Sixteenth-Century City
1 Troubled Waters: The Tiber River
2 The Streets and Sewers of Rome
3 Repairing the Acqua Vergine: Conflict and Process
4 Contested Infrastructure
5 Roman Topography and Images of the City
6 Maps, Guidebooks, and the World of Print
7 Reforming the Streets
8 Engineering Spectacle and Urban Reality
Conclusion: A City in Transition

List of Abbreviations

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews