On January 18, 1736, Giovanni Battista Nolli was chosen by Pope Clement XII to produce a “new and exact” plan of the city of Rome. At the time, most views of Rome were bird’s-eye or oblique perspective views, intended to render an overall and organic image. In contrast, Nolli’s plan was the second (Leonardo Bufalini’s being the first) to adopt the technique of vertical projection — one that lacked description but was highly legible in the functional and scientific senses. The commissioning of this map led to the re-conceptualization of architecture and urbanism as useful, practical sciences. Thereafter, the culture of the 18th century tended to merge the architect’s role with that of a technician operating by rational and absolute principles.
Nolli’s plan depicted an urban life and vitality through rather forthright graphic gestures. The plan records figures made from the voids of the urban landscape by virtue of the enclosing gestures of the surrounding buildings. The representation is described as a figural void. The Nolli plan is interesting because it records that sense of figural void not only in the public domain, such as piazzas, but also the semipublic conditions of the city’s major pieces of architecture.
From the degree of detail offered in his plan description, various scales of urban life are imaginable, from the sheer size of the open public-assembly spaces, to the churches with their chapels that measured the pace of an individual’s occupation and perception. Urban spaces, such as Piazza Navona and Piazza Sant’
Ignazio, rely on their enclosing walls for urban comprehensibility, while the monumental interior room of the Pantheon is carved out of the urban block.
Nolli’s description captures the relationships of piazza to threshold to internal public room with a sense of promenade that would be unimaginable using other graphic techniques. If Nolli had not depicted the private domain as a secondary condition of poché, one would have been unable to assess the legibility of public enclosure to the same extent. The resulting homogeneous pattern would not have described distinctions between public and private access.
Nolli’s plan contains not only a plan bias, as described above, but also a graphic technique that allows one to see this conception through the means of representation. The Nolli plan established a much-emulated model for documenting and describing the urban realm.
Dhiru Thadani is an architect, urban planner and author. This article has been excerpted from his book, “The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary,” Rizzoli, 2010. Thadani also wrote the recently published “Visions of Seaside,” Rizzoli, 2013.