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  • Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City by Jessica Maier
  • Andrew Gow
Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City, by Jessica Maier. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2015. xii, 276 pp. $50.00 US (cloth).

This nuanced, sophisticated, and very detailed book follows the development of mapping techniques in the early modern period via the critical example of Rome. In no more than 262 pages (text and notes) of smallish [End Page 331] type, with ample illustrations of a uniformly high quality, Maier manages to provide both considerable material and careful analysis of the sources she has chosen. Taking early modern maps of Rome as exemplary objects on which to build arguments about map-making, visual culture, the science of measurement, the prestige of antiquity, and the value of accuracy strikes me as an especially felicitous and appropriate choice because Rome was both home and object to so many artists, map-makers, and other image-makers during this period. It was also an object of high prestige, for obvious reasons, depictions of which could always be guaranteed to be of interest at least to a learned public, and often to larger groups as well.

At the centre of this project is the 1551 Bufalini map of Rome, an immense woodcut masterpiece covering 24 sheets. Important to Bufalini was not merely topographical accuracy, but also cultural perspicuity — a classicizing vignette in a cartouche at the upper right depicts the famous she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, with the motto "Roma Renasce[n]s", literally "Rome being reborn." Bufalini depicts both elements of Rome as it actually looked in his day, and elements of ancient Rome. This map was as much a cultural program as a topographical description. This theme, and the attendant tension between deploying empirical accuracy and displaying the cultural capital of the ancient city runs through the entire work as a thematic red thread. Bufalini even bucked the contemporary trend to more faithful representations of ancient structures based on material remains, and "improved" the Baths of Caracalla in his rendering, making them more symmetrical, regular, and magnificent than the archeological evidence available suggested they actually were. This kind of tension also features in many of the maps Maier studies.

Maier does not shy away from the many technical and complex questions regarding the historical phases of given buildings, many known from ancient depictions even if only foundations remained, nor from technical issues of isometrics, orthogonality, ichnography, scale, perspective, vantage point, etc., such that experienced historians of cartography will be amply satisfied with Maier's treatment of critical nuts-and-bolts issues.

This is as much a work of reference for students of early modern cartography and of early modern Rome as it is a judicious parsing of the contentious old issues of "empiricism" vs. classical learning, [modern] "science" vs. [classical] "knowledge." In line with the latest thinking on such matters, Maier insists on the simultaneity of both approaches or models, on the utterly conflicted and complex nature of many (or even all) of the dozens of maps she analyzes, and on the contradictory complexity of the very nature of cartography in its axial age. This book is a tour de force, especially considering that its author only recently earned her PhD. If I were to propose a critique, it would relate to Maier's narrow focus on the highbrow products of learned culture and technical skill — but many of her [End Page 332] arguments hinge on the interface between the two! Some attention to cheap prints and popular renderings might be worthwhile in a follow-up article, and might help elucidate certain points about Renaissance learning versus marketing — one senses that the author is well informed about such images as well.

Eighty-four black-and-white figures of maps and twelve glossy plates bound in the middle contribute materially to this erudite and nicely-judged book.

Andrew Gow
University of Alberta


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pp. 331-333
Launched on MUSE
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