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An ancient map of Rome that's surprisingly up to date

By Jim / October 19, 2005


In 1748, architect and surveyor Giambattista Nolli completed a map of his hometown. The Pianta Grande di Roma ("Great Plan of Rome") was built from 12 minutely detailed copper plates, covered six by seven feet in its assembled state, and was so accurate that it continued to be used as the basis for government maps of the city until the 1970s. In 2005, a team at the University of Oregon brought the map online in order to "create and implement an innovative and highly interactive website and teaching tool for the study of the city of Rome." It may be a wordy mission statement, but the University of Oregon team certainly met its goals - The Interactive Nolli Map Website offers a good deal more than just a new look at an old map.

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When created, the "Great Plan" was not only an impressive scientific and artistic achievement, it also set some cartographic precedents that are still followed today - such as Nolli's choice of the ichnographic, or plan, style of illustration rather than the more popular "bird's eye view." Nolli's was also the first map to use dark shades to mark buildings and private spaces and light shades for streets and public spaces, and the first such chart oriented so that North, rather than East, was at the top of the page. (In fact, the phrase, 'to orient' oneself, comes down from the earlier practice of placing the East at the top of maps.) Now, in its interactive incarnation, the map continues to set new precedents, as it folds history, cartography, urban design, and even architecture into a single presentation.

The layout of the Interactive Nolli Map Website is basic, though attractive enough, with a simple navigation bar at the top of each page and a handful of images below (which link to a collection of articles). Even the icon that launches the site's main attraction, the Nolli Map Engine, borders on the nondescript, but looks can be deceiving, and the application behind that link is an already impressive piece of Flash programming - with additional enhancements planned for the future.

Opening into a new window, the Map Engine presents the "Great Plan" in an interactive interface with an intriguing collection of options. Fairly standard features in the Map Engine include drag and zoom capability (with an impressive degree of magnification available), a navigational thumbnail image, one-click access to the last image viewed, and the ability to print and bookmark the current display. A less common feature (in fact, one I've never seen before) is an "Enhance this map view" button which, surprisingly, slightly blurs the image on display. While that may seem counterintuitive, the process actually does make the map easier on the eyes, by smoothing the jagged, pixellated lines of the map when viewed at extreme magnifications.

In addition to these basic functions, the Map Engine also employs nine informational layers that can be overlaid above the map - in any combination and at any magnification. Already activated on launch is a layer that adds color to the Tiber River over the black and white map. Other layers locate Gardens, Fountains, and Pathways in the city, trace the defensive Walls of Rome, and provide captions for the decorative imagery at the bottom of Nolli's opus. More layers are planned for the future, and will include such features as cafes, census data, archaeological sites, and even flood zones.