Petrarch, Freud and others have observed that to stroll down a Roman street or to pause in a piazza is to be ensconced in history: here, the Archangel Michael saved the city from plague; while over there, Charlemagne was crowned, and on that hill, Cola di Rienzo roused the crowds and established a secular republic. But, like hiking through a canyon with no geological awareness, traversing the city’s sites and strata can be a disorienting—if still pleasant—experience. How best to make Rome’s silent stones speak?
This challenge is particularly pressing for Rome’s medieval period, which has not received as much attention as ancient or early modern strata. Indeed, much medieval evidence was either bypassed and destroyed by excavators of the ancient city, or refurbished and replaced by patrons during the early modern and modern eras. Only recently have studies and excavations shed new light specifically on medieval Rome, driving scholars to question past assumptions. To provide a firm and informed ground on which to base new hypotheses, we propose to collect and visualize—if only digitally—the vast amount of extant physical and textual evidence pertinent to medieval Rome. To this end, our interdisciplinary, collaborative workshop of historians, art historians, geographers and digital designers centered around Dartmouth College, the University of Oregon and Stanford University will work together to merge a complex array of data sets onto a single, historically and topographically accurate, digital geo-database. The richness of Rome’s medieval urban fabric will, once and for all, be interpretable again.
Though features such as Rome’s churches, towers, houses, roads, bridges, wells, streets and sewers, as well as pilgrimage itineraries and processional routes are recounted and cataloged in sources from various centuries, never before have these data sets been united in a meaningful way to present holistic visualizations of medieval Rome. The variety of research questions generated by our collaborators will drive our creation of tabular, textual and cartographic information. For example, in order to quantify and interpret the accessibility, visibility, defensibility and circulation around a structure or neighborhood we will outline the plans of buildings—rather than merely use conventional point representations like dots. Likewise, by having collaborators input their new research onto a single database, we will not only be able to trace previously invisible networks of power, such as the ever-shifting territory of feuding families or the confines of parishes (each entered by a different scholar), but also be able to relate these to essential resources such as streets, wells or bridges (entered by yet other experts). In sum, our collaboration will yield a more complete vision of the medieval city with profound repercussions for humanistic studies. We believe that engaging medieval Rome’s silent stones in unison will permit us to re-visit a thousand years of history and—given the city’s rich urban fabric and its spiritual and political importance—re-evaluate the medieval period more generally.
Such a project must be collaborative, interdisciplinary and multi-year. We have delineated three, roughly yearlong stages for each of which appropriate collaborators have been selected. Using the digital interface created by our digital design experts, student researchers will insert evidence from authoritative publications, while some of the world’s experts on medieval Rome will input and plot data from their ongoing research. The team will convene annually to discuss challenges and achievements. The latter will be presented by our researchers in peer-review journals and book-length publications replete with original visualizations produced jointly from our collaboration. The other deliverable includes the open-access database accessible via both a web browser and a GPS-enabled mobile application, which will be an enduring resource for students, scholars or discerning tourists interested in medieval Rome.
We believe mapping medieval Rome is valuable in itself, but it is also part of our now decade-long effort to explore Rome’s topography through virtual means—a task for which we have already received grants from the ACLS, Kress and Getty Foundations. Mapping Medieval Rome is a collaborative research project of scholars and digital designers united to generate new knowledge whose significance will reach beyond the confines of medieval Rome and whose impact will be felt in disciplines as far afield as history, art history, religious studies, medieval studies, urbanism and architecture.