Lunch with Giambattista Nolli

As a poetic companion to Michael Ezban’s study of Monte Testaccio — the Roman landfill that has been, at various times, quarry, wine cellar, military bunker, festival site and inspiration for landscape architects — we present another source of inspiration: Giambattista Nolli’s map of Rome, engraved in 1748, with a poem by architect and urbanist Dolores Hayden.

Giambattista Nolli Map, Rome

Architect and surveyor of Pianta Grande di Roma, the first modern city map, 1748. “Despite praise heaped on the work by everyone from the pope on down, it was not a financial success. … After two years, most engraved copies were still unsold.”

Remember when we two young architects
recorded a street with a dozen crooked houses?
I draw all Rome now, every way-out quarter,
the Pope himself signed me a pass, I measure
everything — yes, even cloistered convents.
Rolling and clanking my iron chain, I slice
at space, cut ground and figure, figure and ground.
The riverbanks and cypresses, you’ll know,
the plan is new, stretched flat on twelve wide sheets.

“Lacks charm,” a colleague carps, blind to the grid
as science. “No taste, no style,” a rival sneers.
“Buy it,” the barefoot friars beg their abbots.
They swear the saints themselves guide my bussola!

No one has ever drawn a map like mine,
or understood its mathematic power,
or counted up its thousand uses — taxing,
policing, buying, selling, spying, wooing —
that’s not to mention ordinary viewing.

You build, my friend, you know our art is urban.
Just four zecchini. No? I wager you —
some day we’ll all own city maps in Rome.
So please, be one of the first, put down your cash!

Giambattista Nolli Map, Rome
Central Rome (above) and Monte Testaccio (below), as shown on the Nolli Map of 1748. Explore the Interactive Nolli Map by architect Jim Tice and geographer Eric Steiner at the University of Oregon.

Editors' Note

“Lunch with Giambattista Nolli” was published in American Yard (David Robert Books, 2004). For the story of Monte Testaccio, read The Trash Heap of History, published on Places earlier this week.

Cite
Dolores Hayden, “Lunch with Giambattista Nolli,” Places Journal, May 2012. Accessed 17 Dec 2014. <>

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Past Discussions View
  • 05.21.2012 at 11:08

    A well-deserved ode to the map I still use almost every day. Thanks for sharing.