Saturday, September 20, 2014

Roma: The Orientation of Maps

Rome, September 20, 2014

Giambattista Nolli oriented his celebrated 1748 map of Rome with north up, a modern, carefully chosen cartographic convention, one that we still use today. It has the Tiber running more or less vertically towards the left side of the plate, the bulk of the city in the center, and the Vatican on the top-left corner.

Nolli owed greatly to a 1551 map by Leonardo Bufalini. But Bufalini had oriented his map with east up, following an earlier convention dating to the Middle Ages (see note.) In this map, the Tiber runs horizontally on the bottom half of the image, with the Vatican on the bottom-left corner. Among the 19 plats of his "Pianta Grande di Roma", Nolli actually included a reproduction of Bufalini’s plan, redrawn and reoriented with north up.

In 1774 Giovanni Battista Piranesi published his “Pianta di Roma e del Campo Marzo” with north down. Why? Piranesi had worked with Nolli in the 1748 publication--the “Piccola Pianta” is signed “Piranesi e Nolli incisero”--so he is quite deliberate in choosing a different orientation. One possible explanation is that he was going back to an experiential reading of the map, following the pilgrimage route from the north, entering the city through Porta del Popolo at the bottom of the drawing and proceeding up.

Note: for a more general discussion of the orientation of maps see an earlier blog entry:

(With thanks to old and new friends, Nick De Pace, Ezio Genovesi and Allan Ceen, for their guidance as I begin to to learn about Rome and its maps.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Apennine Urbanism (2)

Rome, August 29, 2014

Walking the narrow streets of Castelvecchio Calvisio--the small town on the Apennine Mountains of Abruzzo--one is immediately struck by the proliferation of stone stairs rhythmically projecting out from the fa├žade of the buildings. They reveal a distinctive fabric of shops and warehouses at ground level and housing on top. The stairs run parallel to the street, cantilevering from the outer stone walls. The fabric is mostly two stories high, but extremely dense, with many portions of the private upper level arching over the public passageways. As far as I can tell, each stair gives access to an individual dwelling, strengthening the use of the street and creating a matrix akin to what Team 10 architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson or Candilis, Josic, Woods liked to call carpet housing or mat buildings (yes, only just a number of centuries before the Golden Lane project or the Berlin Free University.)

Even more surprising is the curious configuration of the stairs, narrow at the bottom and wider at the top, as if they had been shaved just above human height. The purpose of this ground level reduction is to allow passage, particularly along themain street at the center of the village, where the cuts seem to literally trace the outline of a loaded donkey.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Apennine Urbanism (1)

Rome, August 27, 2014

The urban structure of settlements on mountains and hills typically follow the “lay of the land”. Take for example the towns in the Baronia de Carapelle on the Abruzzo region of Italy. Built on the slopes of the Apennines, the architecture of these towns--Santo Stefano, Calascio, Castel del Monte--follow the contour lines of the mountain, with long roads slowly climbing up at shallow angles and stairs negotiating the changes of level at steeper angles.

The approach to Castelvecchio Calvisio, also part of the Baronia, appears to suggest a similar urban structure, with the newer architecture of the south-facing part of the town following the topography of the terrain and a zigzagging road with hairpin turns going up. But at the top, the medieval core of Castelvecchio reveals a completely unexpected geometry: an orthogonal arrangement of narrow streets within a tight oval perimeter. It has a main street running east-west following the long axis of the oval and perpendicular streets running north-south at small intervals. From above it looks as something like the fossil of some enormous turtle-like creature. Although uncompromising in plan, the straight geometry of the streets is allowed to curve from the center to the edge on top of the convex form of the land.

Where does the surprising geometry of Castelvecchio Calvision come from? That I don't know, but I'm sure that there is a fascinating story there...