Review: Tice and Steiner’s Vasi Map

Tice, James, Erik Steiner and Allan Ceen.  “Imago Urbis: Giuseppe Vasi’s Grand Tour of Rome.”
University of Oregon.


building detail from Tice and Steiner's Imago Urbis

Imago Urbis: Giuseppe Vasi’s Grand Tour of Rome was created in 2008 by Jim Tice and Erik Steiner and remains, in my mind, one of the finest examples of the integration of spatial and image data into a single digital scholarly work. Only a year after the introduction of Google Street View, Tice and Steiner gave us a street view of 18th century Rome, linked to an impressive and beautiful map of enormous proportions from the same period.

As I continue to struggle with describing the difference between digital collections and digital scholarly works, I felt that the examination of existing digital scholarly works would allow me to better understand this distinction. Obviously, I am neither an art historian nor a geographer, and so my review of Imago Urbis is oriented toward the object as a digital publication, to see if it provides a cohesive and compelling representation of scholarly claims and research, as well as to see if that representation takes advantage of the data-driven or computational aspects of the digital object and is not limited to the narrative text.

To be clear, just placing information on a map does not make it a scholarly argument. The use of the map to index information is no different than using categories, LOC headings or the Dewey Decimal System to index information. If there is no greater goal than to present data in an effective, indexed, searchable way, then the digital scholarly publication in question is a collection or archive, albeit a spatially-indexed one. The creators describe their own sense of the use of this work without reference to any of the arbitrary categories I’ve introduced above:

Vasi’s Grand Tour places the work of these two masters in their cultural context: 18th century Rome and the Age of the Grand Tour examining the cartographic and artistic legacy that they inherited. It gives an account of Nolli’s work in light of this context but especially focuses on the vedutismo tradition and its impact on the work of Vasi and his contribution to the vedute genre. Over two hundred and forty of Vasi’s topographic prints are presented in detail and in relationship to Nolli’s map. Vasi’s work and methods are subsequently interpreted through an analysis of their topographic, artistic, and historic content.

The site has as much narrative text as an in-depth scholarly article, and the Select Bibliography contains nearly thirty references. But unlike a traditional article, it also contains a massive and sophisticated, Flash-based interactive object. This enormous map, while not the only interactive element on the site, is the only data-driven element–the various beautiful high-resolution images that are provided via Zoomify are firmly rooted in the category of illustrations. That we can now provide illustrations with the level of detail witnessed here is extraordinary, and in my mind still not taken advantage of by most digital scholarly works produced nearly half a decade later.

Vasi's "Panorama of Rome" from Tice and Steiner's Imago Urbis

Vasi's "Panorama of Rome" in very high-resolution, provided by the Getty Research Institute and viewable using the Zoomify tiled viewer.

Detail of Vasi's "Panorama of Rome"

Detail of the above.

It is telling that the actual design of the site reinforces through UX the idea that this interactive map is meant to be engaged with after absorbing the narrative text that it is embedded in. The map itself lives on the rightmost side of the menu, after seven tabs (the last three of which contain a total of 19 sub-tabs of information). In this way, the interactive map is implied, through the format of the site, to be the Conclusion–and as such the reader should expect it to draw together the various points leading up to it and see within it some kind of final remarks. That is, of course, if this immersive and masterfully produced site is meant as the expression of a particular scholarly claim. It could also be an exhibit highlighting the work of Vasi and Nolli or an exploration of two “fundamental” ways (pictorial and cartographic) of describing Rome. On the Imago Urbis page, we see one of the core claims that can be explored spatially:

The connection between the work of Nolli and Vasi is direct. Nolli contributed technical information for Vasi at the end of Volume I of the Magnificenze, recording the distances between city gates. Vasi’s credits Nolli by noting measurements “of the distances between city gates supplied to the author of this work by the architect and surveyor Gio. Battista Nolli from Comeo”.  Most of Vasi’s views date from the twenty-year period directly following the publication of the Grande Pianta, so Vasi evidently used this useful tool for his work.

