Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2000
Mario Bevilacqua Roma nel secolo dei lumi: Architettura erudizione scienza nella Pianta di G.B. Nolli "celebre geometra" Naples: Mondadori Electa, 1998. 224 pp.; some color ills.; many b/w ills. Paper $50.00 (8843587544)

Baroque Rome was in large part built by talented Lombards, among whom were Domenico Fontana, Carlo Maderno, Francesco Borromini, and Carlo Fontana. A native of the diocese of Como, Giovanni Battista Nolli (1701-56) was a surveyor (geometra) who, between the years 1722 and 1734, prepared cadastral maps, first in Lombardy and then in Savoy, utilizing the plane table (tavoletta pretoriana), a device then only recently introduced into Italy. In Rome, no longer a functionary within a centralized state bureaucracy, he put his cartographic skills to entrepreneurial use in devising a plan, published in 1748, that was the most spectacular engraved image of a city produced in the eighteenth century, the most accurate record of the fabric of the Eternal City then available, and the point of reference for similar images for some 130 years afterward. The preparatory drawing (1736-41), preserved nearly intact in Rome (Biblioteca dell’Instituto nazionale d’archeologia e storia dell’arte), was divided into twelve sections; each section was then transferred in reverse to a copper plate. Such was Nolli’s desire for precision that the copper plates, priced expensively at 10 scudi each and engraved between April 1741 and July 1743, were altered as needed to register changes in the built environment that occurred over the course of the following four-and-a-half years. Between 1748 and 1756, impressions of the plan were pulled and distributed through various channels to subscribers and other purchasers throughout Italy and in far-flung ultramontane locations, from London to Leipzig, from Cadiz (with the failed hope of dissemination “in the Indies,” 52) to St. Petersburg.

In seven chapters, Bevilacqua minutely reconstructs the history of Nolli’s enterprise with an attention to detail similar to what signally characterizes the visual image under scrutiny. The twelve sheets of the large plan are individually reproduced on facing double pages, as are the whole plan and two smaller engraved plans, the first a reduced version of the large plan (in whose making Giovanni Battista Piranesi participated) dedicated to Cardinal Alessandro Albani, the other a recasting of Leonardo Bufalini’s 1551 woodcut plan of ancient Rome dedicated to Cardinal Silvio Valenti. This unfortunate layout gives rise to images that spread over the binding. The four pages of the key (indice) of the large plan are also reproduced at a barely legible scale. Happily, details of the preparatory drawing are published in color, as are examples of Nolli’s surveying work in Lombardy, Savoy, and Velletri. Included, too, are several early drawings by Nolli (some, though, of uncertain attribution) for the Villa Albani and photographs of his architectural works, principal among which is the small church of S. Dorotea in Trastevere, where he, “surveyor and architect from Como” (novocomensis geometra et architectvs) as inscribed in Latin on his funerary plaque (167, fig. 54), was laid to rest. The Franciscan Conventuals officiated at S. Dorotea, and Nolli executed other projects for the same order in Rome and Latium, so his activities exemplify the importance of corporate patronage in the architectural profession. A chronological survey of Nolli’s career (which in 1742 included setting into twenty-six panels the fragments of the Severan marble plan of Rome, recently given to Benedict XIV by the king of the Two Sicilies, Charles VII), an illustrated catalogue of some two dozen later maps based on the Nolli plan, and an appendix of relevant documents transcribed from archival sources and the newspaper of eighteenth-century Rome round out the book.

