Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City

Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City

by Jessica Maier

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At the turn of the fifteenth century, Rome was in the midst of a dramatic transformation from what the fourteenth-century poet Petrarch had termed a “crumbling city” populated by “broken ruins” into a prosperous Christian capital. Scholars, artists, architects, and engineers fascinated by Rome were spurred to develop new graphic modes for depicting the city—and the genre known as the city portrait exploded.

In Rome Measured and Imagined, Jessica Maier explores the history of this genre—which merged the accuracy of scientific endeavor with the imaginative aspects of art—during the rise of Renaissance print culture. Through an exploration of works dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, her book interweaves the story of the city portrait with that of Rome itself.

Highly interdisciplinary and beautifully illustrated with nearly one hundred city portraits, Rome Measured and Imagined advances the scholarship on Renaissance Rome and print culture in fascinating ways.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226127774
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/07/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 28 MB
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About the Author

Jessica Maier is assistant professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College.

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Rome Measured and Imagined

Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City

By Jessica Maier

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-12777-4



Leon Battista Alberti's Descriptio urbis Romae (ca. 1450) and Francesco Rosselli's Lost View of Rome (ca. 1485–90)

In the fifteenth century, two novel approaches to urban representation signaled the arrival of a new era in the way cities were depicted. Neither survives in concrete form, so we must rely on written and visual traces to partially reconstruct these elusive monuments. There is no doubt, however, that they espoused diametrically opposing forms and had very different repercussions. Leon Battista Alberti's Descriptio urbis Romae (Delineation of the City of Rome) of about 1450 is not an image but a short treatise outlining the scholar's method for creating a measured rendering of the city. His instructions conjure a mathematical plan based on Euclidean coordinates in which sites are reduced to points, the urban infrastructure and topography to planimetric outline. Unlike Alberti's urban diagram, Francesco Rosselli's great view of Rome, published for a larger audience some four decades later, was naturalistic and independent of text: an encompassing visual evocation of the city that needed no explanation. Alberti's treatise and map did not gain a wide circulation and seem to have anticipated future developments rather than shaping them directly. Rosselli's image, by contrast, had an immediate and lasting impact that resounded far beyond Italy, initiating a long and rich afterlife in print. Yet for all their differences, both milestones reflected an underlying attention to measurement and exactitude with regard to the urban fabric, as well as the mounting excitement of Rome's cultural renewal. Together, they established the alternatives that dominated city portraiture for the rest of the early modern period.


The prehistory of Alberti and Rosselli's advances dates back as far as the late 1200s, so it might be more fitting—as with so many things "Renaissance"—to see their fifteenth-century developments as marking a critical shift in emphasis rather than a true rupture with existing practice. It is true that in the late Middle Ages, most images of Rome, and of cities in general, fell into certain categories that put little stock in direct observation and bore scant resemblance to what was to come. By this time, the practices of Roman land surveyors (agrimensores) had faded, and we know of few examples of measured town plans before Alberti. P. D. A. Harvey has suggested that the ancient Roman tradition of maps to scale died out completely during the Middle Ages, with one of its last known descendants being the famous ninth-century St. Gall plan of a monastic complex, which is akin to a miniature city; Juergen Schulz, on the other hand, believes that the tradition never disappeared entirely but did become extremely rare as other forms predominated. Whatever the case, cities were most commonly denoted by conventionalized pictograms of one or two buildings and urban features, made nongeneric only by means of identifying labels. There also appeared stereotyped images of walled, turreted towns that stood for the idea of a city rather than any particular place, sometimes "personalized" by the insertion of one or two vaguely recognizable monuments or a label.

