Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A plan...

Imagine producing an architectural plan measuring 18 metres wide by 13 metres high (the equivalent of 470 A1 sheets).

Imagine drawing it at a scale of 1:240, so that it can represent a city area of 4.3 kilometres by 3.1 kilometres (1,350 ha), yet be detailed enough to show all the internal walls of every building.

Imagine it drawn, not on paper, but painstakingly inscribed by hand onto 150 slabs of the finest marble, to form a durable architectural survey weighing some 80-100 tonnes.

An ambitious undertaking?  A folly?  A fiction perhaps?

Such a plan was actually undertaken 1,800 years ago in Rome, during the reign of Severus.  It was mounted on an interior wall in the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace) adjacent to the Imperial Forum.  Today, the plan is known as the Forma Urbis Romae, or the Severan Marble Plan.

This unique and remarkable object soon became neglected and eventually desecrated as the ancient Roman city fell, with the valuable marble slabs being reused for other building projects and even being burnt to make lime.  What survived in-situ was quickly lost, becoming buried with other rubble at the foot of the wall.

It remained lost until 1562, when fragments were first excavated, arousing great excitement among antiquarians.  This excitement was short lived however, and many of these pieces were again lost when they were reused a few years after during the construction of a garden for the Farnese family.  Scholarly interest in the plan was only revived some 80 years later, when a project was undertaken to reassemble the existant fragments by  Pietro Forrier, the curator of the Capitoline Museum, and his assistant Giovanni Battista Nolli (just six years before producing his own plan of the city).

Since this time further fragments have come to light sporadically in many different locations.  Sometimes single pieces are unearthed, occasionally larger quantities have been found, including a cache of 451 of those that had been used in the Farnese project.  The most recent piece was discovered during the construction of an underground passage in 2001.

Today, there are a total of 1,186 known fragments that have been recovered, representing about 10-15% of the original plan.  They are inaccessible to the public, except for very occasional temporary exhibitions of a few selected fragments, and are stored in crates at the Museum of Roman Civilisation at EUR.  A digital project currently being undertaken by Stanford University aims to comprehensively record all of the fragments and to make the plan widely accessible for the first time.

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