A year can go by quickly. If you’re lucky, you know this from the beginning, like Jenna Frantik ’20 did during her third year in the School of Architecture, the year students participate in the Rome Studies Program. For her, there was a compulsion that emerged shortly after deplaning at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport and hopping on a transit into the city.

“As soon as we got into Rome, I knew it would be a city that would speak to me,” the now fifth-year architecture student remembered. (Architecture is a five-year program at Notre Dame.) “As soon as we drove in on the bus, I knew I wanted to take every opportunity in my year abroad.”

For centuries, people have shared similar sentiments. In the 18th century, English and German elites would embark on what became known as a Grand Tour of Europe, which included several sites, but Rome was the real destination. The pinnacles of cultural and spiritual expression were to be found in the Eternal City, and pilgrimages like these spawned a need for a seemingly anachronistic piece of literature: the travel guide. But this wasn’t a new phenomenon of the 1700s. On the contrary, this kind of formalization of Rome as a tourist destination dates back centuries prior.

A detailed architectural sketch in a sketchbook.

“Rome has been a tourist destination since the fourth century, which is a fascinating way to study a city,” said Jennifer Parker, architecture librarian in the Hesburgh Libraries. “It’s interesting to see how people interacted with the same monuments and the same buildings we’re seeing today, and to be able to understand how they perceived and interpreted them is fascinating.”

Parker and architecture assistant professor Selena Anders are co-directors of the Historic Urban Environments Lab (HUE/ND), a collaborative mix of librarians, architects, computer scientists, programmers and students. The group specializes in finding ways to present built environments digitally and virtually through a variety of applications: 3D printing, virtual reality, websites, mobile apps. Anders is based in Rome, where she is also an instructor in the Rome Studies Program. And it was to Anders that Frantik posed a simple question shortly after she arrived for her year abroad: “What can I do?”

“[Anders] got me involved with the HUE project, and working on that project both in Rome and coming back to South Bend has really been influential to my education in architecture,” Frantik said.

HUE’s latest endeavor is called “Cities in Text: Rome,” a project born from a need to provide access to resources to students studying in the Eternal City.

“We have a wonderful collection of rare books on campus, but when the students need access to them most is in Rome,” Anders said. “We also have a number of other wonderful resources and libraries and archives in the city of Rome itself, but the students don’t always have time, due to their intense schedule, to access those resources or to have them on-site.”

Selena Anders headshot.

“In the tradition of the books that we’re looking at, that provided basically a record in that time period ... we wanted to continue that tradition so that we can have a time capsule of what that monument looked like today.”

This wasn’t the first time the group had encountered the challenge. Previously, HUE provided access to rare materials about the Roman Forum by creating a mobile app called SPQR-ND (an abbreviation of the Latin title referring to the government of Rome, translated as “The Roman Senate and People”). In that project, the lab digitized materials dealing with 13 monuments found in the Forum. For Cities in Text, the scope and output are much larger: a website and mobile app that acts as a comprehensive guide to the evolution of the entire city. And few resources are more comprehensive or illuminating — or perhaps, overlooked — than travel guides.

“Travel guides became very popular in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries,” Parker said. “Their paths through Rome became codified, so this was the way you were to enter the city, this is the way you were to progress around the city, and these are the monuments you should see in the city.”

Tourists walk and take pictures in front of the Santa Maria Maggiore church, a bird is flying past in the foreground.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore or church of Santa Maria Maggiore, is a Papal major basilica and the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, Italy.
A recent, detailed architectural sketch of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Santa Maria Maggiore - general view, student sketch 2015.
An older detailed sketch of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Santa Maria Maggiore - exterior view, Vasi 1747-1761.

The lab was drawn to three texts housed at the American Academy of Rome, a partner institution in the project: Bernardo Gamucci’s “Dell’Antichita della Citta di Roma,” published in 1565; Giovanni Domenico Franzini’s “Descrittione di Roma Antica e Moderna,” published in 1643; and Giuseppe Vasi’s “Itinerario Istruttivo Diviso in Otto Giornate,” published in 1777. Each corresponds to a unique period in history: Gamucci’s work shows Rome in the late stages of the Renaissance; Franzini’s guide gives a glimpse into the baroque era; and Vasi’s famous itinerary relates to Rome during the time of the Grand Tour. Students like Frantik are working on translating and providing present-day accounts for the buildings and sites included in the guides. Students are also providing updated drawings of the locations.