Yet these types—which persisted into the Renaissance—were increasingly balanced by approaches that favored greater specificity and realism. About 1300, there appeared early signs of a move toward individualization—architectural and, to a lesser extent, topographical. In a fresco of about 1280 labeled Ytalia on the vault of the Upper Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, the Florentine painter Cimabue (ca. 1240–1302) packed together a dozen recognizable Roman monuments as emblems not just of the city, but of the entire peninsula, its history and culture. This impulse was taken a step further in the 1300s, when there emerged a trend among city images to embed monuments in a thicket of undifferentiated, generic buildings—thus giving a better sense of urban density and variety. Meanwhile, the historian Fra Paolino Veneto (ca. 1270–ca. 1344) included several detailed town plans in manuscripts of his Chronologia magna dating from the 1320s and 1330s. His plans of Rome now at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice and the Vatican Library (fig. 4), both thought to have been based on a prototype of the late 1200s, show the city with a number of faintly recognizable and often labeled monuments (such as the Colosseum, medieval towers, St. Peter's Basilica, and aqueducts) as well as topographical features (Rome's famed hills, the Tiber River), all contained within a regularized, oblong circuit of crenellated walls. Streets link various features, lined by anonymous structures including many simple A-frames, but with enough variation to suggest a plausible urban mixture of forms and functions.

Fra Paolino's maps of Rome lack a scale or other explicit references to measured data, and their monuments and street networks bear just a passing resemblance to the city's real architecture and layout. Any single element considered in isolation might confound proper identification. Together, however, they add up to a picture of a place that could only be Rome. The maps demonstrate firsthand knowledge of the city and, in depicting it as an integrated fabric, embody a concept of continuous urban space that anticipates Alberti, Rosselli, and others. It was but one step from that concept to measurement. In fact, the plan of Venice included in the Marciana's copy of Fra Paolino's Chronologia is more accurate than that of Rome and is thought to incorporate information from rudimentary surveying. There also exists documentary evidence that measured ground plans were known in Italy in the late fourteenth century, and there is no reason to suppose that the rest of Europe lagged far behind. A plan of Vienna and Bratislava dating from mid-1400s but copied from a work of the early 1420s includes a graduated scale, further bolstering the theory that measured city plans were far from unknown during that gray period as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance.

The conceptual underpinnings for measured, integrated city plans existed, therefore, but maps like those of Rome, Venice, and Vienna were highly unusual in the realm of medieval urban representation. If these isolated instances predicted subsequent developments, there were important differences in how the ingredients came together and were then taken up by mapmakers. More than basic principles, it was consolidation, commitment, and especially momentum that set the Renaissance exemplars apart from their closest predecessors. Parallel patterns can be found across the culture of the later Middle Ages—not least in the very concept of history. An important development in the writing of the past was the move from chronicles, which recorded events in a disconnected fashion akin to a time line, drawing indiscriminately on a variety of sources, to more selective narratives that explored how and why events unfolded and were interrelated. Peter Burke has written that the medieval approach to history yielded to that of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century, when there arose a real sense of difference and distance from the past, as well as a new, critical approach to evidence, and an effort not just to describe change but to interpret it in light of cause and effect. But as Patricia Fortini Brown and others have reminded us more recently, this development—far from sudden—had sporadic origins well before 1400. The difference is that it took on the force of a cultural movement only the following century. The historian Petrarch was a key transitional figure of the early to mid-1300s, much like Fra Paolino, who moved in the same extended intellectual circles—and who considered maps integral tools for imparting an understanding of history.

Returning to city imagery, the type that took hold in the fourteenth century was not Fra Paolino's forward-looking paradigm but a category known to modern scholars as the ideogrammatic view, which presented the town as a collection of isolated monuments within a schematic rendering of the walls. Like the plan and bird's-eye view, the ideogram had origins in antiquity. In the late Middle Ages it evolved to couple an interest in the forms of individual structures with an emergent desire to give their relative positions, and to incorporate some topographical features. Among representations of Rome, one exemplar of this basic type dominated from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries. It was primarily a manuscript tradition, although it worked its way into monumental contexts, as witnessed by Taddeo di Bartolo's fresco of 1414 for the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena (plate 2). This work was just one of a family of closely related images, among them the miniature of Rome in the Limbourg brothers' Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (ca. 1413–16), all based on a single unknown prototype. These medieval effigies were not portraits so much as memory pictures, composed of many discrete elements from across eras.

