HUE-ND's Cities in Text

Cities in Text Project

This project aims to provide access to historic guidebooks and the buildings and monuments they describe virtually. They offer unique insights into how urban environments were traversed and viewed. Written and illustrated during a time when travel was considered an activity that enhanced an individual’s education, these books provide critical insights into Rome's ancient and modern wonders. Few cities are as well documented as Rome. Hundreds of travel guides were produced from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, encouraging informative tourism. These historical guides are underutilized today, primarily due to lack of access, as most are housed in rare book collections at academic institutions. By physically removing barriers to their access, the modern scholar and interested traveler can experience the development of the city of Rome chronologically through distinct periods of the city’s history.

This project allows one to view the city of Rome dynamically, peeling back its layers and experiencing its urban and architectural transformation through three hundred years of its history. This website combines historic texts, digital images, translations, and mapped itineraries to study the evolution of Rome. It allows the user to develop their understanding of how cities are viewed over time by physically taking the documentation on-site.

Cities in Text: Rome is a work in progress. At present the site contains three selected travel guides as well as accompanying images and translations. Additional images and building descriptions are added daily. The hope is that this project will grow to include other historical travel guides on Rome and additional library partnerships. The Resources tab will expand to include additional bibliographies, library catalogs, project findings, and related research.

This website will work with mobile devices, allowing one to walk the daily tours of Rome as described in the text. Features will include geolocation, building and monument descriptions, brief excerpts from the selected texts in English and Italian, and the ability to take notes and email them to yourself.

Chosen Books in Context

The publications selected for this project were chosen to build the website, not to provide an exhaustive catalog of travel literature. The team partnered with the Library of the American Academy in Rome to construct a robust resource capable of displaying content from various points in time. The Barbara Goldsmith Rare Book Room collection contains over seventy historical guides to Italian art and architecture. The team focused strictly on those dedicated solely to Rome, leaving forty-three publications. Of the remaining texts, the team was particularly interested in books that described the entire city, included an extensive series of illustrations, focused on the historic urban environment, dedicated more time to buildings and monuments than works of art, and, if possible, contained daily itineraries.

After consultation between the Notre Dame and American Academy in Rome librarians, faculty, and architecture students, three important texts from three different centuries were chosen to begin the project. Each of the three presented compelling snapshots of Rome when they were published. The first text selected was the second edition of Bernardo Gamucci’s Dell’Antichità della Città di Roma, published in 1569. Gamucci’s beautifully illustrated woodblock prints, made by his compatriot Giovanni Antonio Dosio, focused primarily on ancient monuments. More than four hundred travel guides were published in the sixteenth century. Still, this publication was well received during the Renaissance and found a home in many important libraries worldwide.

The team selected Descrittione di Roma Antica e Moderna to represent the seventeenth century, published in 1643 by Federico Franzini. According to Sergio Rossetti’s Rome: A Bibliography from the Invention of Printing Through 1899, I, The Guide Books (2000), this text is the 191st of 469 guidebooks on Rome published in the seventeenth century. This book was selected because of its extensive illustrations and a three-day itinerary that holistically presents Rome, paying equal attention to the ancient and modern sites.

Giuseppe Vasi’s Itinerario Istruttivo Diviso in Otto Giornate was an obvious selection to represent the eighteenth century. The extensive, eight-day itinerary covers over 100 miles as it traverses the city inside and outside the Aurelian Walls and surrounding sites in the present-day region of Lazio, stopping at more than 400 buildings and monuments. Day one alone, beginning at the Ponte Milvio and ending in front of the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, covers 85 sites. Vasi provided his readers with incredibly detailed views of the city and extensive illustrations - many of which were linked to his outstanding vedute (views) of Rome. This text presented the team with the most complex dataset and became the project's foundation.


Translations of Gamucci and Franzini are currently a work in progress. Transcriptions from the original Italian text have been made, followed by English translations, for Giuseppe Vasi’s Itinerario Istruttivo Diviso in Otto Giornate (1777). A printed copy of the transcriptions and translations, including an in-depth study of the author’s life and work, is also available in the accompanying publication, Eight Days in Rome with Giuseppe Vasi. To translate the names of artists, architects, and saints identified in the text, we have followed the Getty Union List of Artists Names (ULAN). We maintained Vasi’s spelling for individuals whose names were not listed in ULAN or have not changed in modern English or Italian usage. The names of architectural structures, streets, and urban spaces are given in modern Italian except for buildings in current English usage or where necessary. Additional modern Italian alterations of the names of monuments Vasi describes are added for greater clarity.

