The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps

The Eternal City (cover)Something I often do when reviewing a book is talk about it in terms of the expectations of its potential readers—particularly if readers might come to a book with expectations that the book does not meet, because the book is doing something different. If you’re expecting The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps, written by the art historian Jessica Maier and published last November by the University of Chicago Press, to be basically A History of Rome in 100 Maps, it isn’t: the count is more like three dozen. This doesn’t mean that The Eternal City is a slight book—it most certainly is not, though at 199 pages it’s a bit shorter than, say, A History of America in 100 Maps (272 pages).

But counting maps would miss the difference in Maier’s approach. To invoke xkcd, this is depth-first rather than breadth-first: there are fewer maps here, but they’re discussed in much more depth than the two-page spreads of the hundred-map books, and provided with much more context. This is a history of Rome in maps in which history, Rome and maps all get their proper share of attention.

The Eternal City is divided into ten chapters, covering Rome from antiquity to the present. Each of those chapters explores not just an era but a theme via close study of three or four maps. The chapter themes can sometimes transcend the chapter periods: the first chapter, for example, talks about how Rome has been delineated by its walls, and discusses how walls have defined what is and isn’t Rome; Chapter Two’s discussion of Roman travel networks invokes not only the Tabula Peutingeriana, but also Sasha Trubetskoy’s Tube map of the Roman road network.

Maier also asks deeply historical questions: in Chapter Seven and Eight, which discuss tourism by the leisure class (i.e., Grand Tours) and mass tourism (exemplified by package tours and Baedeker guides), respectively, the question of these maps’ audience—where do these maps come from, and who were they produced for—gets considered, which is something I’d like to see more of. And in her close study of Antonio Tempesta’s 1593 bird’s-eye view of Rome, she notes what is omitted (the sex workers’ quarter) and what is deemphasized (the Jewish ghetto).

Maier’s art-historian approach manages to extract the big picture from a close study of historical images. We are always reminded that maps are a means to understanding their object: in these maps that object is the city of Rome, but the Rome being perceived by one map is not necessarily the Rome seen by another. Rome as historical site, as cultural capital, as tourism destination—and yes, as a place real people actually live—exist at once. For Maier, Rome is a cartographic palimpsest.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Featured image: Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarium (1493), from The Eternal City, pp. 68-69. Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection.

The Eternal City (cover)The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps
by Jessica Maier
University of Chicago Press, 24 Nov 2020 (U.S.), 7 Dec 2020 (U.K.)
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