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The Nolli Map and Urban Theory

James Tice
Department of Architecture, University of Oregon

The significance of the Nolli map for historians, scholars, students and practicing architects is that it gives a unique view of Rome’s "innate character." It vividly reveals the topographic and spatial structure of the city, countering a tendency in contemporary architectural history and criticism to examine objects as isolated monuments outside the very context that give them life and meaning. The principle ideas that animate the Nolli map can be summarized as follows:

Plan vs. Pictorial Representation

The Nolli map, as an ichnographic plan, presents the city with an exactitude that allows one to immediately compare size, position and shape. This is to be contrasted with a pictorial representation that, because of perspective diminution of objects of the same size, convergence of lines, and overlapping shapes necessarily distorts the image in order to simulate a perceptual point of view. Undeniably this way of seeing and understanding the city has advantages and yields an intuitive "feel" much as any picture or photograph might provide. Nonetheless the Nolli method, like any scaled plan of presentation, has distinct advantages. It provides a conceptual view that enables a consistent frame of reference based on exact and comparable information and avoids the perspective distortion and fragmentation noted above and the pre-editing implicit in a singular point of view.


The Nolli map provides an immediate and intuitive understanding of the city’s urban form through the simple yet effective graphic method of rendering solids as dark gray (with hatch marks) and rendering voids as white or light shades of gray to represent vegetation, paving patterns and the like. The city, thus conceived as an enormous mass that has been "carved" away to create "outdoor" rooms is rendered intelligible and vivid through this simple graphic convention.


Nolli's map conveys an understanding of the city’s topographic and geo-spatial structure, the patterns of private and public buildings, and their relationship to the entire urban ensemble. This encourages an understanding of the building, not as isolated event, but one that is deeply and intrinsically embedded in the fabric of the city.


The idea of solid/void is closely related to the idea of figure/ground. The dark and light patterns of the city reveal the manner in which public space in the city is conceived no less carefully than building. In Rome, public or semi-public space possesses a distinct and identifiable character whether it is a church interior, palace courtyard or public urban space. The Piazza Navona, for example, is easily identified as a "figural" element in the city, with the surrounding buildings acting as a back up field or "ground" into which the element has been placed, or rather, carved away. In contrast, the Modern city reverses this conceptual reading so that building is always seen as active figural object while space is imagined (if at all) as a kind of recessive, formless ether or receptacle that provides the setting for the object. In Rome, solid and void readings have the capacity to be interpreted as either figure or ground.

Urban Dialectics

The Nolli map demonstrates the principle of contextual design evident throughout the city of Rome at the scale of the building and the scale of the city as a whole. The relationship between "outside and inside" and building and place are distinctive features that Norberg-Schulz has called the "genius loci" of Rome. The detailed rendering of streets, piazze and buildings in relationship to one another underscores how profoundly Nolli understood this quality. The context conditions the building and the building in turn exerts an outward pressure on the city fabric. The dialectical relationship between buildings and their context—a two way street—suggests a dynamic interplay between solid and void, figure and ground and the new and the old. The evolution of the city and its formal and spatial structure, therefore, is seen, not as a static proposition, but rather as a dynamic, highly charged and even volatile discourse of competing pressures, issues, needs, and desires—both in urban and human terms.