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Rodolfo Amadeo Lanciani

Professor of Ancient Topography, University of Rome
1846 to 1929

Many of the early Gifford lecturers had broad interests; Rodolfo Lanciani’s went deep. Rome was his passion and cartographical archaeology his life. Born in Rome in 1845 or 1846 or even possibly 1847 Lanciani was trained as an engineer in Rome or in Montecello but by the age of twenty was already working as an archaeologist. As L. Richardson points out maps published during this period ‘show admirably how little was known and how extravagantly imagination ranged in the reconstruction of Roman grandeur’ (A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome [John Hopkins 1972] xxiv).

Lanciani was a pioneer one of the four founders of a rational modern approach to Roman cartography and archaeology (they formed a core of distinguished late-nineteenth-century scholars of the Roman Forum). In 1872 he became Rome’s secretary commissione archeologica communale; in 1878 until 1927 shortly before his death he was a professor of Roman topography at the Universitá di Roma. As Richardson points out Lanciani was a ‘superb topographer and gifted and prolific writer. His commentary on Frontinus Topografia di Roma antica was the first great work of a brilliant career that embraced topographical studies of every sort and size’ (ibid. xxv). Five years after becoming a professor Lanciani was appointed the chair of Roman topography.

By the end of the century Lanciani was playing a triple role responsible for and supervising all the excavations within the city. Secondly he actually carried out a number of excavations and made a number of important discoveries such as the House of Vestals in the Roman Forum. In addition Lanciani produced maps of this work. Richardson calls his Forma Urbis Romae ‘a magnificent map of the city and a marvellous example of cartography as well as an encyclopaedia of typographical information. It is still an essential tool for anyone working on the ancient city’ (ibid. xxv). City maps of the twenty-first century typically have a scale of 1:20000 (five cm on the map equivalent to one km on the ground). The forty-six maps of the Forma Urbis have a scale of 1:1000. Overlaid on the network of modern streets and buildings are the known remains of ancient Rome. The work is said to be unsurpassed to this day. His second work encompassing four volumes Storia degli scavi di Roma is a collection of all information available about excavation and discoveries in the city from AD 1000 to 1605.

Lanciani was a member of two academies dei Lincei and di S. Lucia the recipient of many honorary degrees (at Würzburg Aberdeen Glasgow Oxford Harvard) wrote guidebooks to and books about Rome and was the role model and teacher for a generation of scholars. Rodolfo Amedeo Lanciani died 22 May 1929 in Rome.


  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow