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

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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.

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.

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