Encyclopedia Ichnographica

Forma Urbis


Forma Urbis

from: Samuel Ball Platner, The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1904) pp. 2-5.

The Capitoline Plan (Forma Urbis Romae). -- North of the Sacra via and a short distance east of the forum of Augustus, the emperor Vespasian erected a structure called in the middle ages templum sacrae Urbis, which seems to have been used as a repository for municipal records and archives, particularly the results of the census and survey of the city, which were made by that emperor in the years 73-75. The north wall of this temple was covered with marble blocks, on which was engraved a map or plan of the whole city. This plan may have been copied in part from an earlier one made by Agrippa, but was probably based on Vespasian's new data.

The temple was burned in the fire of Commodus in 191 and restored by Severus, and to its north wall was again affixed a similar plan, either entirely new or containing fragments of the earlier one. The temple itself was incorporated with the temple of Romulus, the son of Maxentius, and made over into the church of SS Cosma e Damiano between the years 526 and 530. During the years 1559-1565, a large number of fragments of this plan were found at the foot of the wall of the temple, and came into the possession of the Farnese family. In 1742 [Piranesi first came to Rome in 1740 as a draftsmen to the Venetian ambassador to the court of Pope Benedict XIV] they were transferred to the Capitoline Museum, where they were fastened to the walls of the main stairway. Soon after the discovery of these fragments, drawings were made of 92 of the principle pieces [Piranesi includes many of his own drawings of the fragments within some of the plates of his archeological publications], and as many of the pieces themselves were lost in the transfer to the Capitoline Museum, restorations made from these drawings were put up in their place. These restorations are marked with a star.

In 1867, a few more fragments were found on the same spot. In 1882, a piece containing a plan of the vicus Tuscus was found in the Forum; in 1884 another fragment, also in the Forum; and in 1888 more than one hundred and eighty pieces, mostly small and insignificant, were found behind the palazzo Farnese which may have belonged to those discovered in the sixteenth century, but they do not appear on any of the drawings made at that time. In 1891 about 25 fragments were discovered at the foot of the wall of the temple; and the recent excavations in the Forum (1899-1901) have brought to light about 400 more pieces, mostly very small.

The wall on which the plan was fastened is still standing, and measures 22 meters in length and 15 in height, so that the surface covered by the plan was something more than 300 square meters. The blocks of marble varied from .7 to 1.18 meters in length, and from 1.7 to 2.25 meters in width, their thickness also being unequal. The scale on which the map is drawn varies even within the limits of the same structure, but seems to have been in general 1 to 250. If this scale had been employed throughout, the whole city could not have been represented on this wall, but some of the parts were considerable compressed. The plan was not set up with the north at the top, as is now the custom, but at the bottom. It seems probably that most of the plan was placed so that the southeast was at the top. This arrangement was not carried out with perfect consistency, and a variation of as much as 45 degrees must be allowed in some of the fragments. Names of public buildings are given, but not always those of streets and squares. The details of buildings are not accurately given, nor is the proper proportion always preserved. Not withstanding these defects, the plan served its purpose well, and its fragments have been of great assistance in identifying existing ruins.

Forma Urbis - original reconstructions

On Monday (1995.01.09), I found a book [Lanciani, Forma Urbis Romae] containing many maps making up one big map of Rome, overlaying ancient, baroque and contemporary footprint information. This is a remarkable find. It is all the information I wanted to know about Rome. This map information will allow a complete comparative analysis of Piranesi's Campo Marzio and ancient Rome as well as contemporary Rome.

At a first glance overview, there are already many facts that have come to light. First of all, there is much historical evidence for much of Piranesi's placements of buildings and complexes. Although Piranesi reconstructed most of the Campo Marzio with what one could call an abundance of originality, he did not so with what is now an obvious knowledge of what programatically existed in ancient times. That is to say that even though Piranesi did not know what particular ancient buildings looked like, he knew where they were and also had a clear idea of the placement, function, and how they were used.

Secondly, it is now easier to separate fact from fiction. This is perhaps what is most appealing about the Ichnographia--the fact that one can use this large map to get into Piranesi's mind. (The Ichnographia is full of degrees of representation.) Through comparing what did exist in ancient Rome and what Piranesi depicts, one can begin to formulate a possible process that Piranesi followed in designing/drawing the Campo Marzio, a process the is proving to not be a pure exercise in fantasy creation.

Thirdly, it is also seeming to be possible that in Piranesi's "original" reconstructions, he may also at times have been making a commentary on the evolution of urban design in Rome, i.e. comparing and making critical reference to both ancient Rome and baroque Rome, and in turn commenting on and making critical reference to urban design in general.

Tafuri text

Pictorial Dictionary notes

Circus Flaminium is misorientated within the Ichnographia, but, judging from the Forma Urbis fragment, it is not obvious as to its orientation vis-à-vis the Theater Marcellus.

Porticus Aemlia, this is the Forma Urbis plan formation that Piranesi copies for his design of the Porticus Septa Julia.

Horra Galbae, this is not in the Campo Marzio, but the Forma Urbis fragment is exactly the plan of Piranesi's Septa Julia. Could this be a case of mistaken identity or of cribbed information?

