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U Oregon Project Applies GIS to Historic Maps

An interdisciplinary team from the University of Oregon's School of Architecture and Allied Arts and the College of Arts and Sciences collaborated with scholars in Rome to produce a new Web site dedicated to the work of one of Rome's great vedutisti--or cityscape artists. The intention is to provide a rich historical resource for educators, scholars, students and others.

"Imago Urbis: Giuseppe Vasi's Grand Tour of Rome" presents a geographic database and Web site that brings to life the work of two 18th century masters of Rome's urban and architectural treasures: Giambattista Nolli (1701-1756), who published the first accurate map of Rome (La Pianta Grande di Roma, 1748); and his contemporary, Giuseppe Vasi (1710-1782), whose comprehensive views of the city and its monuments from 1747-1761, can be precisely located and explored by using the Nolli map as a reference.

"We believe that this Web site presents Giuseppe Vasi's work in a manner that is fun to use, visually stimulating and intellectually engaging," said James Tice, UO architecture professor and principal investigator on the project.

The Vasi project builds on previous work by the UO team that generated the "Interactive Nolli Map Web site," which was published in 2005. The research team led by Tice, Erik Steiner from the UO geography department's InfoGraphics Lab, and Dennis Beyer, architecture graduate research fellow, analyzed 238 of Vasi's topographic prints in detail and in relationship to Nolli's map. Allan Ceen, professor of architectural history at Penn State University and director of Studium Urbis in Rome, acted as the scholarly consultant for both projects.

Vasi's engravings of the city were closely examined next to Nolli's map to determine their precise spatial coordinates and field of view, or "viewshed." A list and explanatory text for 1,000 individual buildings and features accompany the collected views.

In addition, field notes recording observations about daily and seasonal lighting conditions and measurements for locating specific points of view supplemented the data and served to verify the accuracy of Vasi's views and shed light on his methodology.

"The goals of the Web site are to respect the integrity of Vasi and Nolli, and to interpret their work through the filter of modern research techniques," said Tice.

The UO team carried the historic documentation a step further by developing an interactive Web application combining the two artists' work with satellite images and modern photographs overlaid on the locations documented by Vasi and Nolli. The Web site is searchable by building type, architect, city district and depictions of city life, including one topic called "mischief."

Steiner and the InfoGraphics Lab specialize in developing research and instructional tools to explore and represent geographic databases.

"Geographic information systems, or GIS databases, and interactive mapping techniques are rarely applied in such detail to historical documents. Vasi's Grand Tour sets a new standard," said Steiner, who is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Spatial History Lab. "We are trying to redefine the use of historical resources by allowing people to explore them in their spatial, artistic and modern context."

The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and private collectors made available their collections of original 18th century prints that served as the foundation for the documentation process.

Funding for the two-year project came from a Getty Foundation grant.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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