A Huge Scale Model Showing Ancient Rome at Its Architectural Peak (Built Between 1933 and 1937)

The nar­ra­tor of Teju Cole’s Open City, one of the bet­ter nov­els of mem­o­ry and urban space to come along in recent years, at one point flies into New York City and remem­bers going to see a “sprawl­ing scale mod­el” of the metrop­o­lis at the Queens Muse­um of Art. “The mod­el had been built for the World’s Fair in 1964, at great cost, and after­ward had been peri­od­i­cal­ly updat­ed to keep up with the chang­ing topog­ra­phy and built envi­ron­ment of the city. It showed, in impres­sive detail, with almost a mil­lion tiny build­ings, and with bridges, parks, rivers, and archi­tec­tur­al land­marks, the true form of the city.” The mod­el real­ly exists; you can go see it your­self.

But if you get to Rome before you next get to New York, you can see anoth­er city mod­el of equal­ly impres­sive, almost implau­si­ble accom­plish­ment there. At the Muse­um of Roman Cul­ture resides a 1:250 recre­ation of impe­r­i­al Rome, known as the Plas­ti­co di Roma Impe­ri­ale, which trans­ports view­ers not just through space but time as well.

“To com­mem­o­rate the birth of Augus­tus (63 BC) two thou­sand years ear­li­er, Mus­soli­ni com­mis­sioned a mod­el of Rome as it appeared at the time of Con­stan­tine (AD 306–337), when the city had reached its great­est size,” says Ency­clo­pe­dia Romana. Con­struct­ed by Ita­lo Gis­mon­di between 1933 and 1937, then extend­ed and restored in the 1990s, it takes as its basis Rodol­fo Lan­cian­i’s 1901 atlas the For­ma Urbis Romae.

You can see more detailed pic­tures of the Plas­ti­co di Roma Impe­ri­ale at the Muse­um of Roman Cul­ture’s site as well as at Viral Spell, zoom­ing in on such Roman land­marks as the Cam­pus Mar­tius, the Cir­cus Max­imus, the Tiber Island, and the Fla­vian Amphithe­atre, bet­ter know as the Colos­se­um. “The atten­tion to detail was so metic­u­lous that one could not help but think of Borges’s car­tog­ra­phers,” says Open City’s nar­ra­tor, “who, obsessed with accu­ra­cy, had made a map so large and so fine­ly detailed that it matched the empire’s scale on a ratio of one to one, a map in which each thing coin­cid­ed with its spot on the map.” This mem­o­ry comes prompt­ed by the sight of the Big Apple, of course, but it some­how sounds even more fit­ting for the Eter­nal City at the height of its ambi­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Inter­ac­tive Map Lets You Take a Lit­er­ary Jour­ney Through the His­toric Mon­u­ments of Rome

New Dig­i­tal Archive Puts Online 4,000 His­toric Images of Rome: The Eter­nal City from the 16th to 20th Cen­turies

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 C.E.

Rome Reborn – An Amaz­ing Dig­i­tal Mod­el of Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome’s Sys­tem of Roads Visu­al­ized in the Style of Mod­ern Sub­way Maps

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Jeff Balmer says:

    Actu­al­ly, this mod­el is con­tained in a muse­um that has been closed for sev­er­al years. So, no, you can’t see the mod­el.

  • Linda Davidson says:

    Dear Mr. Balmer,

    I came across this web­site a d your com­ment, whilst research­ing an ances­tor, Gri­mani, who in the 1700’s also built a full scale (wood­en) mod­el of Rome, which was show­cased at the Saint-Ger­maine Muse­um in 1922, hav­ing for­mer­ly been exhib­it­ed at the Saint-Genevieve Library by the abbots of the Abbey con­cerned.

    It was last seen being stored in crates at the St. Ger­maine muse­um, in the 1920’s and from what I and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers can ascer­tain, should Still be there. Appar­ent­ly, enqueries have drawn a blank!

    This mod­el SHOULD exist some­where, hav­ing been lov­ing­ly fash­ioned with blood, sweat and tears!! Mr. Gri­mani being a true and loy­al Ital­ian. Pse can you throw any light on this mat­ter for the fam­i­ly, as it was obvi­ous­ly a work of art, way before its time! Any help great­ful­ly received. Sin­cere­ly Lin­da David­son.

  • Yuki Dumaresq says:

    From what I can gath­er from the web­site and online — five min­utes of research — the muse­um is per­ma­nent­ly closed. Tem­porar­i­ly closed, indef­i­nite­ly, is not promis­ing. A shame. I heard about the scale mod­el in an arti­cle shared by My Mod­ern Met in April 2018, refer­ring this arti­cle.

  • bradnutt says:

    I have an Ital­ian restau­rant and think it would be cool to have minia­ture archi­tec­ture and sites dis­played, does any­one know of a place to pur­chase such things…

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