The 18th century was a propitious time for visualizing and representing the city of Rome. This feat was achieved with scientific accuracy and poetic artistry that had never been achieved before and has not been equaled since. First of all, and most significantly, the city itself was perceived as an ‘object’ of desire and almost universally considered in the Western mind as being worthy of recording for artistic, scientific, religious, social and political reasons.
By mid-century Giovanni Battista Nolli created the most scientifically accurate, detailed and comprehensive map of the city even conceived. At the same time his counterparts Giambattista Piranesi and his undervalued rival and former teacher who is our special focus, Giuseppe Vasi, made hundreds of city views that have never been surpassed for their ability to record the Eternal City in hauntingly poetic terms (Piranesi) or as an 18th century visitor would have actually experienced it, street by street (Vasi).
Two traditions intersected to bring this about: one cartographic, routed in a comprehensive, at times demanding abstract notion for representing of the city through the use of the ichnographic plan (plan view), the other based on a pictorial tradition, perfected by the practice of the those chroniclers and artists specializing in city views or vedute. Despite differences in methods, media and fundamentally different approaches to representing the city, the cartographers and vedutisti shared and an abiding interest in the city’s topographic and spatial structure and focused their energy on capturing the architectural and urban character of place, or what we may call in Christian Norburg Schulze’s apt term: the genius loci of Rome.
The literature on these twin aspects for visualizing Rome is, fortunately, extensive and expanding. Frutaz’ magisterial work on Rome’s cartography, Pianta di Roma, presents a stunning compendium of city plans from antiquity through the mid 20th century and is one book end. The other is multiple and comprised of a series of monographs, historical surveys, and exhibitions which treat the vedutismo tradition in all it complex and fascinating aspects. Particularly worthy of note, of course, is the extensive literature on Giambattista Piranesi. But Piranesi was not alone and his famous views and the attention paid to them tend to eclipse his fellow artists whose contribution both in terms of capturing the city and in terms of their own artistic merit have not received, until fairly recently, the attention that is their due in the public’s eye. Jörg Garm’s work, Vedute di Roma, is an important contribution this area of study. Another is the exhibition and subsequent catalogue at Palazzo Poli in Rome, Roma Veduta, provides a splendid set of examples previously known only to historians specializing in this area. For the period under consideration, the exhibition and catalogue, Art in Rome in the Eighteenth 18th Rome eduted by Joseph Rishel and Edgar Bowron provides a wonderfully illuminating context for all the visual arts and is of inestimable for placing both cartography and vedustismo in context. Additionally authors such as Marisa Scalabroni, P. Coen texts which cover the life and work of Vasi are invaluable. New scholarship by Mario Bevilacqua expecially in Nolli Vasi Piranes: Immagine di Roma Antica e Moderna contributes to the debate about the relative significance and relationship between three the masters topographers of 18the century Rome.
Out of this cultural ferment there emerged the phenomenon of the informed, curious and even passionate traveler who had an attraction to the city of Rome we usually associate more with a force of nature rather than with human will. The Grand Tour was born in the preceding century but it was in the 18th that it flourished. The era gave rise to the dilettante, and the amateur, not pejoratively understood as it is today as terms of derision, but as a title to bestow on the practiced, informed, passionate devotee of whatever subject may be their concern. The nouveau riche, of course, populated this scene as well but it should not overshadow the fact that the practice of travel fostered and understanding and appreciation of Rome’s cultural riches that went far beyond anything that had preceded it.
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Naples: Electa, 1998.
Bevilacqua, Mario, ed.
Nolli Vasi Piranesi, Immagine di Roma Antica e Moderna, Rappresentare e Conoscere La Metropoli Dei Lumi. Rome: Artemide Edizioni, 2004.
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Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century,
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Le magnificenze di Roma di Giuseppe Vasi.
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Tice, James, Erik Steiner and Allan Ceen. “The University of Oregon Interactive Nolli Map Website.”
University of Oregon. http://nolli.uoregon.edu/