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24.01.02 Ceen, Roma Traversata

24.01.02 Ceen, Roma Traversata

This book reflects one American’s long-term study of the streets of Rome to understand the accumulative effects of hundreds (or thousands) of years of building at Rome by analysing routes through the city and how they came to be. Allan Ceen is an old hand about Rome and has led hundreds of year-abroad architecture students on walks through the city, and to major churches and palazzi. He has introduced hundreds of students to the wonders of the Nolli plan, an astounding map of Rome, based on an admirable architectural survey of the city’s buildings undertaken in the 1730s and engraved on 12 sheets in 1748 [link:]. Ceen has worked with Gianbattista Nolli’s plan before, producing a facsimile (in 1984), and has also elaborated several of the other maps of early modern Rome.

Roma Traversata captures both the overwhelming complexity of Rome’s evolution and something of the experience of navigating through it by landmarks visible in the distance, each related to distinct moments in the past. The routes analysed have each been obscured in part by interventions over time, and through identifying these interventions Ceen reveals moments where families or institutions have shifted the ways in which people moved through the city. Comparing the Nolli plan to the earlier plan by Leonardo Buffalini (1551) or prints and photographs of the city over time reveals how the urban fabric of the city has changed along these routes and reveals intrusions and erasures of what were long-running paths, most of which head to the area of the Forum, and several enter the city through the Vatican. The key actors varied; families erected palazzi in strategic places and in relation to key routes; cardinals and abbots rebuilt individual churches, while the many institutional elements of the papacy or the nation of Italy (once Rome became the capital in 1871) manipulated the routes through the city, and thereby what buildings or vistas people saw in relation to others.

The analytical methods used here, as Ceen writes and illustrates with several sketches made by his students over time, are to trace major routes through Rome. He traces individual interventions, mostly from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, which have preserved major routes, slightly shifting them over time. Ceen lays out a typology of routes: “native tracks,” “growth streets,” and “planned streets” (14). “Native tracks” is a bizarre concept to apply to Rome. The example given to explain the term is Broadway in New York City, which was Wickquasgeck Path, a trackway across the island of Manhattan that persisted even through the planning efforts of the Dutch of New Amsterdam and the grid imposed over most of the rest of the island starting in 1811. There were “natives” to Manhattan, whose tracks perdured through settler colonialist urban planning. Who were the natives who left tracks at Rome, and who were the settlers? The concept borrowed from urban studies does not really work for the history of the largest city of the ancient Mediterranean, continuously inhabited since the early first millennium BCE. The point Ceen tries to make is about the antiquity of some of the streets of Rome, and their persistence over time despite urban transformations, rather than conspicuous planning efforts. “Growth streets” are also somewhat tricky to identify, and are identifiable in relation to the roads which they link from and to. “Planned streets” by contrast are identifiable by their rigid straightness; some of these are ancient, such as the Via Lata/Via del Corso, while others are early modern initiatives. The routes that provide examples of these types emerge as well-reasoned observations though they do not form a thesis based on historical evidence.

The Middle Ages hardly register in this analysis. The fact that Ceen engages rather little with stratigraphic archaeology (of which a very considerable amount has been produced over the past 30 years in Rome) but more with the stratigraphy of existing buildings and mapmaking means that Ceen’s Rome starts, more or less, with the Buffalini plan of 1551, the first printed map of Rome. He makes reference to the Einsiedeln Itineraries, a series of routes through Rome recorded in a manuscript of the ninth century, reporting what was visible on the left side and what was visible on the right, and the processions of Benedetto Canonico in the twelfth century, though he discusses them only as early attestations of the routes he analyses later on. The Einsiedeln Itineraries begin routes at major gates in the walls and note ruins of ancient aqueducts, major buildings and monuments described by their ancient names, and the major churches of the early ninth century, as well as occasional other novelties, such as mills, or a cypress tree. Even in the ninth century, visitors to Rome navigated the city by overlapping ancient and medieval elements, which seems very much like the assignment Ceen has given to students, whose drawings of routes and the things along them begin each chapter. Benedetto Canonico’s Liber Politicus records major liturgical celebrations, including those which took place in atria and in front of churches. Streets and open areas (what are later called piazzas) constituted significant spaces in Medieval Rome, by proximity to major sites such as key churches or the episcopal palaces and by facilitating the convening of groups from different regions, different churches, and mass of peoples; crowds were major political elements in medieval Rome (and subsequently).

Ceen’s book conveys the exquisite complexity of Rome’s post-medieval urban fabric, how each element is often the product of many decisions, some formal, some casual, over centuries. The text makes clear his affection for the city and for others like him who have dissected it in visual form.