Landscape of Rome: The Disabitato
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:
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
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,
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.
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.
(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.