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A 19th-Century Archaeologist’s Collection of Images of Rome Goes Online

Nearly 4,000 records from Rodolfo Lanciani’s personal archive are searchable through a new online database.

Rodolfo Lanciani’s photo capturing the discovery of the bronze statue of the Boxer (1885) (all images © Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte)

In 1885, excavations at Rome’s Quirinal Hill revealed one of the most celebrated Hellenistic Greek sculptures: the bronze, seated Boxer at Rest. Present was the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani, who witnessed its exhumation and snapped a photograph of the rare ancient object. The image he produced is as arresting as the sculpture itself, capturing the figure perched on a mound of dirt, like a time traveler taking in the ruins of a once-familiar world. It’s one of many photographs Lanciani captured of his city’s changing landscape, and it’s just one gem from his own, massive archives — amassed as his impressive effort to document Rome’s entire archaeological history through the end of the 19th century.

F. Piranesi and L.J. Desprez, copper engraving of a fireworks display at Castel Sant’Angelo (1758)

Nearly 4,000 records from Lanciani’s collection are now digitized and accessible through a new, online database created over two years by researches at Stanford University Libraries, the University of Oregon, and Dartmouth College. The Rodolfo Lanciani Digital Archive makes accessible about one fourth of the archive that ended up at the National Institute of Archaeology and Art History in Rome when the archaeologist died in 1929, which is available to the public at the Palazzo Venezia only during select weekday hours.

You can now browse through high-resolution drawings, prints, and photos created between the 16th and 20th centuries that show the many infrastructural layers of the capital. From watercolors of entire buildings to architectural plans to sketches of decorative elements rendered by hundreds of artists, the works reveal the city’s famous buildings at different stages as well as structures that have been lost to time.

Working as a professor of topography and secretary of the city’s Archaeological Commission — founded in 1872 to properly excavate Rome’s ancient sites — Lanciani was pretty much obsessed with mapping out the city and recording its transformation. His most impressive work is perhaps the Forma Urbis Romae, an incredibly detailed map of the city that integrated its countless archaeological sites.

“The Lanciani collection is a stunningly rare personal collection by one of the premier, pioneering archeologists of Rome,” Dartmouth professor Nicola Camerlenghi told Hyperallergic. “This was Lanciani’s working collection, amassed by a man who needed this material to conduct his research, which aimed to understand the city over the course of thousands of years. In this respect, it is indeed unparalleled because it grants insight into what was deemed significant to such a foundational scholar. These were richly informative images for him and, accordingly, for scholars today, too.”

Pietro Santi Bartoli, watercolor of a floor mosaic from near Porta San Sebastiano (ca 1700)
Engraving of the Piazza at the Quirinal Palace (1700)

In 1870, Rome became the capital of a unified nation, and it marked the start of a decades-long citywide infrastructural overhaul. And when construction occurs in Rome, so do archaeological discoveries (a phenomenon that lasts to this day). Lanciani photographed many of these excavations around the city, from those at the Porta Maggiore to Termini station to Ponte Sant’Angelo. Aside from his own images and carefully measured maps, he also archived material received from friends, artists, and architects he knew. Many others he purchased from vendors.

“I suspect he bought bound volumes of them issued by publishing houses and then unbound and reshuffled the images into his collection, sorting them according to subject matter,” Camerlenghi said. “He basically tore books apart in order to feed his desire for individual images, a practice with ethical repercussions, even today — although it was common enough in his time.”

Giacomo Sangermano, engraving of a scaffolding for the restoration of the vault of St. Peter’s Basilica (1700)

The new database remains faithful to Lanciani’s preferred method of categorization, dividing material based on site, but it’s also fully searchable if you have a particular image in mind. You may also further filter results by medium, artist, date, topic, and publisher. And for those who may feel overwhelmed, one good place to start is this helpful section of curated essays that explores focused topics such as Rome’s many domes and urban scenes of labor and production throughout time.

A few years after Lanciani saw the bronze boxer emerge from the earth, he recalled the experience in a book, writing, “I have never felt such an extraordinary impression as the one created by the sight of this magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete, coming slowly out of the ground, as if awakening from a long repose after his gallant fights.” With this new, digitized version of his archive, much more of the city’s long and lost past, too, is revived.

Watercolor of the so-called Temple of Minerva Medica (1820)
Watercolor of the remains of the Pons Sublicio (1725)
Canaletto and Giovanni Battista Brustolon, engraving of the Basilica of Constantine and Church of S. Francesca Romana (1700s)
Photograph of the Columbaria of Vigna Belardi, from the front
Photograph of the Columbaria of Vigna Belardi
Photograph of columns discovered near S. Maria della Pace (1870)
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