In all adaptations of this model, Rome is represented with south at the top—the "pilgrim's perspective," so called because it reflects the vantage point of a traveler arriving on foot from the north, who would have first glimpsed the city from Monte Mario. As evident from Taddeo's fresco, however, the oblique view from above does not pretend to simulate a real vision. The Aurelian Walls are delineated in plan and regularized into a nearly circular form, with the exception of two bulges at right (corresponding to the areas of Trastevere and the Vatican, both across the river from the city center). The only topographical elements included are the Tiber and its island—although there are also a few paths that must allude to streets, a subtle but notable innovation not present in the other versions. Within city walls, the view presents a compendium of Rome's Christian and pagan landmarks: the Colosseum, Pantheon, Lateran Basilica, St. Peter's, Castel Sant'Angelo, Column of Trajan, Horse Tamers (Dioscuri) and Marcus Aurelius equestrian statues, and so on and so forth. All are depicted as outsize, synoptic pictures, evenly sprinkled across an otherwise barren plain.

Although none of these images has been associated with a manuscript of the popular medieval guidebook known as the Mirabilia urbis Romae (Marvels of the City of Rome), they reflect the same general emphases. The Mirabilia is a group of closely related texts that originate in the twelfth century and focus on the ancient monuments of Rome. Based on a pastiche of different sources and liberally mixing fact, fantasy, and legend, the Mirabilia embody the medieval attitude to the past as described by Burke: namely, a "historical innocence" and "lack of historical curiosity"—that is, of any impetus to search objectively for the real causes of change over time. As potent relics of the past, Rome's ruins are not interrogated, but accepted unquestioningly as part—albeit a wondrous part—of the cityscape. The Mirabilia recount Rome's sites, landmarks, and associated stories without reference to urban topography or infrastructure. Although one part of the guidebook does follow a vaguely topographical organization, it is only implicit; there is little sense of spatial relationships among sites or of how a visitor would progress from one to another. The narrative as such is disorienting, and only a reader already familiar with Rome would grasp that the order of sites discussed reflects their real locations in the city. For the most part, Rome is treated as a series of disconnected points of interest, not an interwoven fabric: an attitude perfectly encapsulated in Taddeo di Bartolo's ideogram.

Views from the third quarter of the fifteenth century by Piero del Massaio and Alessandro Strozzi (b. 1452) are often seen as advances, reflecting a more rigorous, scholarly approach to antiquity. The similarities of these images attest to their common foundation in a lost prototype of the mid-fifteenth century that was, in turn, at least partly inspired by a recent text: Flavio Biondo's Rome Restored of 1444–46. This work, discussed in detail below as a critique and revision of the Mirabilia model, took a decisive step toward historical method. Correspondingly, Massaio and Strozzi's images surpassed the ideograms of the previous century by taking greater care in depicting architectural detail and, to a lesser extent, topography, major streets, orientations, and relative distances. Massaio's view of 1471–72 (plate 3), one of nine early city portraits adorning a luxury manuscript of Ptolemy's Geography, illustrates these shifting impulses. It is a transitional work, sharing something of the aggregate nature of Taddeo di Bartolo's fresco, but with a greater degree of local specificity. Buildings are more readily identifiable, and their positions as well as the spaces between them bear some relationship to their real configurations within city walls. Massaio also depicts Rome's famous hills, giving a hint of the city as more than a blank slate to populate with monuments. Despite such modifications, the overarching form of this representation did not break away from the medieval framework established a century earlier: the orientation, schematic form of the walls, and basic image type all remained fundamentally unchanged. Already by the time of Massaio and Strozzi, however, a more radical step had been taken toward a new city image.


