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Surf Through Newly Digitized Images to See Rome’s Ever-Changing History

The Eternal City is always evolving. Now, a new web resource shows how

This familiar landscape is always in flux. (Luc Mercelis - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

When you think of Rome, stalwart landmarks like the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica may come to mind. But though the city is known as eternal, it’s always in flux—and so are its most beloved sites. Now, a newly digitized archive shows just how Rome has transformed over the centuries.

It’s called Images of Rome, and it consists of nearly 4,000 historical images of Rome made between the 16th and 20th centuries. The images help paint a picture of a Rome that’s anything but stable. Rather, paintings, photographs and other images show how different the Italian city looked in the past. For example, a quick search for “Colosseum” brings up déjà vu-like views of the structure as it looked long ago. It’s still old, but its landscape feels entirely new in the vintage images—and its slow erosion, which threatens the structure’s longevity today, is documented in the pictures, too.

“Rome is a layered city,” explains Erik Steiner, who runs a spatial history project at Stanford University, in a press release. Steiner worked with colleagues from the University of Oregon, Dartmouth College and the Italian government to put part of the collection of an important figure in the preservation and understanding of Rome online in high resolution.

The images came from the archive of archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani, who was the late 19th- and early 20th-century’s foremost authority on the city. Lanciani had an ambitious goal: to produce a detailed map of ancient Rome. His magnum opus, Forma Urbis Romae, used fragments of a large, third-century marble map of the city to reconstruct how it looked long ago in a 60-by-43-foot format. And he collected thousands of other documents about the city.

Now, they’re at Stanford University and part of the large-scale digital humanities project, entitled Mapping Rome that draws on Lanciani’s archive and that of other famous Romophiles. And Stanford isn’t the only institution finding inspiration in Lanciani’s epic vision: As Smithsonian.com reports, another new map, The Atlas of Ancient Rome, continues Lanciani’s work, too, in a 1,000-page book. The Eternal City may have changed over the years, but it isn’t likely to stop fascinating scholars any time soon.

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