I have always loved maps. I think most people do–they represent adventure and exotic places and travel, but they also serve to organize our world, to make it knowable and coherent. I spend long stretches here in Rome looking at maps–finding routes to walk, locating restaurants, especially poring over the Metromap, a huge, detailed map of the city that shows every bus and subway line and helpfully includes a booklet with two indexes: One lists all bus lines by number and identifies every stop each bus makes; the second lists every major street alphabetically and shows which buses stop there. I love the Metromap.
Between 1740 and 1748, a Roman named Giambattista Nolli created a map of his city. The Pope wanted one, which in those days was often the reason that many things got done. Nolli employed seven assistants, eight years, and the latest surveying tools. He had a letter from il Papa that gave him entry into every structure in the city–private homes, churches, even cloisters from which the resident nuns never emerged. The map shows streets and piazzas and the river, of course–standard mapping territory–but also every building, the shape of every interior coutryard, the steps of each public staircase. All of it was surveyed and measured so accurately, and the basic structure of Rome changed so little over the next 200 years, that Nolli’s Pianta Grande di Roma continued to be used as the template for Rome’s official maps through 1960. There are many wonderful things about the Nolli map. It is, first, a beautiful thing in and of itself. The original map consists of twelve copper plates; when pieced together, they form a whole measuring about 6′ by 7′. I know this because a remarkable team of scholars, based primarily at the University of Oregon but including a Penn State professor of architectural history, Allen Ceen, here in Rome, has been working with the map for some years, and their website (nolli.uoregon.edu) offers not only a digital version of the map itself but a tremendous variety of other resources. But beyond its beauty, the map is useful. John found the team’s site while hunting for maps of Rome that might help him in his quest to follow Melville’s 1857 footsteps: The Nolli map remains the best source for that, despite the century that separates it from Melville’s visit.
So one day, we ventured out to visit Allen Ceen. Following our own phone Google map, we found his studio tucked into a building that even by Roman standards seemed very old, in the center of medieval Rome, just around the corner from the Palazzo Farnese. We pushed open the heavy wooden door and entered a low-ceilinged room with a few rows of chairs facing a screen on the front wall (Allen teaches Penn State Abroad students), several large, heavy worktables and desks, and a line of overflowing bookshelves along one wall. And everywhere, maps. Books about maps. Old maps, modern maps. Everywhere, maps. It felt like heaven.
On one wall hung a full-size reproduction of the Nolli map, taller than I am, looking–in terms of the city’s general layout–very much the same as the various maps of Rome I carry around in my bag. We studied it. John asked how Melville might have gotten from here to there, what routes he might have followed. At one point Melville mentions a suspension bridge over the Tiber, of which no traces remain; Allen pulled out a photograph showing the bridge, which had only been in existence from 1853 to 1880 or so. Then Allen retrieved a large portfolio and opened it on his work table: An original Nolli map, each of the 12 sections filled with detail–roads and footpaths, fountains and gardens, courtyards and staircases. The three main boulevards radiating out from Piazza del Popolo–via Babuini, the Corso, via Ripetta–like fingers stretching into the center of old Rome. Out via Nomentana, where we live, nothing–only open fields.
We stayed an hour and promised to meet Allen again some morning at Piazza Fontanella Borghese, where the dealers of etchings and stamps and such set up market every day. Allen, who came to Rome for six months and stayed for 53 years, bikes to the markets every morning. He promised to help us find an old, good quality etching as a remembrance of our Roman stay.
When Nolli presented his competed map to Pope Benedict XIV (the project had taken so long that the Pope who had requested it, Clement XII, had died), il Papa looked it over, nodded, and waved Nolli away. He paid Nolli nothing.