Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chasing a Tangent: Nolli's "Grand Plan of Rome"

While writing about the Maps: Finding Our Place in the World exhibit at the Field Museum, I got involved in the following mini-investigation into the symbolism in Giambattista Nolli's "La Pianta Grande di Roma" (The Great Plan of Rome).

My notes say "Minerva(?) or some chick with keys in hand, being crowned by a cherub, holding out hand to angel, who's pointing to surveyors!" The fantastically well-designed map engine on this site tells me that the "chick" is actually a personification of modern Rome, and the angel and the surveyor are putti. OK, so what the heck are "putti"? Well, as it turns out, they're those cute little naked baby angels that one sees in Renaissance art and Hallmark stores. Only it turns out that they ain't angels; they're the personification of the child. Anyway. I - and apparently a lot of other people - thought those sickeningly cute red-heinied little guys were Cherubim. OK, so what the heck are "Cherubim"? Whoa. Check this out. Not so much with the cute. Turns out they're right up there in the heirarchy of angels, and that they're mentioned in the Bible in the book of Genesis (Gen. 3:24) as the angels who guarded the east side of the Garden of Eden with "a flaming sword which turned every way". Yikes. And they... whubbahuh??? This article mentions "the mercy seat", which is the title of one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs! Turns out the mercy seat is the object resting on the Ark of the Covenant, and that the golden statues on either end are Cherubim. As I was Wikiing, another connection cropped up when, on the Cherubim page, I saw a very familiar statue. It seems that a significant number of scholars identify the Shedu, or Lamassu, as the origin of Cherubim. The image was familiar because I saw a statue of a Shedu in the Oriental Institute on December 26 - the very day when I caught the cartography bug at their magnificent European Cartographers and The Ottoman World 1500–1750 exhibit. I love it when searches loop back on themselves.

The figure - angel, putto, whatever - standing next to the personification of modern Rome holds a flag bearing a superimposed P and X. I drew the flag in my notes and put a question mark next to it. That night, over pizza at Pequod's, I asked the Gunroom folks what it meant. Turns out that's the Chi Rho - the first two letters in the Greek spelling of the word Christ - that Constantine had on his and his soldiers' shields at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which famously cemented his conversion to Chrisitanity.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Hugh!

Love this post. I have several friends who have facsimile copies of the Nolli map of Rome up on their walls, in living rooms, dining rooms and offices. In fact I gave it to one of my friends as a wedding present. I wonder if it is still available to buy. Quite wonderful, chick and all.


Hugh Yeman said...

Julie, do you think you'll get to the exhibit when it's in Baltimore? If you like the piece that much - and why wouldn't you? - then seeing an original woodcut print will make you plotz. If you don't get to Baltimore, and you find yourself in Chicago sometime, then I might be able to hook you up with someone I know at the Newberry who could give you a peek.