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Rodolfo Amedeo 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 sometime from 1845-1847, Lanciani was trained as an engineer in either Rome or Montecello. By the age of twenty, he was already working as an archaeologist. As American classicist and ancient historian Lawrence 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 pioneered a rational modern approach to Roman cartography and archaeology, forming a core of distinguished late-nineteenth-century scholars of the Roman Forum. In 1872 he became the secretary for the Commissione Archeologica Comunale di Roma. From 1878 until 1927 he was a professor of Roman topography at the Universitá di Roma. According to Richardson, 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 responsible for and supervising all the excavations within the city. He himself carried out a number of these excavations and made several important discoveries, including 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, however, 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, which encompasses 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 the Accademia dei Lincei, the Accademia di S. Lucia, the Berlin Institute, the Royal Academy of Belgium, and the Archaeological Society of Brussels. In addition, he received many honorary degrees (at Würzburg, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Oxford, and 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