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Rome’s Marble Plan: Progress and Prospects

Elizabeth Wolfram Thrill


The Forma Urbis Romae is a monument of outstanding importance from many perspectives, but study of it consistently proved a severe challenge until the development of digital technology.  The paper first outlines the longstanding difficulties, and then discusses the successive ongoing 21st-century efforts to overcome them.

       About 1,200 fragments of the immense Forma Urbis Romae (also known as the Severan Marble Plan, c. 203-211 CE) are known to date, and more continue to be found.  The first recordings of them were simple line-drawings made following the Plan’s rediscovery in 1562 and now preserved in Vatican manuscripts.  These few drawings aside, the fragments could only be studied at firsthand in Rome until the publication of large-plate volumes in the 19th and 20th centuries (Jordan 1874, Carettoni et al. 1960, Rodríguez Almeida 1980).  But these publications were (and are) inevitably expensive, rare, and representative of only single moments in scholarship.  In 2002, however, the Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project launched a website ( that presents a database of all the fragments then known, complete with two-dimensional and three-dimensional images and some commentary. This pathbreaking digital resource made the fragments readily accessible for the first time to scholars everywhere.  Even so, the Stanford Project stopped short of fulfilling all its initial goals, and for many years past neither its content nor its technology have been updated.

       Currently, Rome’s Musei Capitolini are developing a new facility dedicated to the display and study of the Plan fragments.  In partnership with the Ancient World Mapping Center, they are also creating a new website that will present the Plan fragments in an enhanced user-friendly interface, as well as revise and extend the commentary on them.  The confident expectation is that this site should encourage rewarding fresh scholarship in multiple different areas of interest.  In particular, where controversial issues concerning re-assembly of fragments are concerned, it can enable scholars everywhere to formulate hypotheses that may then be checked with the actual fragments in the new Musei Capitolini facility.  

       The paper illustrates a vital component for the purpose, missing to date from scholars’ tool-set for study of the Plan.  This has recently been created by the Musei Capitolini and the Ancient World Mapping Center in partnership: a high-resolution photogrammetric (three-dimensional) image of the wall to which the Plan’s 150 marble slabs were originally clamped.  Both this surface – now an exterior wall of the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian at the edge of the Forum Romanum – and the reverses of many fragments preserve clamp-marks that may be matched in the quest to re-assemble the Plan correctly.  A specialist team led by George Bevan (Queen’s University, Canada) made the image of the wall using Fan Photogrammetry, and processed the data generated for presentation on the website in preparation.

       Display of the fragments after their long period of storage, together with the fuller, more versatile website that current technology now makes a feasible initiative, is sure not only to re-energize attention to matters of longstanding basic concern such as the city of Rome’s topography (the location of major structures, et sim.), but also to encourage further pursuit of approaches only attempted relatively recently, such as the viewer’s experience of the Plan and its monumentality.  

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Mapping the Classical World since 1869: Past and Future Directions

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