We have chosen to translate Vasi’s use of castelli suburbani to suburban castles to provide a clear and direct understanding of his original meaning. In the last section of Vasi’s book, he leads his readers to different sites, cities, provinces, ancient and medieval fortified structures and compounds (either occupied by a single family or utilized as a small town) outside of Rome (sub “below” or “near” urbis “city” in this case near and around the city of Rome) within the present-day region of Lazio. Vasi specifically refers to places outside of Rome as sobborghi (suburbs) and borghi (village/hamlet) in the main body of the text. In contrast, he refers to all the sites visited in his detour as suburbani (in the periphery). The translation of disegno (Italian word for drawing or design) is found throughout the text as design/designed when Vasi assigns authorship of a built structure or work of art to an individual. It is also translated to draw/drawing when Vasi references the act of drawing to an individual. In this way, we have attempted to convey the complex meaning of the Italian word disegno in art, which refers to the ability to make a drawing and the intellectual capacity to invent the design. The present text also retains Vasi’s use of capital letters and inconsistent citation style of numbers to maintain the character and flow of the original text. We have aimed for consistency in style and a translation that conveys Vasi’s meaning as literally and simply as possible to make his work accessible to a twenty-first-century audience. While Vasi was not a writer of our time, his tendency to capture his reader’s attention with insider tips on places to eat, drink, and discover off-the-beaten-path sites in Rome and surrounding towns makes his work particularly enticing to a contemporary audience.

Additional Publications and Images

Much of Vasi's tour of Rome is not illustrated. However, it references illustrations in his massive 10-volume Delle Magnificenze di Roma, published between 1747 and 1761. We have included the plates from Delle Magnificenze... provided by the American Academy in Rome whenever possible. Several buildings described in his daily itineraries have been demolished, destroyed, or altered beyond recognition. To provide a comprehensive view of Roman architecture, we have included digitized content from the rare book collection housed in the Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame's Architecture Library. Moreover, students in Notre Dame's School of Architecture have made drawings of the buildings that are no longer standing from their study of the historical documentation of these structures. A complete bibliography of the publications included can be found in the Resources section of this site under 'Bibliographies.'

Sequencing Vasi - Challenges and solutions to mapping an 18th century text onto 21st century Rome.

Several challenges have arisen while attempting to map Giuseppe Vasi’s 18th-century itineraries of Rome using 21st-century resources. The team has been as faithful to the itineraries and text as possible. The challenges faced and solutions created are documented here.

One of these challenges was how to record structures that Vasi mentions but doesn’t number as a stop on his eight-day walk. Initially, our solution was to include them as additional views but not to trace a walk directly to them, identifying them with a dot and as a sub-category on the itinerary, labeling them as ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c,’ etc. after the number on the stop they represent. However, this approach to labeling proved problematic in the programming and sequencing and had to be abandoned at this stage. The team hopes to add this in a later update.

Another challenge was how to represent lost or destroyed stops along his itineraries. We have chosen to include monuments or structures no longer standing for this project. Those structures are represented by the additional digitized publications found in the Resources section. In the case of missing numbers along the itinerary, those either skipped or left out by Vasi, we have followed his system and not included them.

Benefits of this Project

The platforms created for this project serve as tools for creating and presenting digital scholarship. This project provides a methodological approach to the multimedia representation of architectural and urban heritage, through the development of a research tool that extends the capabilities of traditional forms of primary and secondary source material. By combining traditional library resources, such as historical publications and archival documentation, with geolocation and mobile technologies users are able to break the physical constraints of the library and take historical resources on site as they physically examine a geographic location.

Using Historic Documentation

The static nature of traditional visual representation methods has limited how scholars can communicate large bodies of visual data related to the built environment. The recent development of digital visualization and representational tools has opened up new research and possibilities for professionals and scholars studying the built environment, allowing for greater synergy between traditional and digital means of analyzing architecture and urban form. Advancements in integrative and digital approaches to studying the historic urban environment are necessary for urban scholars, educators, and students.

Cities in Text: Rome is an exercise in the digital deployment of traditional scholarship focused on architecture and the built environment. Few tools exist that allow one to understand the complex layers of a city’s urban development. This project was conceived to provide multimedia representations of architectural and urban heritage to offer scholars, students, and the general public research tools that extend the capabilities of traditional forms of primary and secondary source material.