Friday, November 9, 2007

Rome Reflected in Many Mirrors: Or, The Travelers’ Guide to Rome: 16th Century Style

All maps really do lead to Rome in the display currently on view in the Special Collections Department of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. The exhibition centers on excerpts from Antonio Lafreri’s 16th century Speculum Romanae Magnificatae—the title for a vast series of engraved images that translates as “Mirrors of the Magnificence of Rome.” Antonio Lafreri was a Frenchman from Besançon who relocated to Rome to establish a career producing engraved images and maps of the ancient city. Images range from maps that recreate the layout of Rome at various points in its history, to depictions of the still-extant ruins and statuary as recorded by 16th century artists. Lafreri’s ambitions reflected what was, at that time, an intense interest in Roman antiquity. As engravings deriving from clearly well-worn copper plates demonstrate, Lafreri’s elegant and elaborate image-making met the demands of his consumers. His work quickly became immensely popular and was distributed widely throughout Europe. At the center of the exhibition thus lies the theme of Rome observed and mapped through the eyes of the traveler.

The exhibition positions many of these images as “virtual tourism,” because they represent Rome to those who, for whatever reason, required a depiction of the city that they would not see in person. Other Lafreri documents appear as individual pieces, which probably originated as special souvenirs for travelers who wanted to commemorate a trip to Rome. Still others appear in bound folios that were made-to-order at the time of their inception: a precursor, if you will, to the contemporary coffee table book. These custom bound folios served as one-of-a-kind treasures for the libraries of well-to-do travelers, who might later consult their collection of images as references for private architectural or design projects.

Other items in this rich exhibition establish Lafreri within larger historical contexts. Some of the texts on view seek to make a contrast between “virtual” tourism and “actual” tourism. Indeed, in some display cases, Lafreri’s folios are interspersed with pocket-sized volumes, clearly meant for consultation by visitors making their way through an unknown city. Many of these guidebooks have a well-thumbed appearance, revealing the trace of a tour or pilgrimage to Rome long since completed. These charming volumes, minus the woodcut images and leather bindings, bear a striking resemblance to the Michelin guides we tote today.

The exhibition’s curator poses huge questions regarding the composition, origin, and ultimate “legitimacy” of these latter-day maps of Ancient Rome. And beyond Rome, she raises further questions about the challenges faced by the producers of maps and how they organized and spatialized history. One of the most provocative pieces on display is an image of the ruins of the Roman Forum dating from 1550. It depicts not only tourists wandering through the scene, but multiple artists as well, clearly identifiable with their drawing pads and canvases. The artists sit in various places within the decaying structure, each lost in his own work. In one corner, two artists gaze at a single statue from opposite sides. This visual metaphor makes the point that the “same” historical space is always subjected to differing perspectives and imaginations. All these questions remain pertinent to our ongoing attempts to understand history through maps.

The exhibition is characteristic of the University of Chicago’s meticulous scholarship. A collection has been assembled here that is not outwardly imposing in size, but nevertheless explores a massive historical dialogue between the present and at least two multifaceted pasts: one that is ancient and distant, and another imbued with the complicated perspectives of the 16th century.

Written by Nik Lund

No comments: