Review | The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps

G.T. Dempsey


When you finish this delight of a book, you feel that the history of the mapping of Rome can stand as the very paradigm of the history of pre-digital cartography itself.  The city has been mapped and pictorially represented in every medium imaginable.  An altogether fitting phenomenon for the Eternal City.  

Even for someone familiar with Rome and its three millennia of history, as I have been since my teen-age years, this guided tour produces one revelatory insight after another.   Throughout, the author, an associate professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College, demonstrates an easy familiarity with her subject, in truth a deep erudition effortlessly handled.  

It would be a blessing, indeed, if all academics would write so simply and informatively, always to the point, always enlightening and entertaining.

Rome is present and past

Rome is present and past, not just intertwined but co-existing:  ‘…countless incarnations and eras merge in its cityscape.’  

Go to the Lateran Hill, in the southeastern section of the city, and visit the church of San Clemente.  This is one of Rome’s multitude of small architectural and decorated beauties.  Classical pillars line each side of the nave, the apse is resplendent with mosaics, a hieratic row of saints lining the base above the high altar.  

What you see is medieval, from the early twelfth century.  But, from a door inside the gift shop (a modern concept!), you can descend down a staircase to a church from the fourth century, a time when Christians, in legal peril from the state for their refusal to offer worship to the reigning emperor, met in private homes.  

The original Clement whose name has adorned the church for many centuries may have been the home owner.  

And, then, beneath that earliest of Christian places of worship, you can descend further to a second-century pagan temple, a temple of Mithras, with a stone carving in low relief of the god dressed as a soldier sacrificing a bull.  Originally an Iranian divinity, his cult proved particularly attractive to the late Roman military.  

‘San Clemente embodies the vertical, chronological layering that is…Rome:  not one city, but many superimposed and still visible today.’

Ten-chronologically ordered chapters

The author divides her historical tour into ten chronologically-ordered chapters – with the Introduction presenting the primitive origins of what became Rome as a model of archaic huts on the Palatine Hill, we then proceed through the Rome of the Caesars and the Rome of the Popes, the Rome in urban decay in the Middle Ages and the Rome reborn in the Renaissance, the Rome of the scholars, the Rome of saints and pilgrims, the Rome of the Grand Tour and of mass tourism, Rome today and as envisioned for a hopeful tomorrow.

Each period is illustrated to perfection

In the chapter on the Rome of the Caesars, for instance, the author examines Rodolfo Lanciani’s Forma Urbis Romae from the turn of the nineteenth century, a ‘graphic reconstruction of the city in meticulous ground plan – a horizontal footprint of the entire built fabric’ of the Rome of the Empire.  

This huge (seventeen by twenty-four feet) ‘holistic historical topography’ is critiqued in detail and set in its succession from preceding efforts.  There follows an identical display and factual unpacking of Italo Gismondi’s famous three-dimensional model of Constantinian Rome (early fourth century).  

An old map of the city of Rome on faded parchment.
Paulus Merula, Descriptio urbis Romae quadratae et postea . . . , engraving, Rome, ca. 1594. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

A wistful look back at the ‘bygone glories of the ancient city’

Another example of such impeccable scholarship (taken at random) comes in the chapter on the sixteenth century, where we see that scholars (and mapmakers) began ‘to look back wistfully at the bygone glories of the ancient city.’  

They had become conscious of the visible ruins all around them – the still-standing monumental columns and arches and the Colosseum and the remains of the Forum – for what they were, so visible survivors of a glorious past.  

For centuries, they had been long treated simply as quarries, convenient local sources of ready-made building material.  During the largely ecclesiastical construction boom of the Renaissance, kilns had even been set up in the Forum to melt down stone into lime to be used for mortar.  

The new ‘intellectual obsession’ with the ancient city was reflected in such as Pirro Ligorio’s bird’s-eye view of ancient Rome which appeared in 1561.  Professor Maier’s unpacking of the virtues (and errors) of this huge representation of ‘scores of intact, showy bath complexes, temples, palaces, circuses, theaters and amphitheaters, multistory apartment buildings, aqueducts, mausolea and tombs, triumphal arches, commemorative columns….’ is awe-inspiring.  

While much of what Ligorio represented were actually ‘nonexistent specters’ (that is, outside any possible archaeological knowledge of the time), their inclusion were intended by the mapmaker to give ‘a sense of the city as a living, breathing space.’  

Two final examples:  first, in the chapter on the Rome of pilgrims, the treatment of Antonio Lafteri’s famous ‘seven churches’ map of 1575 (designed not as a guide, but as a pious memento of Rome’s seven major pilgrimage churches) is preceded by an exposition – typically succinct but thorough – of the furor over the ‘selling of indulgences’ which sparked the Reformation, while, paradoxically, pilgrimages to Rome soared.  

Secondly, in the chapter on tourism, examination of maps folding out from a Baedeker guidebook is introduced by several pages detailing the development, from the early 1800s, of mass tourism, facilitated by such democratizing advances as the railroad, the steamboat, and Thomas Cook’s invention of the package tour (in the 1840s!).

And, thus, we are led, century by century, era by era, through the history of Rome and its visual representation.  The author’s erudition is as unflagging as our delight.  The book is simply a visual pleasure; its text an exemplar of the scholar’s craft.

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Cover of 'The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps"

Jessica Maier The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps (University of Chicago Press, 2020), pp. vii, 199  ISBN: 9780226591452 $40 (Amazon – affiliate link)

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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