Rome in black and white: Inside The Urban Legacy of Ancient Rome project

Vincent Nicandro

Temple of Venus and Rome from the east. (FU.Roma.VEN.1)

An international team including Stanford researchers at CESTA has dedicated the last year towards building a digital exhibit featuring Ernest Nash’s striking twentieth-century photographs of Ancient Rome.  Now, their work is presented online in The Urban Legacy of Ancient Rome: Photographs from the Ernest Nash Fototeca Unione Collection, opening new doors for classical research.

With a 2018 Digital Resources Grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the team worked to scan over 1,200 high-resolution photos of Nash’s images, carefully digitizing, georeferencing, and tagging the architectural subjects in each photo. The collection is now permanently preserved in the Stanford Digital Repository and showcased in the exhibit; an interactive map highlights where these photos were taken, and featured scholars have contributed curated essays using Nash’s photos.

“It has been a pleasure to work with the American Academy in Rome—a new partner for us,” said Nicola Camerlenghi, art history professor at Dartmouth College and project investigator.  “One of the benefits of these collaborative projects is the opportunity to meet, at times only virtually, with people that share the goal of studying and giving value to historical artifacts.”

A rich visual collection

Relief from Column of Marcus Aurelius. (FU.Roma.COLUM.4)

An archaeologist by training, Ernest Nash began taking pictures of Roman buildings and monuments the moment he arrived in Rome in 1936. He set out to visually record remains in Rome and in other archeological sites, including Pompeii, Ostia, and Herculaneum.

In his time in Rome, Nash founded the Fototeca Unione in 1957, a collection of 30,000 negatives featuring photographic campaigns across the Mediterranean; in doing so, he created a photographic corpus which is still widely regarded as an important visual resource for the study of ancient monuments.

Today, the Fototeca Unione is housed in the American Academy in Rome; viewing the archive requires traveling to the institution and advance permission. With the release of the exhibit, though, the team hopes to make these critical images more accessible and bring them to a wider audience.

When asked about why Nash’s photos are still relevant today, Camerlenghi noted that “they are now between 50 and 80 years old, so they depict Rome as it no longer is. Even antiquities change in the span of a lifetime.” Moreover, “they made use of innovative camera angles and points of view, which make them unique as representations of antiquities, which tend to be stale and rigid.”

Colosseum as viewed from the Palatine. (FU.Roma.AMF.4)

The bigger picture

The Urban Legacy of Ancient Rome is the research team’s fourth digitization effort to bring the vast collection of images and maps documenting the spatial history of Rome online. The previous projects captured the works of Giambattista Nolli, Giuseppe Vasi, and Rodolfo Lanciani. The long-term goal for this “Mapping Rome” project is to create a vast geospatial and pictorial database featuring these archival resources, aligned with CESTA’s mission to understand the world by applying technology to the humanistic research questions.

The release of the Nash collection “highlights the larger research effort to trace the evolution of Rome over time” according to Erik Steiner, co-director of the Spatial History Project at CESTA and Stanford lead for the project. “It appears Nash had a similar goal, and through his efforts we now have a unique record of the legacy left by ancient structures and how that has changed in the last century.”

James Tice, architectural professor at the University of Oregon and principal investigator of the project, agrees. “Through this exhibit, we intend to honor Nash’s contribution to Roman studies and foster new research in this area to which he devoted his career.”

CESTA will host a physical exhibit and showcase of the project on April 8 featuring remarks by principal investigators James Tice, Erik Steiner, Nicola Camerlenghi, and Giovanni Svevo.

From the writer's desk

Vincent Nicandro is a member of CESTA’s communications team, having previously worked as a research assistant for The Urban Legacy of Ancient Rome project. As a student majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Classics, Vincent is passionate in finding the intersection of technology and humanistic inquiry.