A Roman Mapsterpiece

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), July 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Roman Mapsterpiece


Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

An old proverb says all roads lead to Rome. Now so does the road through cyberspace.

Two University of Oregon researchers have put the Eternal City on the digital map with an interactive Web site that lets people explore Rome through an 18th century mapping masterpiece while being able to instantly zoom in on the city as it is now.

As much a silicon guidebook as a map, the project blends cartography, history, architecture and urban design into a single tool that's as much fun for casual viewers as it is useful for scholars.

"This is far better than any map you could buy at a newsstand in Rome," said James Tice, a UO architecture professor who's leading the project.

It goes far beyond tourist maps that simply show a tangled web of streets dotted with little stars marking points of interest. The interactive, Web-based map offers articles and historical details on hundreds of plazas, churches, fountains and buildings, shows how the city has changed and how it has stayed the same over 250 years and literally lets viewers take a bird's-eye tour of one of the world's greatest cities.

At the heart of the project is what's known as the "Nolli Map," a tour-de-force of mapmaking completed by Giambattista Nolli in 1748. Almost microscopic in detail, the Nolli Map had to be made in 12 sections on embossed copper plates because it was too big - at almost six feet by seven feet - for the printing technology of the time.

Tice, cartographer Erik Steiner of the UO Infographics Lab and graduate student Mark Brenneman for the first time unified the separate pieces into a single digital map. The result is the first-ever representation of the map as Nolli himself would have wanted to see it.

"I'm proud to say we have the first seamless Nolli Map," said Tice, who has been fascinated with the graphic ever since he was introduced to it 25 years ago as a graduate student at Cornell. "This is how Nolli intended to do it; this is what he would have wanted to do had the technology been available. So this is an important breakthrough."

On the project's Web page, viewers can scroll across the map, zoom in and out on palazzi and basilicas, trace the city's ancient walls and gates, locate fountains and gardens and simply immerse themselves in a level of detail that had never been achieved in mapmaking.

Then they can layer modern satellite views over the old map and see what an area looks like today.

"I like to say it's almost a Pompeii-like document of the city because it shows pawnshops and prisons and schools, it shows street drains and aqueducts and fountains, you name it," Tice said of Nolli's map. "It's just the whole life of the city on that map, so it's an incredible cultural document."

Tice said Rome offers a unique laboratory for the study of urban design. …

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