Iseum et Serapeaum, in the Forma Urbis, depicted differently in the Ichnographia.

sex, Mars, reenactment

...the phrase, "back to daddy's balls, architecture halls"... ...a connection between this line and the Ichnographia. ...Mars being the father of Romulus--the founder of Rome, and the connection of sex and conception within plans... ... the "testicles" of the Templum Martis as generators...

...the prominence of Mars... ...Piranesi actively redesigned Imperial Rome as he came to understand it. Piranesi assimilated all the knowledge about this part of the city, and through that assimilation he delineated an optimal synthesis. Piranesi's plan of the Campo Marzio is not an architectural reconstruction, but an archeological redesign. Piranesi's plan is not a rendition of what was, rather a rendition of what could have been. Piranesi's plan is not a reconstruction, but an historical reenactment.

The Ichnographia is a powerful reenactment of the architectural history of the Campo Marzio. The history, moreover, is not limited to Imperial Rome. Although the buildings are named for those primarily of the late Empire, Piranesi also very cleverly and extremely subtlely reenacts the architectural history of the Campo Marzio beyond the Imperial Age, specifically the inversion/conversion of Rome from pagan state to Christian state.

The opening stage for the reenactment is the Scenographia (whose very title has obvious theatrical connotations)...

...regarding the Ichnographia as a stone fragment: a reenactment of the Forma Urbis--a virtual reenactment of discovering the great missing piece of the "puzzle" that will bring all the other piece to a grand cohesion. (...here reminded of Tafuri's opening comments to The Sphere and the Labyrinth: "There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jig-saw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately)..."

Points of Departure

I have decided to put together a critical essay regarding my interpretations and disputations of the contemporary existing texts on the Ichnographia. It will be called "Points of Departure"...

...this combined presentation technique may also follow Piranesi's methodology, thus offering the possibility of a further "re-enactment".

In thinking of the typologies... ...regard to Tafuri's comments of the Ichnographia being a sample book and something unknowable. ...the [scale] comparison between St. Peter's and the Bustum Hadriani is a perfect place to start, although I could also compare the Ichnographia plans to other ancient Roman plans, particularly the large baths. Such drawings would refute Tafuri's and Bloomer's statements regarding the smallness (and seemingly insignificantly treated Pantheon and tomb of Hadrian).

...Piranesi's cribbing of the Porticus Aemilia for the Septa Julia may actually represent Piranesi's scale for the entire Ichnographia. It could be that Piranesi very purposefully installed the Forma Urbis fragment of the Porticus Aemilia into the Ichnographia for the precise purpose of demonstrating more of the actual scale (and gigantism) of ancient Rome (--it is as if Piranesi is here illustrating his own quote about how one just has to look around at Rome and Hadrian's Villa to see the examples he emulates.) Piranesi was not being deceptive or misleading, nor was he acting out of ignorance of the fragment's true identity. Piranesi used the Porticus Aemilia as evidence and example.

Ichnographia Campus Martius

ichnographia : a ground-plot, plan

I am rather afraid that some parts of the Campus which I describe should seem figments of my imagination and not based on any evidence: certainly if anyone compares them with the architectural theory of the ancients he will see that they differ greatly from it and are actually closer to the usage of our own times. But before anyone accuses me of falsehood, he should ,I beg, examine the ancient plan of the city [Forma Urbis] which I have just mentioned, he should examine the villas of Latium and that of Hadrian at Tivoli, the baths, the tombs and other ruins, especially those beyond the Porta Capena, and he will find that the ancients transgressed the strict rules of architecture just as much as the moderns. Perhaps it is inevitable and a general rule that the arts on reaching a peak should decline, or perhaps it is part of man's nature to demand some license in creative expression as in other things, but we should not be surprised to see that ancient architects have done the very things which we sometimes criticize in buildings of our times. Here then, my dear Adam, is the Campus Martius, not as perfect perhaps as you wanted but as complete as I could manage, given the complexities of the subject and the lapse of time.
G.B. Piranesi, "Dedicatory Letter" in Il Campo Marzio dell'Antica Roma (Rome, 1762).

Even if one grants a certain artistic license, the eighteenth-century engraving by Piranesi of the Campus Martius at the height of the Roman Empire gives a clear indication of the curious reversal of the Hellenistic urban ideal. Piranesi was a serious student of antiquity, and much of his engraving appears in the fragments of the forma urbis, a plan of the imperial city engraved on marble slabs. It shows that official Rome was a collection of stupendous exercises in conspicuous wealth and whimsical individuality. Public spaces--even the basic amenities of broad thoroughfares and interconnecting streets--were totally ignored.
Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Matrix of Man: An Illustrated History of Urban Environment (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1968), p. 128.


...there came the realization that Le Antichità Romane begins with fragments of the Forma Urbis followed by displays of Rome’s city walls. This brings to mind the notion that Piranesi first presents the pieces of the puzzle followed by the edges of the puzzle. This is interesting in terms of the Il Campo Marzio then being the completion of the puzzle (and beyond), thus providing Hypersize Sagacity with its opening premise.



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