Displaying a staggering familiarity with unpublished primary sources, Bevilacqua fruitfully traces the interconnectedness of intellectual exchange between Rome and eighteenth-century Europe and reminds us of the capillary role of the Eternal City in nourishing that exchange. Those erudite individuals who moved in the circle of Cardinal Albani—Nolli among them—understood the fundamental importance of cartography as a tool in historical, archaeological, and antiquarian research. Indeed, the plan was originally (and remarkably) intended to be printed in different colors, so that a reader would have been able to distinguish ancient structures and remains from modern buildings. At the outset of the project in 1736, Nolli obtained special permission from Clement XII’s deputy general (vicario generale Cardinal Giovanni Antonio Guadagni), to measure courtyards and other interior, inaccessible spaces in monastic communities, even those in nuns’ convents, an unusual concession that caused some scandal in Rome; thus the plan provides not only a precise rendering of what lies on the ground within (and to some degree without) the city walls but also serves as a sign of the pope’s ability to impose his will in the search for the visual expression of rational, verifiable order. In contrast to the numerous pictorial panoramic views of Rome published earlier, the exactitude of the ichnographic plan stands as a symbol of the pope’s control over his capital city. Even before its publication, Nolli’s plan became the basis for a new administrative division of Rome into fourteen wards (rioni) in 1744. And, as Bevilacqua points out, Baron Philipp von Stosch, the Prussian-born antiquarian and bon vivant, beloved friend of Rome’s intelligentsia, and spy in the employ of England’s George II, made telling personal use of his impression of the plan by cutting it up according to ward boundaries and then pasting each section on a separate page in his encyclopedic, 324-volume Atlas. (The Atlas is now split between the National bibliothek and the Albertina in Vienna.) Another impression, that of Cardinal Angelo Mai (now in the Vatican Library), was marked with red lines to indicate the aqueducts of Rome. Such facts provide rare and revelatory glimpses into the thought processes and resulting activities of original consumers.

Originally it was thought that soliciting twenty subscribers, each contributing first 50, then 40 scudi, with Nolli himself contributing 1000 scudi, would provide financing adequate for the task. In January 1741, the original subscription campaign abandoned, the Lombard banker Girolamo Belloni provided funds for the acquisition of copper plates; so began a cooperation between the financier/patron and the cartographer that ended in a total production cost (including distribution of impressions and advertising placed in gazettes throughout Europe) of 6,226.11 scudi and protracted litigation after Nolli’s death between his heirs and Belloni. The courts were the site for resolving still another difficulty that arose in the making of the plan. Completed before March 1745, etched figures and panoramic views of buildings, elements that establish another complex iconography within the image, were the work of Giuseppe Vasi after drawings by Giovanni Paolo Pannini. A panel of experts, however, determined that his work was wanting in quality, so Nolli was empowered to have the plates reworked. As it happens, Vasi and three of the four professional printmakers on the panel of experts were involved, at various points in time, in making etchings related to the set pieces built for the festival of the Chinea, a point not made by Bevilacqua that casts light on the contours of the Roman printmakers’ small world. Bevilacqua ascribes further delays in publication after the completion of the plates to legal difficulties between Belloni and Cardinal Albani (of whose household Nolli was part) and to the continuing War of the Austrian Succession, which potentially cast a pall on the success of an ambitious and unique international publishing venture. Another regrettable diminution of Nolli’s original project was his failure to provide a detailed explanatory booklet along with the plan, a booklet that may have included commentaries by the antiquarian Ridolfino Venuti on buildings of the Middle Ages. Such commentaries would have constituted a rare and unusual emphasis on that historical period, one increasingly believed to possess its own character, complexity, and interest.

Already in command of a network of financial correspondents throughout Europe, Belloni believed that he could use that same network to sell the Nolli plan. In the long run, that choice ran against his best interests, as booksellers north of Alps found it difficult and laborious to obtain impressions of the large and, truth be told, frankly expensive engraving for their clients. In 1775, even Piranesi remembered that Belloni, using the excuse of pending litigation, refused to sell the transplanted Venetian impressions of both large and small Nolli plans to satisfy the “very many inquisitive foreigners” (moltissimi curiosi Forastieri) (54) who visited his busy and extremely profitable shop on the Via Sistina.

Bevilacqua’s study provides the best account available of all aspects of Nolli’s career, yet it will be useful not only to those interested in Rome or the history of architecture, urbanism, and cartography. Students of prints will find documentation relating to costs for materials and labor that significantly expand our knowledge of the eighteenth-century Roman printmaking industry, a subject that still cries out for comprehensive and monographic study. One of the great strengths of this book is its insistent and always illuminating focus on the Nolli plan as an engraving, an object fabricated according to complex processes and patterns that reward patient delineation.

John E. Moore
Smith College

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