“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
―Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
How do artists take a city’s innate characteristics—a place’s raw, disparate, and chaotic identities, past and present—and shape them into a vision to present to the outside world?
Certainly among the best places in Atlanta to contemplate this question right now is the exhibition Antichità, Teatro, Magnificenza: Renaissance and Baroque Images of Rome, on view at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University [August 24-November 17, 2013]. The exhibition shows off a growing area of Emory’s collection (with a few key loans): maps, views, and books on Rome from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and also examines the constantly evolving presentation of Rome in the medium of print across those three centuries.
The most striking, and largest, image in the first room of the exhibition is Italian artist Pirro Ligorio’s 1561 image of the city [Antiquae urbis Romae, plate 7], purporting to show a reconstructed Rome as it might have looked in ancient times. As with many such views of Rome in the early rooms of the exhibition, Ligorio orients north on the left and offers an elevated perspective, though not as with contemporary maps: We’re outside the city and above it. The Janiculum Hill, across the river from Rome’s ancient center, offers just such a view of the city—with north to the left and a broad view from an elevation—and is the origin of this conceptual convention.
The image is clearly a product of meticulous study of the ancient world through observation of ruins and also through study of ancient coins, which often offered views of monuments. The view is remarkable for its accuracy (many of the conceits and details correspond to contemporary scholars’ understanding of the ancient city). And though not everything was guessed correctly, as Emory art historian Sarah McPhee explicates in the exhibition’s catalog, what’s most fascinating about the image is the keen intensity (labeling it as obsession wouldn’t be a stretch) in the project of reconstructing the ancient world. Here we see Rome as an object that both artist and viewer can share through contemplation, almost an imagined entry, into the city as it was in ancient times.
This “invitation to enter” is made more literal by Giovanni Battista Falda’s map of then-contemporary Rome, wherein the artist, in an inscription at the upper right, invites the viewer to “stroll with the eyes.” No reproduction does his work justice, and you can take up Falda’s invitation only by standing before the work itself, a view of seventeenth-century Rome seen, like Ligorio’s, from a conceptual Janiculum. It’s not an image that can, or should, be taken in as a single object; within its finest lines and its fascinating dimensionality throughout, down to the littlest details, you can take a magnifying glass and all but jump into these realistic scenes, then marvel at how complete they seem. You can look at something as self-contained as a villa and its gardens—a complete image in and of itself—and then follow a street to a nearby piazza, with courtyards, windows, and doors, trees, columns, and arches all observable along the way, and realize that it’s just a tiny fragment of the whole. This map is as close to 3-D as it can get at the micro level. Falda’s work spans an area about five feet by five feet. There are simultaneous soberness and playfulness to Falda’s lines that perfectly capture a sense of urban complexity. It’s not a concept we’re much accustomed to, but there it is: map as work of art, the conceptualization and presentation of a city’s layout in a particular unified vision recorded and presented to the viewer. It’s a concept that developed increasing importance across all sorts of printed images of Rome as the papacy sought to disseminate images of the power and majesty of the city in the wake of the Reformation, which was reshaping Europeans’ conception of the papacy and the Catholic church.
Interestingly, Falda’s map and his accompanying views of Rome published in the volumes of his Nuovo Teatro, some of which are also displayed here, have been used by McPhee and the architects Jordan Williams and Erik Lewitt of Atlanta-based firm plexus r + d to produce a virtual, “walkable” version of Falda’s Rome through use of the gaming platform nVis360, a contemporary take on strolling with the eyes.
The final room, appropriately titled “Magnificenza,” is dominated by the magnificent images of Rome created by Piranesi in the eighteenth century. They exemplify a new grandeur in scale: Maps from the time indicate a new scientific accuracy in cartography, ushered in by advances of the Enlightenment. But there are also fascinating advances in the use of atmosphere and mood in Piranesi’s prints, perhaps reflecting greater consciousness about the role of personality and perspective of the artist in creating images. Here the works target not just pilgrims working through the obligatory sites of Rome, but aristocrats and intellectuals on the Grand Tour for purposes of cultural rather than religious enlightenment.
There are more than 130 works in the exhibition, and together they show a compelling process of construction, an abiding interest in capturing a comprehensive view of the city and its history, a passion to express the overwhelming and ineffable splendor of a magnificent city that, by its nature, is seemingly irreducible.
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