“They’ve drawn, on-site, the monuments as we see them today,” Anders said. “In the tradition of the books that we’re looking at, that provided basically a record in that time period ... we wanted to continue that tradition so that we can have a time capsule of what that monument looked like today. It enhances not only their drawing skills, but also their research skills and understanding of the place by actually sitting and drawing it and looking at that transformation over time.”

An over the shoulder shot of a student tracing their sketch with permanent marker.
A student sketches in the Square at the top of the Capitoline Hill (Piazza del Campidoglio) in Rome, Italy.

Vasi’s work has been Frantik’s focus for the past two years. It’s an exhaustive guide, even by modern standards. The “Itinerario” leads visitors through more than 100 miles of walking tours over eight days, visiting more than 500 monuments and sites. (The first day alone spans a distance of 26 miles.) Frantik has been researching the sites and providing descriptions for the Cities in Text website and app. She was drawn to a sort of realism in Vasi’s engravings and captions.

“Unlike some of the other engravers in Rome, he didn’t try to depict things as perfect or ideal, as Rome was traditionally depicted,” Frantik said. “He tries to capture the everyday nature and the dynamic nature of the city, which, when you’re there, in Rome, that’s what you’re living.

A detailed architectural sketch in a sketchbook.

“From a student perspective, I think it’s really valuable to see how the city has changed over time, because when you’re in Rome, you’re trying to take it all in as it is today,” she said. “But it’s easy to forget what it was. So being able to have this app and these resources to see what the city was like and how it has transformed both architecturally and urbanistically over time is something that’s really valuable.”

Travel guides, from the Renaissance era to the present day, give a sense of what is important, but also why it is important. Anders describes the shifting focus of the travel literature selected for the project as a sort of guide to evolving philosophical and civil emphases: In the late Renaissance, she noted, there was a heightened interest in looking at items from antiquity, as the writers of the time were influenced by the development of humanism. The guides from the 17th and 18th centuries, meanwhile, begin to celebrate Rome for its social services (many of which were provided by the Church), including hospitals and centers for care for the poor. All of this is given place by architecture, and travel guides can be useful in helping to elucidate meaning and intent in the built environment. But only if they’re accessible.

“Rome is a very complex city with many layers, and even explaining those layers to our students, who are well-versed in the history of Rome, is complicated to describe,” Anders said. “With the app and the website that we’ve created and the combination of the rare books that we have embedded in those, showing the evolution of these monuments, students get to see the planned views for a site like St. Peter’s (Basilica), what was intended and what actually got built. It helps people, not just students or scholars, but the average traveler to actually understand the complex layers and evolution of the city of Rome.”

UE/ND logo.

Cities in Text: Rome explores the complex and historic layers of the Eternal City through the study of guided tours from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries presented in both a website and mobile application.

Learn more angle right

HUE is partnering with Notre Dame’s Center for Research Computing to manipulate the massive file sizes produced by the travel guides’ digitization and students’ translations, descriptions and current drawings. In addition to the site and app, students spend time at the Libraries’ Data Visualization Studio, which brings the project to life across a panoramic display of three large monitors. The collaboration is expanding access to resources for Notre Dame students, but is also something of a well-timed contribution. The website and app are available for the general public as a resource for their own excursions into Rome. And as any trip to Trevi Fountain will reveal, today’s selfie-centered culture seems well-equipped to take advantage. These days, mobile phones are an ubiquitous travel accessory.

“People’s obsession with their cell phones and iPads actually works to our advantage, since we produce mobile applications for both phones and the iPad,” Parker said. “I don’t want to be that person standing there taking a selfie with my iPad, but I am happy to use my iPad to access a travel guide.”

Tourists walk and take photos near The Pantheon.
The Pantheon, Rome, Italy photographed in October of 2018.
A detailed architectural sketch of The Pantheon.
Architecture student's sketch of The Pantheon.

“I think every group wants to contribute to Rome,” Anders said. “Not just utilize Rome as a resource for the students or faculty and staff, but actually give back to the city, whether that’s through the service work to the community they do here or also through their architectural skills.”

And for Frantik, Cities in Text provided an immersive experience that has extended beyond her time in the Rome Studies Program.

“I had not imagined myself as a researcher,” she said. “This project inspired me to do my own research proposal over fall break to go back to Rome. Research and architecture are intertwined. We always need to be working back and forth between the past, present and future.”