And, later:

It is instructive to see how Vasi uses these themes in his depiction of the city in both its urban center and ex-urban periphery. It is possible to interpret his views as illustrated stage sets which depict the special character of places in the city and he does so with a stage director’s eye for both drama and dramatis personae. The street life of the city adds an important dimension to his work and typically enhances our knowledge about the parts of the city he represents and how they functioned. For example he depicts boisterous markets such as the Campo dei Fiori and the Portico d’Ottavio as swarming with shoppers and shopkeepers. The river ports are teeming with boats and workers while the major basilicas have pilgrims, clergy and the ubiquitous beggar in the forefront of the scene.

I would have preferred a greater emphasis in the design and implementation of both the site as a whole and the interactive map (dealt with in more detail below) in emphasizing and proving these claims about urban and ex-urban periphery, as well as a more exhaustive description of the categories of representation of urban life and the spatial patterns of those categories. Without them, this seems more like the authoritative text that accompanies an exhibit, which seeks to pass on well-understood historical knowledge to an educated but lay audience. But if this is an exhibit, then it would stand to reason from a publishing perspective to place the map and the various collections of images in a more prominent position.

Likely my own inability to describe exactly where this digital scholarly object resides in a strict taxonomic sense is because it straddles the fence between exhibit and research. The map, being a useful tool for the traditional humanistic expert analysis (though not computational spatial analysis) of patterns, is presented along with the narrative results of such analysis, not so much to illustrate arguments about the spatial patterns of Vasi’s work, but rather as a resource for later scholars to further explore patterns such as the relationship between accuracy and urban density:

In general, the visual liberties taken by Vasi’s decrease directly with the increase of real space between viewer and subject. Outside the densely built center Vasi shows his subjects with a remarkable degree of accuracy rivaling those of the camera lens. The views that occur outside or along the Aurelian walls, in the disabitato, and along the banks of the Tiber demonstrate this fact (Books I, V and X). These are the most consistent photographically accurate portrayals of the city and its buildings and spaces in the Magnificenze. The fact that these views had the benefit of unobstructed viewing space suggests that Vasi’s perspectival manipulations are the result of a carefully calculated plan to adjust the method of representation to circumstances and context and were assuredly not the result of whim or even less, inept draftsmanship. When Vasi moves into the dense urban center his methods change accordingly. In this tightly bound context streets and piazze are widened, viewing points of the same scene change from point to point for better viewing and buildings and other features are moved or deleted as necessary.

Ultimately, the language used to describe the sections of the text, as well as the lack of footnotes, tends to reinforce the view of this being an exhibit. This is further accentuated in the Interpreting section, which seems more like public history. Despite the rich multimedia nature of the site, though, the text is typically divorced from the illustrations, as seen in the Related Views page, where a long narrative introduction is followed by a barely annotated list of images. This is fine for an collection, less so for an exhibit and jarring for a scholarly work–if one accepts formal definition of these different digital objects. The decision to divorce text from image does not follow, however, with the View Types page, which contrasts the various methods for representing sites within Rome based on perspective and composition.

Like much collaborative work done in digital humanities scholarship, this is likely the result of an art historian and geographer collaborating to develop not only research but tools and objects. In the GIS Methods section, the spatial humanities effort seems to be directed not at proving spatial patterns but on proving a methodology and providing a resource for later scholars:

The GIS paradigm relies on the principle that it is now feasible to precisely locate—and therefore relate–all features in geographic space whether historic or contemporary. In addition to being an efficient and intuitive method for cataloging historical documents, the ability to geo-reference diverse resources onto a single, accurate base will dramatically enhance the possibilities for the direct inspection and comparison of the architectural, natural, social and artistic dimensions of cities such as Rome. This method provides a paradigm for similar research in other urban centers and for other disciplines that treat a broad range of geographic contexts and issues. The underlying premise of this presentation is that by geo-referencing Nolli and Vasi and by exploring their distinct methods for describing the city one will be better equipped to understand the profound geo-spatial structure of the Eternal city.

While I agree wholeheartedly that this is a path-breaking paradigm, and wish to have seen in the last five years its adoption and extension by historical GIS scholars (which may become more common with the growth of sites like History Pin) it is notably lacking in claims based on this method. In the short “Benefits” section, the map is described as providing a useful tool to facilitate interpretation and scholarship, language traditionally associated with digital archives or collections. The inclusion of elements such as a browseable timeline–hidden away in a link at the bottom of a sub-tab, reinforce this theme. Though, to be fair, the creation of rich, interactive chronological data visualization is still a problem half a decade later.

