At the Intersection of 18th and 21st (Centuries, That Is): A Map of Rome

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), July 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

At the Intersection of 18th and 21st (Centuries, That Is): A Map of Rome


Byline: Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

Three years after wowing Internet audiences with an interactive map of Rome based on the work of an 18th century cartographer, a group that includes three University of Oregon researchers is back with an even more ambitious project.

It builds upon their previous undertaking by adding the illustrations of one of Rome's great cityscape artists, Giuseppe Vasi, to the maps of Giambattista Nolli.

The project, known as Vasi's Grand Tour of Rome, took two years of research and was funded by a $200,000 grant from the Getty Research Institute.

"You don't necessarily have to have a Ph.D. to use the site or be enrolled in the school of architecture," said Jim Tice, the UO architecture professor who led the team of researchers. "We really believe that anyone who has a passion for learning about the city of Rome will be interested."

Tice's collaborators included Erik Steiner from the UO geography department's InfoGraphics Lab and Dennis Beyer, an architecture graduate research fellow. Alan Ceen, a professor of architectural history at Penn State University, and director of Studium Urbis in Rome, served as a consultant on the project.

The group's previous project, the Nolli Map, allowed viewers to explore the city using a combination of satellite images and the work of Nolli, a master cartographer who created the first accurate map of Rome in 1748.

Similar to the hybrid maps found on Web sites such as GMaps, the program actually pre-dates Google's interactive mapping system. The Nolli map won awards and attracted far more Internet traffic than its creators ever dreamed of.

"We thought 12 people would be interested, but that site now has over 100,000 hits a year," Tice said. "On any given day or week there are people who are using it in New Zealand or Romania or Italy."

While the Nolli Map blended cartography, history, technology, architecture and urban design, the updated site adds art and perhaps a degree of cultural history. Users can still click on Nolli's detailed and highly accurate map and learn all about the city's hundreds of architectural wonders. Now, the site also includes hundreds of etchings by Vasi, many of which show people going about their daily lives in the city.

Vasi, one of the great architectural illustrators of his time, was eclipsed by his student Giovanni Battista Piranesi in much the same way the composer Antonio Salieri was dwarfed by Mozart. One of the hopes of Tice's team was to shed some light on Vasi's work.

Tice said he and his group felt it was important to present the city through the eyes of an artist rather than simply relying on photographs. Viewers to the site can click back and forth between Vasi's illustrations and digital photographs showing the same monuments as they exist today.

Tice, who shot the digital photos of the buildings, said it was remarkable how similar the illustrations were to the buildings as they appear today.

Users can see the similarities by flipping back and forth between Tice's photographs and Vasi's etchings. The artist made some slight changes, widening streets and lengthening the distance between structures, to emphasize the buildings. Like Nolli, who showed even the most minute details, Vasi left very little out of his drawings and tried to show how buildings related to one another.

"They both loved the city of Rome, and they are absolutely passionate about (it) and felt some kind of compulsion to capture it," Tice said. "One (used) a planned view, the other (sought) to capture it three dimensionally with these innumerable views throughout the city."

The illustrations and map points on the Web site can be sorted in numerous ways. …

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