Leon Battista Alberti's project to map Rome is a founding moment in urban cartography—the first unambiguous evidence of a measured city plan since antiquity. Alberti's goals and method were put forth in two treatises dating from his second prolonged Roman stay, in 1443–55, when the noted Florentine polymath was serving as papal secretary at the court of Eugenius IV and, from 1447, Nicholas V. The first of the treatises, Ludi rerummathematicarum or Ludi matematici, presents a series of "mathematical games" that rely on cleverly adapted instruments and practical geometry, including several surveying methods. The second treatise, Descriptio urbis Romae, begins with a brief introductory text describing a technique Alberti had devised to generate a map of Rome using methods outlined in the Ludi, followed by series of tables listing the data acquired by means of those methods. No map by Alberti has survived, and there is some question whether it was even his intention to create one, or simply lay out his principles. Regardless, Alberti's technique was prophetic. Over the following century it was widely adopted by architects and disseminated in a plethora of popular books on surveying and fortification—books geared toward an ever-expanding audience of educated amateurs in the tradition of Alberti himself.

In the Descriptio urbis Romae, Alberti explains the synthesis of data into an image of Rome. The Latin term descriptio was primarily used to denote a map, plan, or diagram, and only secondarily a verbal description, and Alberti's title would seem to conflate these meanings by denoting a written account of a visual image. The treatise gives just a partial explanation of his map's preparation, for Alberti is silent on his measuring process, instead detailing the subsequent stage at which, having already done his fieldwork, he creates a smaller-scale depiction of the city on paper. He begins: "Using mathematical instruments, I have recorded as carefully as I could the passage ... of the walls, the river, and the streets of the city of Rome, as well as the sites and locations of the temples, public works, gates, and commemorative monuments, and the outlines of the hills, not to mention the area which is occupied by habitable buildings, all as we know them to be in our time." Alberti writes that his method, which "some intellectuals, friends of mine," urged him to develop, is a foolproof way to reproduce his map "on any surface, however large." There follows a series of tables—lists of numerical coordinates—fixing the positions of many points along Rome's walls, gates, and river, and of monuments interspersed throughout the city. These features can then be plotted on a gridded armature at any scale desired.


Excerpted from Rome Measured and Imagined by Jessica Maier. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

“Icarus Spreading His Wings”: The Early Modern City Brought to Life

Chapter One
Toward a New City Image: Leon Battista Alberti’s Descriptio urbis Romae (ca. 1450) and Francesco Rosselli’s Lost View of Rome (ca. 1485–90)
Late Medieval Origins
Alberti’s Survey of Rome
Rosselli’s Rome in Twelve Sheets

Chapter Two
Putting Rome into Drawing: The Lessons of Architecture and Antiquity in the Early 1500s
Raphael’s Call to Preserve, Measure, and Draw the Ruins
Raphael’s Larger Goals and Audience
Drawn from the Grave: Illustrated Works on Ancient Rome after Raphael
Pictorialism Revisited

Chapter Three
Syntheses: Leonardo Bufalini’s Plan of Rome (1551)
Origins, Form, and Function of Bufalini’s Plan
Bufalini’s Background and Intended Audience
Bufalini and the Art of Surveying
Ancient and Modern in Bufalini’s Map
The Early Reception and Influence of Bufalini’s Map
The Modern Reception of Bufalini’s Map

Chapter Four
Antitheses: Ancient and Modern Rome in Sixteenth-Century Imagery
Bartolomeo Marliani, Pirro Ligorio, and the “Memory of Ancient Things”
Stefano Du Pérac, the Ancient Forma urbis, and the City Renewed
Mario Cartaro and the Paragone of Ancient and Modern
Roman Print Culture, Dissemination, and the Market

Chapter Five
“Before the Eyes of the Whole World”: The City Writ Large, 1593–1676
Antonio Tempesta’s Prospectus and Its Progeny: Painterly Approaches to the Reenergized City
Matteo Greuter, Giovanni Battista Falda, and Architectural Approaches to Seventeenth-Century Rome

The Eternal City Measured and Imagined


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