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The Forgotten Landscape of Rome: The Disabitato

James Tice
Department of Architecture, University of Oregon

As a casual glance at the Nolli map shows, even as late as the 18th century the vast area between the urbanized center and the ancient Aurelian wall circuit was an area dominated by ancient ruins and open space. Historically this zone has been called the uninhabited place or disabitato.

The impression this name gives is that of dusty fields with occasional ancient ruins picturesquely placed among a boundless no-man’s land. This view of the disabitato should be qualified in light of what Nolli brings reveals in his minutely detailed drawings. For closer inspection of this territory reveals a careful accounting for almost every square meter of land where ownership and use are clearly indicated. It is not so much a question of whether there was habitation in this zone, for surely it did exist—at least by mid-century if not before—but the degree of habitation and what kind and for what purpose. Villas and formal gardens, orchards and working gardens along with excavations and quarries, public gardens (near Testaccio), indicate a story more complex and interesting than normally assumed to be the case in Rome’s forgotten landscape.

Nolli lists the following type of land use in the non-urban portions of the city:

Orto Botanico
Acqua Craba

Nolli indicates almost 400 such sites in the disabitato and those areas immediately outside the walls, or the fuori le mura, and depicts them graphically in evocative, and sometimes tantalizing ways. Villas and their parterres, formal gardens and allées are clearly shown along with display fountains and water troughs used for watering livestock, walled enclosures, and gates. Nolli's representation of plant materials and crops on the map invite speculation about whether or not he had specific plant materials or crops in mind. There are at least a dozen distinct graphic symbols used: trees, rows or furrowed fields, mixtures of the two along with corn-like emblems constitute the most common landscape symbols.

Nolli’s rendering seems to prove that the urban center had a vital and complementary hinterland that not only served as a retreat for its wealthy families and ecclesiastics but one that presumably served as its bread basket. The history and significance of this remains to be discussed but Nolli gives us a glimpse of what we might find in both horticultural landscape terms but also in social and economic patterns.

The overall concentrations of villa types are interesting to note. The sumptuous villas of the wealthy tend to occur at higher elevations in the hills, for example those congregate in the northern Pincian area (Ludovisi, Borghese, Medici and Altieri). Secondarily, villas tend to ring the eastern edge of the Aurelian walls with almost no such estates in the southern reaches to speak of. In Trastevere and the Borgo areas, important villas proliferate in the hills of the Janiculum although they tend to be smaller holdings, the major exception here being the Villa Panfili just outside Porta S. Pancrazio.

Working vineyards, orchards and vegetable gardens constitute the bulk of the disabitato. Names indicate ownership by families and institutions so that one can reasonably expect that the each entity so named was the recipient of the fruits of their own parcels.

The cava (quarries or excavations) and fornaci or brick works by the Vatican clearly indicate the brick making factories and warehouses which were used in the building of St. Peter’s and remained a site for building materials and construction work yards in the city afterwards.