Giambattista Nolli was an Italian architect known for encapsulating the urban fabric of central Rome through his map in 1748. Nolli map was published after Pope Benedict XIV commissioned for the survey to create demarcations between the 14 traditional districts. Nolli map was used as the reference in government planning of the city of Rome until 1970 and is still widely used as a base map and for educational purposes. Giambattista reoriented the city to the magnetic north for the “Pianta Grande di Roma” or the Nolli map and explained the relationship between the public and private spaces in the city. The map was made up of 12 engraved copper plates currently stored in Calcografia in Rome, measuring 167cm x 208cm. The map was published as twelve large sheets with five sheets of index and two smaller maps on single sheets. 

Let’s have a detailed look at the Nolli Plan:

1. Design 

The Nolli map was made to understand urban analysis and to utilise it as a tool while conceiving new projects with precise alignment of building and spaces as per viewing conditions. The map showcases the detailed plans of churches, theatres, aqueducts, obelisks, fountains, courtyards, porticoes of buildings along with the entrance and staircase for major structures, city walls and much more. All structures have been depicted with their terrain slopes for better understanding. 


Giambattista with this plan attempted for a uniform representation of the city of Rome with an understanding of the urban fabric. He used easy to understand cartographic symbols for the representation. All the modern building fabric or the private spaces were marked dark grey, open spaces were marked white, including the interior of public buildings like Pantheon and St. Peter’s Square. This map even noted the asymmetry of Spanish Steps. All ancient monuments were marked in black indicating extant ruins with a white outline to depict the hypothetical plans for these monuments. 

Terrain slopes were marked as a series of textured elongated lines (topography & contours were uncommon till the 19th century). Landscape features like gardens, vineyards and orchards have been rendered with different textures. Several cartographic symbols are used to indicate drains, soldiers’ billets and cemeteries whereas various pictorial symbols represent river crafts, ferry boats, cargo craft and watermills. The plan shows a vital urban centre that served as a retreat for both rich and poor. 

The Nolli Plan by Giambattista Nolli: A tool for small developers - Sheet1
Nolli Plan Detail 1 – ©

Design Solutions 

In the 17th century, cities were represented by pictorial maps that focused more on artistry than accuracy. These pictorial maps showcased a bird’s eye view of the city that emphasized on the landmarks; hence it was not much useful for wayfinding and urban management.

Giambattista Nolli with his works attempted to depict the planning of Rome for a better understanding with a cartographic approach to provide an accurate orthogonal view of Rome. The graphical representations of the figure-ground diagram proved to be an important tool in understanding the built form patterns and continuity of the open space. Nolli also adopted a numerical indexing system for the 1320 structures arranged topographically by administrative region or Rioni. 

With this map, Nolli could provide us with the minute details and features present in the city, for example:

∙         A small corner fountain at the corner of Via Sistina and Piazza Barberini (now shifted to Via Veneto corner)

∙         Depiction of two elevated galleries connecting the two parts of the Carceri Nuove 

∙         → Marking of the four tiny dots in Piazza S. Pietro marking the centres of arcs of circles for the oval showing the plan of the colonnades. 


“Nolli’s map of the mid-eighteenth century reveals the sensitive and complex connections between public and private space in Rome. Private buildings are shown in grey cross hatching that is carved into by the public spaces, exterior and interior. These spaces, open or roofed are shown in minute detail through darker poche. Interiors of the churches read like piazzas and courtyards of palaces, yet a variety of qualities and scales is articulated.”

-Robert Venturi 

2. Techniques followed while drafting Nolli Plan

In the process of drafting the map, Nolli did not observe the city from any specific point of view, rather he walked through the streets, alleys, gardens to measure the exact angles and distances for buildings, fountains, ruins, walls, streets to achieve remarkably detailed maps. With the orientation of the map along the north-south line, Nolli could refer back to his sightings to the baseline or any other part of the drawing. 

The Nolli Plan by Giambattista Nolli: A tool for small developers - Sheet6
Nolli Plan Detail3 – ©
The Nolli Plan by Giambattista Nolli: A tool for small developers - Sheet8
Nolli Plan Detail3 – ©
The Nolli Plan by Giambattista Nolli: A tool for small developers - Sheet2
Nolli Plan Detail2 – ©
The Nolli Plan by Giambattista Nolli: A tool for small developers - Sheet5
Nolli Plan Detail3 – ©
The Nolli Plan by Giambattista Nolli: A tool for small developers - Sheet7
Nolli Plan Detail3 – ©

3. Sustainability 

Nolli Plan was the first detailed map for any city and was referred for centuries while planning structures in Rome. The “Pianta Grande di Roma” or the Nolli map is a detailed document with iconographic schema, precise technical scale and accurate north alignment with illustrative cartographic symbols, detailed numerical indices and textual labels that explain the social, artistic and scientific context of Rome. Even after centuries the map has retained its accuracy with several notable landmarks like Colosseum and Pantheon still standing tall. 


Radhika Dube is an adaptive, hardworking and determined architect. She loves travelling, baking and reading. She believes in bringing the building and structures to life with the help of her writings. She has the confidence to learn and achieve anything around her.