Nolli and Vasi's life and selected works shown chronologically

Nolli and Vasi's life and selected works shown chronologically using Zoomify to provide readers with access to a static, large-image timeline.

It is not until the Notes tab that we receive a distinct statement of problem–a choice of terminology that more evokes art and museum exhibits than a (hypo)thesis. The statement itself also presents the work (and here it is not clear if the work in question is the entire site or the synthetic, interactive map, though it would seem to imply the latter) as a tool for study and not the presentation of a particular claim:

Given that Nolli and Vasi were contemporaries and collaborators focusing on the same subject, it seems obvious that their work is intrinsically related; up to now no vehicle existed to effectively synthesize their individual achievements into a single resource that effectively evokes Settecento Rome. We believe that it will be extremely informative to place these 18th century documents into their 21st century context so that spatial relationships can be drawn and new conclusions reached about their continuing significance to the understanding of the city. Our overarching objective is to document and integrate two distinct graphic modes for representing the Eternal City: the pictorial view and the ichnographic plan. In concert, we believe they can present a compelling image of the city and in the process inform and inspire its study.

This interactive map, which is one of the finest interactive examples of the linking of image and spatial data that I’ve ever seen in the field of spatial history, bears out the interpretation of its purpose as being a tool for later research. In this sense, it is an index using spatial attributes to organize documents. Don’t let that antiseptic description fool you–an index of historical panoramas of Rome with a highly detailed historical map of Rome provides an uncanny effect. One could imagine how an entire genre of digital scholarly object such as this could provide scholars in various fields of history with a more sophisticated understanding of historical events.

I cannot emphasize enough my admiration for the work Tice and Steiner have done by presenting so much rich media, especially in the interactive map. The text presents an engrossing and full account of the objects and individuals referenced throughout. However, I do think this tension between its role as an exhibit or a research tool or scholarly argument is problematic. While the map presents categories of theme and image style that are referred to throughout the text, there is no unifying course of argument that adequately defines how the two are related. It’s become popular to gesture toward the Spatial Humanities and claim that quantitative historical GIS is not suitable for the study of much of the qualitative and necessarily fuzzy subjects that make up the humanities. But with the quantitative measures already present in the Vasi images, both their spatial location as well as the image attributes–such as perspective, content and architecture–then some kind of demonstration of the correlation between the two using spatial analysis should have been integrated into both the map and the narrative for this to full embrace the role of digital scholarly argument. Such computational claims need not be divorced from narrative claims, though integrating the two is not an easy task.

That said, this does not need to be a scholarly argument. As an exhibit, it is a success par excellence. I have to iterate my shock that I’ve seen nothing to compare with it made in the last five years. But if it is an exhibit, even a great one, then there is a very serious criticism to be made of the site. The placement of the interactive map, as a link on the far right after a series of links to the text about the map, firmly implies that the map, rather than being the centerpiece, is the conclusion of a long, scholarly narrative. This may seem like a silly design issue, but these design issues need to be taken seriously in the production of digital scholarly works. If the centerpiece of a work is an interactive map which is used as a spatial index for two hundred and fifty images, and the text of the work is annotation, analysis and commentary on that map and those images, then the link to the map cannot be placed in a subordinate position to the text.

Half a decade is typically treated as “forever” in terms of production of digital media, while it is “barely yesterday” in terms of academic research. That such an object could still prove digitally impressive hints at the stability of digital scholarly works and highlights the importance of developing methods to publish and review such a mature genre. While publishing and maintaining such works is a pernicious issue, review of them is no less so. Peer reviewers of journal articles need not worry about pagination and formatting, but design elements are integral to rich digital objects and even as the genre stabilizes, will continue to be so into the foreseeable future. The traditional sticking point to reviewing highly collaborative work is that it is difficult to find reviewers with sufficient knowledge in the areas of scholarship being addressed, and so adding to this the need to be aware of design issues in the presentation seems to make practical peer review of digital scholarly works even less achievable. I think an equally valid, and more optimistic, interpretation is that as we come to terms with being able to review these works, these requirements for necessary categories and commensurate skills grow a bit, but also grow more stable. I hope I’ve also highlighted the need to firmly distinguish between types of genres within the spectrum of digital scholarly object, so that we can grapple with what makes a good argument, tool, exhibit or other type that seems to have a formally recognizable set of goals, audience, source material and design.

A goat looks on

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