Hydraulic Engineering and the Study of Antiquity: Rome, 1557-70

By Long, Pamela O. | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Hydraulic Engineering and the Study of Antiquity: Rome, 1557-70


Long, Pamela O., Renaissance Quarterly


1. INTRODUCTION

Recent scholarship has emphasized a growing association in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries between technology and engineering on the one hand, and the humanist study of antiquity on the other. (1) The ways in which humanists combined an examination of ancient objects, ruins, and inscriptions with the scrutiny of ancient texts is also a focus of substantial scholarship. (2) Yet engineering practice, in which specific urban problems were approached through the investigation of ancient texts and artifacts, has received little attention. This article focuses on engineering and the study of antiquity in Rome during the decade that also saw the conclusion of the Council of Trent. (3) It examines two areas of hydraulic engineering in the 1560s: flood prevention on the Tiber River and the reconstruction of an ancient aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo, later called the Acqua vergine. These engineering projects addressed longstanding urban problems, and also contributed to an effort to renovate the city so that it might better represent the reforming Catholic church and the pope at its head.

In the aftermath of the catastrophic Tiber Riber flood of 1557, hydraulic engineering projects become a magor focus of urban reform in Rome of the 1560s. Massive public works projects ensued, namely the construction of trenches around Castel Sant' Angelo and the reconstruction of the Acqua Vergine. In this era, long before the development of professional engineering and the scientific analysis of structures, such projects produced extensive discussions and writings about how to proceed, as well as investigations of ancient structural remains and precedents. Individuals from diverse backgrounds--engineer-architects and other practitioners, physicians, elite Romans serving as magistrates in the communal government, undertook extensive investigations of ancient texts, artifacts, inscriptions, and ancient engineering practices. Engineering projects were carried out in tandem with these scholarly and archaeological investigations. It is remarkable that, in spite of their diverse backgrounds, the authors discussed in this paper shared a view of the natural world and the conviction that classical antiquity offered essential guidance for the solution of contemporary problems.

Roman attention to hydraulic engineering included both practical concerns and an interest in ancient precedent. Contemporaries studied and wrote about hydraulic issues not only to discover solutions for urgent hydraulic problems, but also in an effort to obtain advisory, supervisory, or contractual roles in large-scale urban engineering projects. The awarding of contracts and the raising of the requisite funds often generated conflict, especially given the complicated systems of patronage and governance that characterized sixteenth-century Rome. The city was governed by two unequal partners, the papacy and the papal curia on the one hand, and, on the other, the weak but still essential communal government led by three conservators at the head of the Roman council, together with the prior of the caporwni, the thirteen officials each responsible for public order in one of the thirteen rioni, or districts, of the city. (4) The city's complex patronage structures encouraged the proliferation of written tracts and proposals of various kinds, which often included discussions of ancient texts and practices. Engineering and antiquarian interests went hand in hand.

Despite great efforts, control over Tiber River flooding proved elusive. (Indeed, the devastating floods were not fully controlled until the present high walls were built along the river in the 1 1880s.) (5) As we shall see, the attempt of Pope Pius IV (r. 1559-65) to have the ancient aqueduct repaired in the early 1560s proved a costly failure. However, his successor, Pope Pius V (r. 1565-72), brought the project to completion in 1570, bringing thousands of gallons of fresh water to the city daily. …

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